Only Dame Helen Mirren could manage to be a glamorous, gun-toting secret agent, the Queen and a 67-year-old pin-up all at the same time. Just don’t mention sexist men…
The year is 1997 and Prime Minister John Major has just informed the Queen that she is going to lose her beloved Royal Yacht, Britannia. She is not amused. Neither is Helen Mirren, who is on stage as Her Majesty reliving the scene in The Audience, directed by Stephen Daldry. It’s a pivotal and emotional moment in the play, which imagines the Queen’s private, weekly meetings with eight of her 12 Prime Ministers –she refers to them as ‘the Dirty Dozen’.
But the audience at London’s Gielgud Theatre in May – many of whom have paid £100 a ticket to see Dame Helen and the rest of the cast – can’t hear a word because the dialogue is being drowned out by an almighty racket in the street next to the theatre, caused by a group of enthusiastic drummers promoting a gay festival to be held later in the month. The drummers get the shock of their lives when, at 8.30pm, the 67-year-old Oscar-winning star of The Queen emerges in person at the stage door to give them a royal dressing down.
‘I was on stage trying to make myself heard to an audience of 900 people with my fellow actors,’ says Mirren, who is discussing the bizarre incident in detail for the first time. ‘It was impossible, we couldn’t hear each other speak. The cast had already performed a matinee, she explains. ‘After doing one-and-a-half shows – and I speak non-stop on stage for two hours – I just thought I couldn’t carry on like this.
‘Soho on Saturday night is absolutely heaving, you know. It’s incredible fun, people are out drinking and partying, having a grand old time. Lovely, nothing wrong with that. ‘But these drummers had been hired to, literally, drum up people for this festival and they were drumming outside a nearby gay bar, not realising that we were probably ten feet, if not less, away.’ A video of the actress outside the theatre that went viral showed her in full costume of a lavender dress, matching cardigan and pearls (‘the Queen in her John Major years so, you know, with a grey wig, not a tiara as some people said’) bellowing at the drummers, who seemed oblivious.
‘The drumming was so loud, I realised the only way to communicate with them was to try and be louder than they were,’ says Mirren. Her colourful language has been widely reported but Mirren, who won the Olivier Best Actress award for her role in the play, says it was not directed at the drummers. ‘I didn’t swear at them ever. I said: “Do you realise what you’re doing? You’re f****** up our performance; we can’t hear ourselves speak. Please stop.’” She pauses for thought. ‘It must have been very funny, actually. I think people must have thought I was a mad, drunken old woman staggering around Soho.’
It is a measure of the high regard in which she is held that Mirren’s outburst had the desired effect. ‘Sweetly, they stopped, almost immediately.’ And it’s a testament to her good-natured sense of humour that she was seen the following day sporting a T-shirt promoting the ‘As One In The Park’ event. There were no hard feelings. ‘The irony is I love drummers and I love drumming,’ she says. I’ve met Mirren on several occasions and she is great company: opinionated, entertaining and disarmingly warm, but also self-effacing to a fault.
We are talking today in Los Angeles where the actress lives with her husband, director Taylor Hackford (An Officer And A Gentleman, The Devil’s Advocate, Ray) and where Mirren’s ‘Royal Rant’ was a topic of interest for days. She may be our national treasure but Americans have developed their own relationship with ‘Dame Helen’, which borders on reverence. ‘Americans are very, very flattering, aren’t they?’ she says. ‘I mean, it’s lovely, but I always take it with a pinch of salt because I think they want you to feel good. ‘They’re much more polite than Brits are; they don’t want to hurt your feelings, so they always say very nice things about you.’
Presumably she is treated like royalty in the States? ‘Well that stuff comes and goes, obviously. Immediately after I had done The Queen . . . up until then I was Jane Tennison, I was the rough, messed-up police detective for many years,’ she says, referring to her indelible Prime Suspect character. ‘And now I’m the Queen, but this, too, will pass, I suspect.’ Whatever she says, for many, Mirren is the current Queen, though throughout her career she has always avoided typecasting. Her role as the retired, gun-toting MI6 agent Victoria, in the 2010 action comedy RED, was her most surprising so far.
