Helen Mirren is best known for playing various members of the House of Windsor. But in real life, the boundary-busting actress is anything but restrained. Here, she talks about her films, her family, and why it’s great that young women today can just say “Fuck off”
I am 45 minutes late for my on-set appointment with Helen Mirren. As a punctual person, this is my worst nightmare come true: sitting in a rental car, stuck in traffic, surrounded by Yankee Stadium–bound partiers, all the while knowing that The Queen is waiting. I die a thousand deaths and mentally write a 500-word apology that I’m prepared to deliver on arrival. Thankfully, the production Mirren is working on is also running late, and I end up hanging around the set waiting for her to finish while remembering what it’s like to breathe. Then, just like a totally normal person, Dame Helen Mirren walks up to me and says, “It’s very nice to meet you. Why don’t we talk in my trailer?”
We’re just outside N.Y.C. on the set of Arthur, a remake of the 1981 film that originally starred Dudley Moore as a wealthy, childlike drunk and Liza Minnelli as the woman he loves. In this new version, Russell Brand and Jennifer Garner play the Moore and Minnelli parts, respectively, and Mirren plays Arthur’s former nanny. “In the original, Arthur has a butler,” she tells me. “But they changed it to a woman for me.” I can tell she relishes this.
As she walks me to her trailer, I notice a superweird thing: they had to make Helen Mirren up to look old. Her hair is gray instead of its usual white-blonde, and her skin has been powdered to look crepey and aged. She’s wearing just what you’d think an elderly former nanny might wear—a knee-length skirt, sensible shoes, and a proper blouse, buttoned all the way up. This isn’t red-carpet Helen Mirren, the one who, at age 65, still regularly turns it out with dramatic makeup and cleavage-baring gowns.
She laughs when I mention the costume and says, “Well, yes, I suppose they did have to make me look more like what people think an older woman looks like. I don’t normally dress like this.” So what would she be wearing on a typical day at home in Los Angeles? “Probably a cotton dress,” she says, “or jeans and a T-shirt. Something comfortable.” When I observe that there seem to be a lot of “rules” out there about what women at certain ages can and can’t wear, she dismisses this notion crisply. “I never follow rules. You should wear what makes you feel good. If you want to feel sexy, wear something sexy. If you want to feel comfortable, wear something comfortable.”
Helen Mirren has been famous most of her life. Born in 1945 to working class parents—her father, a Russian émigré, drove a cab and played viola in the London Philharmonic—by age 18, she was playing lead parts in Britain’s National Youth Theatre and subsequently with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She quickly became known for her talent—and her sexiness, which threatened to overshadow her work at times. Mirren has talked openly in the past about her anger over the sexism she encountered as a young woman, both from reviewers and directors. I bring up an incident from 1975, when a 30-year-old Mirren appeared on Parkinson, a BBC interview show hosted by Michael Parkinson, who was sort of the British Johnny Carson at the time. The video of her appearance is amazing (and easily findable on YouTube if you enter “sexist Parkinson interview”): Mirren is announced, and as she makes her way to the stage, shyly glowing, hair down, carrying a feather (it was 1975, after all), Parkinson rambles at length about her sultriness, noting that she had been called “an amorous boa constrictor” and that she was particularly good at “projecting sluttish eroticism.”
Most women would have cringed, gotten angry, or fakely laughed it off (all valid responses), but Mirren simply and serenely walks up to her chair and sits down, staring at Parkinson as if daring him to continue while looking her in the face. Through the rest of the interview, she brilliantly refuses to play his game, pretending not to understand his patronizing jabs. When Parkinson asks how she feels about being known for certain “physical attributes,” gesturing at her chest, she holds up her hands and says, “My fingers?” looking genuinely confused.
“It was enraging,” she says of the interview now. “But it was par for the course to a certain extent. It was fairly common, that kind of attitude. Looking back, I think I handled it really well. It was the first time I had ever done a talk show, ever. I’d only done Shakespeare before, and I was a serious actress. I was so nervous, terribly nervous, and I was mortified by the end of it. But when I look back, I see I handled it with humor, but I wasn’t taking it.”
Mirren goes on to say she thinks it’s easier today for women just starting out in the industry to get the respect they deserve. “At least now young actresses can say ‘Fuck off’ and still work again,” she says. “If they want to, they can use [their sexuality], and if they don’t want to, they can just say ‘Fuck off.’” She then tells me of a development in the movie business she considers even more groundbreaking: “For the first time in my whole career, on this film [Arthur] we have a female camera crew. The whole camera crew is female, and it is the first time I’ve ever seen that. To me, this is the most exciting thing. I’ve worked with female directors, great, but to see [women] having roles on the technical side is really, really exciting.”
