Dame Maggie Smith faces a personal transformation

If you are a Potter Head, you doubtless raised a butterbeer in celebration of Professor Minerva McGonagall’s 84th birthday last Sunday.

You may not know, however, that the actress who plays the Headmistress of Hogwarts, Dame Maggie Smith, has been involved in a personal battle that makes her performance in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince more remarkable than McGonagall’s wizardry.

Right before filming of Half-Blood Prince, Smith found a lump in her breast. In an interview with The Times, she talked about how she dealt with her diagnosis and its aftermath.

“I didn’t think it was anything serious because years ago I felt one before and had been hurled into hospital. It was benign and assumed this one would be too. It was a bit unnerving when it wasn’t.”

She filmed Half-Blood Prince about mid-way through treatment. “I was hairless. I had no problem getting the wig on. I was like a boiled egg.”

Smith, who’s 74, minced no words in describing her feelings about losing her hair and attempting to cover up the baldness with wigs and hats. “You think they’re going to work and they don’t. [Losing my hair was] so weird. Oh, it’s awful. You really do feel horribly sick. I was staggering around Waitrose and felt ghastly. I was holding on to railings, thinking, ‘I can’t do this’.”

Another film shot during her illness, From Time to Time, will premier at next week’s London Film Festival. “I wasn’t well during filming. I had shingles. On my head. Aagghh. I have never known anything so painful. I had to wear a wig for the role so it was a nightmare … I was in such pain. I was screaming and doing a lot of crying. They give you masses of pills, but nothing touches it … It was a pity to do the film when I was so below par, but my character wasn’t meant to be frightfully vivacious.”

Smith’s doctors have given her the all-clear, but she’s not sure whether she can continue her award-winning stage career. “[Cancer treatment] leaves you so flattened. I’m not sure I could go back to theatre work … I’m frightened to work in theatre now. I feel very uncertain … I would love to be able to because I do love it, but I feel a great lack of confidence. Being unwell and having withdrawn . . . I haven’t been in London for so long, it’s quite scary up here."

Of course, the Times interviewer was as reluctant as we are to accept that she may give up theatre. “Well, there’s a limit to what you can do. I’m not into that argument there aren’t any parts for older women, though. Anyway, why should there be? If there’s work I’ll do it and if there isn’t . . . I’ve still got to stagger through the last Potter.”

Sadly, Smith is not too optimistic the future of her career. “I don’t think there’s a lot of it, because of my age — there just isn’t. It’s all been. I’ve no idea what there will be. [Illness] knocks you sideways. It takes you longer to recover, you’re not so resilient, and I am fearful of the amount of energy one needs to be in a film or a play. It is up to me, I ought to do more exercise; I used to do a lot of walking. But my energy is coming back. I’m going to Africa with friends soon.”

I hope Smith’s feelings about her career prove wrong. I’m not quite ready to give up seeing the fabulous Dame Maggie on film. In any case, our best wishes are with her as she continues her recovery.

The Times article is well worth a read. Check it out and come back to give us your thoughts on Maggie Smith. What is your favorite Smith role?