Mirren joined a star-heavy cast led by Bruce Willis, as former black-ops CIA agent Frank Moses, and John Malkovich as his eccentric partner Marvin. (RED is an acronym for Retired, Extremely Dangerous). Now she returns for the sequel, RED 2. ‘Apart from my moralistic feelings about guns, it just looked like a lot of fun,’ says the actress. ‘They trained me on small handguns, normal handguns, Berettas and all the way up to the Gatling gun, through the sniper rifles and so forth. I had an experience of shooting with real live ammunition, which was fantastic, a real education. ‘That’s the good thing about doing a film like RED, it’s good just to shake it up a bit.’
She also revels in her newfound action heroine status. ‘Mama Matrix,’ she exclaims gleefully when I mention a RED 2 shot in which, swathed in fur, she is in the passenger seat of a blue Lotus Exige, shooting out of both windows simultaneously. ‘I love being a badass, it’s just the best,’ smiles Mirren. ‘But the more I handle guns, the less I like them. ‘It’s so easy to cause such incredible damage. There’s no sport involved.
‘That’s why I like Victoria, she’s a sniper. Target shooting, that sort of very precise clay-pigeon shooting, is fine, but the idea of using a gun to hurt any living creature is pretty horrendous. ‘I want to make it very clear,’ says Mirren, ‘I’m not killing anyone. I’m just debilitating them with non-life-threatening injuries that they will fully recover from, just because… I have to get from A to B.’ There’s a good dose of satire in RED 2 and the action is stylised; nonetheless the body count is high. Does Mirren think there is any correlation between film violence and the real-life shootings that have plagued America?
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘Buddhists can be very violent when their buttons are pushed as we are seeing right now in Indonesia (referring to the sectarian violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Belawan), and maybe they’ve never seen an action movie in their lives. ‘I can’t sort my head out around that particular issue. Audiences all around the world, from five years up to 85, love action movies. It’s very expensive to make a movie and you have to take the desires of the audience on board to a certain extent.’ Though Mirren has spent a lot of her time in America in the past few decades, she keeps abreast of British current affairs and has strong views on the controversial issues of the day.
We discuss the fallout from the Jimmy Savile affair. ‘Oh, he could get away with anything, of course. ‘I think the impact of all that has been massive and, you know, when certain people at the BBC, women, came out and said: “Well actually it was perfectly normal”, I remember that. You didn’t complain, you just had to have a sense of humour about it, it was your job. ‘Well, you know what? I don’t want to have a sense of humour about that. I didn’t then, but you just had to carry on.’
Along with Meryl Streep, Mirren consistently lands some of the best roles for women of any age. But reflecting on her early career, she says sexism (as one might expect) was rife. ‘The 60s were not great, the 70s were really crap; the 60s and 70s were pretty ghastly, I think. ‘And into the 80s, as an actress, you would be the only female on set, apart from the continuity person, who was always a woman, and maybe your own personal wardrobe person. ‘Otherwise it was completely male, and a particular kind of testosteroney male that was quite hard to deal with. You had to have a sense of humour, put your head down, you were never going to be one of the boys, if you know what I mean.’
I point out that she didn’t take any nonsense from Michael Parkinson who, in a famous 1975 interview, which you can find on YouTube, introduced her as ‘sluttishly erotic’ and enquired whether ‘what could be best described as your equipment’ hindered her in her pursuit of becoming a serious actress. ‘I was very polite with Michael, far more polite than I should have been,’ she recalls. ‘In the 1980s they realised that women were in the workplace,’ she says, citing the impact of Melanie Griffith’s film, Working Girl, in 1988. ‘People suddenly thought, “Hey, wait a minute, women are out there working, having their own stories, not simply dependent on what a guy is doing.” ’
Does the actress have any advice for young women? ‘If I’d had children and had a girl, the first words I would have taught her would have been “F*** off”,’ she says. ‘Because we weren’t brought up ever to say that to anyone, were we? And it’s quite valuable to have the courage and the confidence to say, “No, f*** off, leave me alone, thank you very much.” ’ She pauses and laughs. ‘You see, I couldn’t help saying, “Thank you very much,”I just couldn’t help myself.’
Have things changed in the film industry? ‘Oh yes, a great thing that I have noticed changing is behind the camera, especially in the electrical department, which I find very exciting, to see girl grips, girl camera… whoops, sorry, not girl, female,’ she corrects herself. ‘FEMALE cinematographers.’ On screen, progress is apparently slower. ‘I’ve seen contemporary actors of mine have fantastic careers up to the age of about 45, 50, and then suddenly, as they reach the zenith of their ability… there’s nowhere for them to do it,’ she said recently. ‘Whereas comparatively mediocre male actors can go on working.’
