Hotel Portofino actor Oliver Dench tells DDW all about his story, a love for cooking and an insatiable curiosity.
I catch Oliver Dench in a day where he’s feeling particularly good, or so he tells me. He welcomes me with a smile over Zoom as he sits in his apartment in the Parisian La Defénse, an area which Dench describes as the French Canary Wharf – a place of towering skyscrapers made of glass and steel. He’s there temporarily, performing at Lido 2 cabaret as Cliff Bradshaw.
Dench is approaching a busy time, with the release of ITV/PBS’s upcoming series, Hotel Portofino, just round the corner (this Friday the 3rd!). As a 1920s Italian ‘whodunit’ mystery, it appealed to the actor’s love for period dramas. “If it’s done well, period drama can be really, really, really exciting and evocative,” he tells me, “if it’s done badly, then it’s awful… it’s boring.”
Hotel Portofino, it seems, catches a lot of nuances which are rarely spoken about in these type of productions, particularly in terms of LGBTQ+ representation. Dench talks of a particular scene where his character, Lucian, talks to his very close friend about his marriage prospects right after swimming nude in the sea together. “That scene was so loving, so intense and homoerotic,” he explains. “There is a strong, you know, thread of homosexual rights in the show, which is interesting and always important to have. And I think it almost always gets brushed to the side in period dramas, unless it’s a very specific world of championing that.”
I also find out Dench has a thing for Shakespeare. This is probably because of his grandfather, a Shakespearean actor that performed in Stratford, and with whom Dench would spend hours gawking over verse with. Through his grandfather Dench scored a piece as a spier carrier in a play at the RSC, a part which may not have been the biggest, but which he remembers incredibly fondly. “I remember telling my agent, insisting that the only thing I wanted to do was Shakespeare on stage,” Dench laughs. “And my agent saying, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
I catch Dench in a stream of consciousness when I ask him if he’d get along with Lucian. His first answer catches me but surprise, in the best way possible.
“He’s an absolute dickhead.”
Dench is quick to correct himself, “I think he’s a bit blockhead and lots of the things that he does inadvertently hurt the people around him, but he carries on doing them.” He blames Lucian’s privilege, which he introspectively begins assessing upon himself. “I have a lot of class privilege, I had a lot of white privilege, I have a lot of whatever else as well.”
This consciousness seems to accompany Dench in his every move. For instance, he tells me about his widening world view, by virtue of working within so many different cultural environments. For Hotel Portofino, filming happened in Loran, Croatia. Dench tries to explain to me where it is, and suddenly he’s miming a Croatian map (quite the challenge, I must say), to appease my terrible geography. “There’s like..an armpit of coast. We’re right in the armpit.” Said armpit was, apparently, an old spa town where the cast would spend their time off racing in an inflatable in the middle of the sea known as ‘the aqua zone’. In case you were wondering, Dench was one of the fastest.
Our chat only gets more random, and it’s absolutely delightful. When asked about what is the one thing he cannot live without, Dench comes up with an answer I was yet to hear; a rice cooker. He’s good at pitching it to me, explaining he’s just bought one and very much intends to pack it on his future trips. He shows me the rice cooker whilst I try to make the math work; it seems like a logistical nightmare, but Dench is happy and his mood is contagious. I soon find out that if Dench hadn’t gone down the acting path, he would’ve become a cook. He tells me he’s vegan and is currently cooking broth. It’s 10am.
I end the interview with what has now become standard procedure. What does Dench not want to Die Wondering about? “Literally anything. I want to know about everything,” he says. “I’m not necessarily overly curious about lots of things, but I am really curious about what I want to do. […] I don’t want to die wondering about anything to do with myself, about where I want to live. […] I want to… to date various people of different walks of life. So I’m not curious, or die wondering whether I would’ve preferred someone to someone else.” The list goes on and I realise Dench is awfully curious about a lot of things.