By KJ Doughton | March 2, 2006

In our shallow age of airbrushing, facelifts, and the Ken ‘n Barbie perfection of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Stephen Frears is a revitalizing breath of unpretentious air. Reviewing a room service menu from his four-star hotel suite in Seattle, the British director of Mrs. Henderson Presents runs a hand through unkempt hair. His clothes are rumpled. Frears looks tired. His eyeballs are Rodney Dangerfield prominent, folds of skin sagging under them like weighty curtains. And he’s sporting fluorescent-orange socks.

Immediately, one senses that Frears is that rarity – a genuine human being unwilling to peddle false charm to sell his film. What you see is what you get. And that’s genuinely charming.

It’s also unexpected, considering that Frears attended boarding school, was fathered by a prominent doctor, and studied law at Cambridge. “I found out that I’m not very good at making movies about people with that kind of background,” he explains with a laugh. And for viewers familiar with “The Grifters,” “My Beautiful Launderette,” and “High Fidelity,” this comes as no great surprise. Frears appears fixated on society’s fringe-dwelling outcasts, nomads, and strays.

Laura Henderson, Judi Dench’s spunky London widow from “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” is the most recent addition to Frears’ onscreen gallery of misfits. Like a late-blooming rose, the outspoken theatre owner bursts from a straightjacket of repression when her respected, filthy-rich husband passes away. She purchases the dilapidated Windmill Theater in a frenzied burst of spontaneity, and becomes a vaudeville tycoon (the director refers to Dench’s force-of-nature characterization as “sensational”). Eventually, Henderson adds nudity to her onstage productions – a ballsy move for a 1930’s era woman in proper, buttoned up England.

Frears admits to identifying with Henderson. “The other day, somebody said that I reminded him of Mrs. Henderson,” he recalls. “And I guess it’s true. As you get older, you want to try out more and more things. Sometimes, you regret having been so cautious.”

Since its energized days of song and dance vaudeville, the Windmill Theatre has regressed into the unimaginative, raw joylessness of current times. “It’s now a lap dancing club,” Frears informs. When asked if he felt that Mrs. Henderson would run a lap-dancing venue if she were currently alive, Frears rolls his eyes and chuckles. “I think she would be slightly wittier than that. Lap dancing never seemed to be very interesting to me. She would probably do something more outrageous.”

Get the interview in part two of STEPHEN FREARS BARES ALL>>>

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