Now living In LA, Helen Mirren talks to Carinthia West, her one-time flatmate.
Helen Mirren lies sprawled across the sofa of her Hollywood home. Although exhausted after a ten-hour flight from London, her face still looks luminously beautiful, without the slightest trace of make-up. In the past weeks, Mirren has been back and forth across the Atlantic many times to visit her mother, who lives in Southend-on-Sea, where Helen was born, and who has recently suffered a series of strokes. It has been a sobering time for her – a far cry from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and the award ceremonies (last year she won the Best Actress award at Cannes for The Madness Of King George and a Tony nomination for her stage performance in Broadway’s A Month In The Country). Added to that has been the runaway success in America of the British television series Prime Suspect, in which Mirren plays tough-talking, soft-hearted Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison.
Understandably, none of this is on her mind at the moment. Her one wish is that she could have ‘bundled up Mum and brought her back with me’. Mirren’s family and friends back home are tremendously important to her, as I have come to appreciate in the twenty years I have known her. I first met her when she was with her then boyfriend George Galitzine, spilling out of his Mini on London’s King’s Road. She was wearing red, high-heeled, lace-up boots, a lacy dress and a big smile. I remember feeling an instant affinity with this down-to-earth girl without any actressy airs and graces.
Although Mirren has long been acclaimed in England for her classic and contemporary roles on stage, it is in Los Angeles that she has made her home, and although she admits to sometimes feeling ‘more like a visitor than a resident’, she loves its ‘vibrancy and multi-culturalism’. Unlike most people, she also loves its earthquakes. ‘I really do,’ she says exuberantly. ‘We had a minor one the other day and it was very exciting. It’s a terrible thing to say because I know people lose their lives and their homes, but an earthquake is very dramatic.’ Mirren lives in a sprawling hill-top mansion in Hollywood, with her partner of ten years, the film director Taylor Hackford. ‘Almost everyone in the British film industry has passed through our gates at some time or another,’ she laughs, as she makes me a cup of tea in her big sunny kitchen.
Mirren was born in July 1946, the second of three children, to a mother who came from the East End and a father who was the son of a Russian colonel. When Helen was eight, her father shortened the family name from Mirrenoff, but she remains proud of her Russian ancestry (a black and white photograph of her grandparents swathed in furs in a freezing Moscow winter hangs prominently in her London flat). Mirren confesses to wanting to be an actress from an early age. ‘I don’t quite know why, but I used to lie in my bed at night looking out the window at a particular configuration of stars, and I would see this huge letter A in the sky. For me, it represented Acting and also America, I dreamt I would go to America one day.’
Instead, she went to a strict convent school. Afterwards, her parents insisted that she take a teacher-training course ‘as something to fall back on’, but fate intervened and she won a place at the National Youth Theatre, where she was chosen to play Shakespeare’s Cleopatra at the Old Vic in London. Following rapturous reviews, Mirren went on to join the Royal Shakespeare Company and established a reputation for playing roles such as Cressida, Ophelia and Strindberg’s Miss Julie. Soon the British press were describing her as ‘Stratford’s very own sex queen’ – a title that was reinforced when she stripped for Age Of Consent and Savage Messiah. The films that were to follow – 0 Lucky Man and The Long Good Friday – established her reputation as a world-class actress, and by the mid-1970s her talents were rewarded with more and more challenging roles, some of which, like David Hare’s play Teeth ‘N’ Smiles, were beginning to reflect her own life.
One night Mirren turned up on my doorstep, asking to stay the night because two of her boyfriends were slugging it out over her and she didn’t dare go home. The victor was British photographer James Wedge. Mirren would often accompany him on photo shoots, pretending to snotty fashion editors that she was just the tea girl and letting them boss her around – if they’d have known who she was, no doubt they would have put her in front of the camera. When they weren’t working, the couple liked nothing better than to head off to Wedge’s country cottage, pull on their oldest clothes and get dirty in the vegetable patch. A keen gardener, Mirren once told me that her idea of perfect happiness was spreading manure on her roses. ‘It may sound like bullshit, but whatever makes my roses happy makes me happy,’ she said.