It’s cool watching Mirren take pleasure in this, because she’s rather reserved. Don’t get me wrong—she’s incredibly pleasant and warm—but she doesn’t do any of the let’s-pretend-we’re-best-buds-please-like-me stuff that a lot of celebrities do during interviews. She’s present, but she’s not going to kiss your ass. It’s a good survival strategy—it’s been almost 35 years since the Parkinson interview, and she’s probably done hundreds, if not thousands, of them since. I ask if she still gets nervous even at this stage of the game, and she admits she does—but about her work, not about doing press.
“I get nervous whenever I start a new project,” she tells me. “It’s the whole thing. Meeting new people, you’re never quite sure if you are going to achieve what you want to, whether it’s going to work out, and how you will deal with new personalities. I get nervous the first night if it’s in the theater. I get nervous before parties, actually. I’m not naturally gregarious. I have to force myself into dealing with people.”
One of the reasons Mirren gets nervous before a project is that she consistently chooses challenging roles across a multitude of genres. She appeared alongside Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud in the notorious financed-by-Penthouse art-porno Caligula (1979); played a widow who unwittingly falls in love with her husband’s IRA murderer in Cal (1984); was an adulterous wife who cooks her dead lover and feeds him to her husband in Peter Greenaway’s epic The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989); portrayed the alcoholic, workaholic detective Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, the hugely popular British crime series that ran from 1991 to 2006; won an Emmy in 2005 for her performance in the title role of the HBO/Channel 4 miniseries Elizabeth I; and turned in an Academy Award–winning performance as Queen Elizabeth II in the movie The Queen (2006). She was also on the TV series Frasier in 2004, as a kleptomaniac caller on Frasier’s radio show. (Helen Mirren is no snob.) Next year, along with her role in Arthur, she will also be appearing at a cinema near you in The Tempest, director Julie Taymor’s adaptation of the Shakespeare play, as Prospera, a gender-shifted interpretation of its protagonist Prospero, the Duke of Milan.
“The really interesting thing about Prospero is that one of his most famous speeches is a woman’s speech,” she tells me. “It’s a very old speech that Shakespeare lifted almost word for word from, I think, Aeschylus…” A former Classics major, I offer that it might be Euripides. (Turns out we were both wrong—the speech is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and it is spoken by Medea.) Mirren is excited about the crossover regardless and continues, “It’s a woman’s speech, a witch’s spell, an incantation—‘Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves…’” Suddenly, despite her grayed hair and nanny outfit, she exudes something mystical, reverent, and angry. Then, just as quickly, she clicks out and smiles at me. “Look it up,” she says. “It’s fantastic.”
When I ask Mirren if she sometimes chooses roles to be provocative, she grins. “You think, Oh, this is a terrible mistake,” she explains. “But you jump in anyway. I felt that way with The Queen, and I feel it again with Prospera.” So how did she end up in her latest film, Red (coming out October 15), in which she plays a former CIA assassin who comes out of retirement, alongside Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis, and John Malkovich? I tell her I picture the movie’s star, Willis, calling her up and asking her to be in the movie, kind of like asking someone on a date.
“I wish it was like that,” she laughs. “But it came the normal way, through my agent. That was one I had no question about. I just said, ‘Yes, this is great.’” She makes it sound like a casual decision, but in the next breath reveals how conscious she is of the impact of her career choices. “There are certain roles that take over your life,” she says. “Prime Suspect was one of them. The reason I stopped doing Prime Suspect is because I was beginning to feel like if I was knocked over by a bus, people would say, ‘Tennison sadly died yesterday. She was knocked over by a bus.’ So I had to reclaim both myself and my capability to do other things. I successfully moved away from that, and then The Queen came along. Now I’m ‘the queen’: regal this, regal that. It’s rubbish.” Mirren sees Red, a spy-action movie replete with speedboats, conspiracy theories, shootouts, and karate chops, as a way to thrust herself into another new genre with an entirely new audience. “I kill people, dear,” her character sweetly says, and that’s pretty much enough to banish any thoughts of The Queen you might be harboring. Especially when you see her actually do it. Repeatedly.