Despite her strong views on the slow progress towards equality, it must, I suggest, be gratifying that ever since that memorable 2008 red bikini shot taken on holiday in Puglia, she is deservedly considered a sex symbol – and an inspiring role model for women. ‘Wow, that’s so cool. I don’t look remotely glamorous most of the time and I’m not very stylish,’ she says.
‘But at the same time, if you see that, that’s lovely and I’ll take it with many thanks. I can’t see it. I’ve always loved dressing up, it’s one of the reasons I’m an actress. I love costumes and the red carpet is a kind of costume, really – you’re putting on a character. It’s certainly not you.’ Descended from Russian aristocracy on her father’s side and a working-class family of east London butchers on her mother’s side, Mirren acted in school plays, worked in theatre during her late teens, cemented her career at the RSC in her 20s and regularly returns to the stage.
‘I’m very careful to make sure I go back to the theatre every so often,’ she says. Her varied film credits range from Peter Greenaway’s controversial The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover in 1990, to The Madness Of King George (1994) which led to the first of her four Oscar nominations. At the other end of the spectrum, she starred in the 2011 remake of Arthur with Russell Brand (they also appeared together in The Tempest a year before) – and gave an inspired performance in Hitchcock last year opposite Anthony Hopkins as the director’s wife, Alma Reville.
She has even conquered Hollywood family films; with a scene-stealing turn as the voice of the imperious dragon-like creature, Dean Hardscrabble, in Pixar’s animated summer hit Monsters University. Given the colossal success of the first RED film, which grossed more than £100million, it was inevitable that Mirren and the crew would return for a sequel and they are back fighting armed terrorists, corrupt government officials and hired assassins, on a mission to stop a portable nuclear device getting into the wrong hands.
‘I’m still rather star-struck to be in a movie with Bruce Willis and John Malkovich,’ says Mirren. ‘The challenge in doing something like RED, and it’s why someone like Bruce (Willis) is so brilliant in these movies, is that there’s a great self-discipline.’ Mirren is also reunited with Anthony Hopkins, who stars as a gleefully mad nuclear scientist, while Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Miranda, a scheming Russian agent. ‘The first time I was offered the role I was going “ooh gulp, is this really the right kind of thing to be doing, Helen?” But Victoria’s such a lovely character, isn’t she?
‘It’s always a bit of a miracle when you can do something that hasn’t been seen before – that sort of very refined character who has this other life.’ Inspired, she says, by American lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, Mirren’s assassin is dignified, yet chillingly ruthless. In one of the film’s funniest moments, Victoria is in disguise as a mental patient with royal pretensions. ‘Oh yes, the Queen Elizabeth part was a joke from me,’ says Mirren, ‘to get a really bad wig and an awful costume. It’s always nice to bring other roles into a piece of work in a tongue-in-cheek way. You’re slightly crossing the fourth wall a little bit.’
Chic and seductive, with a blonde bob and great figure, Mirren appears in a series of ultra- glamorous outfits, but she’s also convincingly tough, wielding some serious hardware. ‘Our wonderful costume designer kept bringing me gorgeous Dolce & Gabbana camouflage outfits. I said: “No, I want them to be real secondhand army fatigues.” They had to scour the army shops for camouflage with short enough legs to fit me.’
There are no serious thoughts of retiring, ‘the work is still worrying and challenging and nerve-racking and I think that’s why I can’t stop doing it. ‘I have just done six months of theatre, so I have had enough of that for a while, I feel liberated at the moment and I can’t wait to get back on a film set. ‘You know, you have your dream of what it’s going to be like being retired. My husband and I have been building this house in Italy (Puglia) that’s sort of our retirement dream, but in reality, whether we ever will actually do that, I don’t know.
‘It’s hard to let go of our business, of the creativity involved. It’s also hard to let go of the attention. ‘You don’t think that you’re addicted or in love with that attention, you think it doesn’t mean anything to you, until suddenly you don’t get it. ‘But maybe, in the end, it’ll be lovely to do that.’
‘RED 2’ opens on August 2