Over the years. Mirren’s sense of humour and love of challenging roles has brought her adventures, including her role in Bob Guccione’s Caligula (the proceeds of which bought her a plot of land in Scotland and a new Honda). I can remember her ringing from Rome, where the picture was made, saying, ‘God, Carinth, you should see the orgy scenes. It’s quite bizarre.’ But Mirren’s own sensuality was never in question, and, invariably, every few years a new boyfriend would come along. James Wedge was to be replaced by Liam Neeson, then an unknown actor, whom she met on the set of Excalibur in 1981. The couple lived together for several years, and I can picture them now walking down the streets of his home town of Ballymena in Ireland, Helen in her trademark high lace-up boots, the face curtains of the small town twitching and the local ladies twittering, ‘Aye, Liam’s brought home that actress Helen Mirren.’
Mirren’s life was to change again, however, when, in 1985, she fell in love with Taylor Hackford, director of her next film White Nights, as well as An Officer And A Gentleman. ‘When a change-of-Life decision hits you,’ she told me at the time, ‘you can’t hold it back and you can’t avoid it.’ She left Liam to pursue his own acting career (they remain great friends), and then moved into a flat with photographer Rory Flynn (Errol’s daughter) and me. Characteristically, she insisted on taking the smallest bedroom, reasoning that she would be spending a lot of time with Hackford, although she’d often return swearing that she would ‘never speak to that man again’. Rory and I always foiled her ‘I’m-out-if-he- calls’ routine, as we secretly thought he was great for her, and would disloyally purr, ‘Yes, Taylor, she’s right here.’ Ten years on, I’m glad we did.
Back then, despite her flourishing love life and winning the Best Actress award at Cannes for Cal – an excuse for us to crack open the champagne – Mirren still had to trail round US casting agents, braving their plastic-smiled assistants (‘What did you say your name was again?’) and responding politely to lines like ‘I loved that film you did, you know, The Long Goodbye.’ Today, of course, after the success of Prime Suspect, Mirren is practically a household name in the US. ‘I get recognised a lot more in the street now because everyone watches TV,’ she says. ‘But you don’t get to be an actress this long without realising what the whole thing is about. Sometimes they love you, sometimes they don’t.
Mirren’s antidote to Hollywood is to take a theatre role every two years. ‘It keeps you mentally alive,’ she explains. ‘Otherwise you’d just work in movies and TV and then die. Those old theatre actors go on for ever because they have to learn lines which is brilliant for your brain. It was never my intention to be a movie star and then retire. I always wanted to be one of those wonderful 80-year-old actresses. Anyway, no matter how successful you are, its never enough. You spend most of your time working in a gloom of envy, anger and frustration, which is dreadful. But I’ve got my beloved Taylor, and that makes such a difference. As if on cue, Hackford puts his head around the door and reminds Helen that they are due to take one of their dogs to the vet. The couple are still clearly wild about each other. ‘He’s just fantastic,’ Helens says, after he has gone. ‘I hate to say how wonderful he is because that’s always so dangerous, but he just keeps getting better and better. Of course, at times he can be incredibly irritating, as everyone can, but when it counts, he’s always there. I’m so lucky.’
However, Mirren doesn’t see relationships as the panacea for life. ‘Los Angeles is full of women who think their lives are incomplete without a guy. It doesn’t matter that they’re fantastically successful, articulate, cultured and fun to be with – for some reason they need some old fart asking them to get them a beer. Most guys are so pathetic that it would be better not to have them around – except when you want something lifted. If you’re lucky enough get a fantastic one, that’s great, but its not really a necessity of life.’
At this point, Mirren gets up from the sofa, stretches and walks to the window, where the panorama of Hollywood beginning to light up for the evening. In the far distance is the Dorothy Chandler pavilion, where, last year, Mirren was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars for The Madness Of King George. ‘You’re horribily aware of the cameras on you while you’re waiting for the decision,’ she says. ‘I decided that the only way to do it was not to smile, but to look incredibly serious and objective, even if I won, but then, of course, I didn’t.’ While waiting in the mile-long queue of limos, she and Taylor drank a bottle of champagne. ‘By the time we got to the awards, I was staggering down the wrong side of the red carpet, with all the people hired to fill seats, instead of with the stars and celebs. Then, when didn’t win, we went to the bar and had a wonderful time with all the people we knew.’ Helen laughs, turning from the window. ‘Sometimes I wonder if I’m really cut out to be a movie star at all.’