Despite the expert gunmanship she displays in Red, Mirren is ambivalent about firearms. On the one hand, she says, “The only place a gun has any business is on the battleground and in a soldier’s hands. They’re such cowardly things. It is so easy to cause serious damage without thought or consideration.” But she can also see their appeal: “They’re very visceral. And not just for men. With them, it’s obvious—the penis, ejaculation. Obviously there’s a connection there to men. But [it happens] when girls have guns too. You just feel fantastic holding it.” She then reels off a catalog of the weapons she used in Red: “A fantastic sniper rifle, a huge, great Gatling gun, some straight-shooters,” she tells me enthusiastically before adding more prudently, “They’re horribly dangerous, especially the small repeat-firing guns, the mini machine guns. Terrible.”
You read that right. Helen Mirren said penis and ejaculation. It wasn’t even that weird and I’m pretty sure I maintained my cool. She also asked me about a tattoo I have on my ear and complimented me on it. She has a very small tattoo on her left hand that she got while working with the American Indian Theater Ensemble on a reservation in Minnesota in the early ’70s. It’s an image comprising two interlaced triangles forming a Native American symbol called a lakesh that means “equal but opposite.” She has said before in interviews that she is unhappy with her tat now, because she got it to be different and shocking, and now “it’s become completely mainstream, which is unacceptable to me.” Mirren’s commitment to being part of the counterculture is evident in her autobiography, In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures, where she tells of living on a kibbutz, taking acid, and traveling through Africa with a theater group that eschewed language and communicated only through sound and gesture. (In the ’70s of course!)
When I ask if this independent spirit was present even when she was very young, Mirren tells me about her childhood. “I grew up in an intellectually middle-class family in an economically working-class environment,” she says. “My parents had no money. They lived on my father’s earnings as a cab driver, and then he joined the civil service and became a driving examiner. There was no inherited money.” Her mother, one of 14 children, experienced a childhood of poor circumstances, and her father, whose family came from Russia with nothing, had also grown up with little sense of security. “They met and fell in love in the late 1930s, in a time of incredible economic instability—nothing to fall back on, no real welfare system in England, an incredibly entrenched class system,” she says. “Their life was very economically insecure, so they instilled in us children the incredible importance of education and the incredible importance of never being in debt. I’m of that generation where you never get in debt. If you can’t afford something, you don’t buy it, you can’t have it.”
She learned a lot about self-reliance from her mother, who Mirren sees as a feminist but notes that she would not have called herself one. “She never wanted us [Mirren and her sister] to be dependent on a man,” she says. “She was dependent on my father, and she wanted to work, but she couldn’t. She was caught up in that terrible thing when you’re a working-class woman and you can’t work because you can’t afford childcare, and you are caught in that trap.”
“My father also very much believed that us girls, my sister and I, should be absolutely independent,” Mirren says. “He never, ever suggested to us that our future would lie in marriage or our security would be in marriage. Now when I talk to women of my generation who did get married, they say, ‘Oh, that is the thing you were supposed to do.’ But I think, Who told you that? I didn’t feel that. How did you feel that? But that’s what our generation was taught.”
Even though we all think of Mirren as mega-British, she has been living in Los Angeles since 1986 with director Taylor Hackford, whom she wed in 1997. She’s become so Americanized, in fact, she confides that she sometimes wishes she could lose her accent. “I love being British; I’m very proud of my country and my culture,” she says. “But I don’t like to be what Americans think of as British. I feel very uncomfortable with that sort of cliché. I’d love to be able to not stick out like a sore pinky, but I can’t.” She laughs when I say I think she’d probably still be recognizable if she changed her accent.
In Red, Mirren’s character first appears as a woman who has embraced posh country living—her house is decorated with tastefully crafted pinecone centerpieces, and the staircase is looped through with color-coordinated ribbon. There’s no hint that the house’s occupant is a retired assassin. But when her past comes calling, in the form of Bruce Willis, she reveals that not only is she ready to once again take up arms but also that she never stopped. “I take the odd job now and again,” she tells him, her hands full of dried pussy willows—and you have no doubt that she does. To me, this is the magic of Helen Mirren: that she is able to portray the complexities of women’s lives, whether it’s a flower-arranging killer for hire, a queen who must hide her emotions in the face of incredible public scrutiny, or a shoplifter calling up Frasier Crane for advice. She brings dignity and empathy to every part she plays, and she’s pretty good with a machine gun, too.