She swears like a trooper, won’t have her photographs retouched and couldn’t care less what anyone thinks. Actor Helen Mirren talks modelling, marriage and why manners matter
Helen Mirren hates the Guardian, and she hates female journalists. Before I meet her, I am told this a lot, by colleagues; she’s also hinted at it in previous interviews. This is somewhat unnerving and, it turns out, mostly rubbish: when I meet her at a hotel in London, it soon transpires that Mirren (who no longer looks at her own press) reads the Guardian every day and follows my Weekend magazine column “religiously”. (She says this twice. I intend to be buried with the tapes.) She is extremely warm, funny and impeccably mannered, just an hour after trending on Twitter for swearing live on breakfast TV (“It pissed with rain,” she said of a camping trip, and looked amazed when the presenters turned to camera to apologise).
It turns out that Mirren’s legendary grudge against the Guardian comes from another age, and is not unreasonable. When she was a young actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late 1960s, a headline on a Guardian interview dubbed her The Sex Queen Of Stratford. The journalist wrote of Mirren “batting her big blue eyes” at him; her eyes are grey, she pointed out later, and there was no batting, but the condescending nickname stuck. In an excruciating 1975 television interview, Michael Parkinson introduced Mirren as “the sex queen”, before going on to make constant reference to her “physical attributes”, “sluttishness” and occasional nudity, despite her obvious annoyance.
Several decades, two Golden Globes, four Emmys, one Oscar, a Tony, five Baftas and a Fellowship later, Mirren is less concerned that her acting might take a back seat to her image. At 70, she is a new face of L’Oréal Paris, and thrilled to be the oldest recipient of a major (and lucrative) cosmetics contract. It’s important, she says, a big deal. “It was about time that someone of my age, not necessarily me, did it. Certainly my whole life, one had these images of perfect, incredibly youthful girls shoved at you as what you should aspire to,” she complains. “And we’re not even talking about 25-year-olds, incidentally, we are talking about girls of 15. Who looks 15? It’s not fair.”
Like overdue buses, older models are now arriving in clusters: last year, the cosmetics brand Nars overlooked high fashion faces for 69-year-old Charlotte Rampling when it launched a new range of lipsticks (which, significantly, boasted no “anti-ageing” benefits); designer Marc Jacobs made 65-year-old Jessica Lange the face of his cosmetics line; and Diane Keaton, 69, has been another hit for L’Oréal. Partly, this is about cash: L’Oréal’s own research shows that half of women over 50 feel overlooked, even though the over-50s hold more than 80% of the country’s wealth and spend more on beauty products than younger women. “It’s taken a very long time for the penny to drop,” Mirren says, “because women have been 50 for a very long time, or 60, or 70.”
Mirren is not your average-looking septuagenarian, no more representative of her peer group than Cara Delevingne is of the average twentysomething. But when she signed her contract last year, she insisted her photographs should not be retouched to make her look younger. “I said, ‘You take me with my attitude or just don’t have me, have someone else.’ They said, ‘Absolutely, that’s what we want. We want truth, we want transparency.’” The resulting photographs were so unfeasibly flattering that complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Authority about undeclared retouching. The allegations were proved to be unfounded: “We noted that wrinkles were clearly visible on Ms Mirren’s face in both ads, including across her forehead and around her mouth,” the ASA concluded.
And having spent a day with her, I can vouch for that. Today, she looks extraordinary in a bright orange Victoria Beckham pencil dress I could no longer hope to fit into. She has reassuringly lined but near-flawless skin, albeit expertly made up (she reminds me of this constantly, and of the flattering lighting, at the same time as telling me that British women should more readily accept compliments). She laughs often and loudly, and swears like a sailor, but her poise and posture are refined, a little bit costume drama. (Twice she scolds me for not sitting up straight.)
Does she feel beautiful? “I hate that word. Kate Moss is beautiful, so is David Beckham, and I can appreciate a beautiful girl walking down the street. Young is beautiful. But the majority of us are something else, and I wish there was another word for it.” She won’t trot out the cliche about looking better than ever as she gets older, and scoffs when I give her the opportunity. “Oh no, I definitely don’t look better now than when I was young. Definitely not. Of course I looked better then. The great thing that happens as you age is that you don’t really give a flying fuck. I don’t look so good, but I don’t care.”
Is the acting industry less accepting of older women? “There is profound sexism – the ‘Would you fuck her?’ kind of attitude,” she says, sounding more philosophical than furious. “On the cinema screen, your face is 10ft high and 6ft wide. It’s huge. And I, as a cinemagoer, like to see beautiful faces up there – it’s a pleasure. But there’s also story and entertainment, and one wants variety in that. You also want, as an audience member, to see people that you recognise and can identify with.”
Is she optimistic that this will change? Mirren thinks we’re looking for change in the wrong places. “When roles for women in real life change, then you will see change in the film industry,” she says. “If we happen to see a [female] president of the United States, and a world expert on marine biology comes on television and it’s a woman, or the female head of a petroleum company on the news.” But surely Hollywood will insist on having them played by young supermodels? She laughs. “I think what’s galling to me is when you see someone who’s supposed to be a high-level surgeon in a film and she’s being played by a 28-year-old actress. They wouldn’t even be qualified yet, never mind eminent.” She cites her role as the middle-aged, borderline alcoholic DCI Jane Tennison in Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect as a key example of art imitating what was already happening in the workforce. “The more those roles change for women in life, the more people get used to that image – seeing an older woman’s face. They become more familiar with it. It’s not uncharted territory, visually, so it’s not such a shock to the system any more.”
This April, Meryl Streep announced that she was setting up a new writers’ lab to help women over 40 develop scripts. It’s part of a broader shift in the industry that’s gathering pace, Mirren believes. “It’s interesting that Greta Garbo retired at, I think, 42. Jennifer Aniston is fortysomething, and wants to be – that’s the other thing. She’s not trying to be 28. She wants the roles that a 40-year-old can play, because they’re much more interesting. She wants to move into that world, and Greta Garbo felt she couldn’t, she had to retire. So absolutely it’s changed, and it will continue to change. Having said that, we will always love beauty on the screen, and youth.”
She points out a weird new kind of equality in that, instead of lessening the pressure on women to be young and nubile, Hollywood is simply heaping more on young male actors. “It’s absolutely incredible. They all have to have these ridiculous bodies now that are completely unrealistic. And it’s very hard to find a male actor with a real body. They all have to be in the gym for three or four hours a day. Tedious. Awful.”
Mirren, who doesn’t bother to call herself a feminist (because “it’s just fucking obvious”), is more immediately concerned about class inequality in the acting world. In a recent Weekend interview, Julie Walters said that the profession would no longer even be an option for someone from her modest background. Mirren and Walters are cut from not dissimilar cloth: Mirren was born Helen Mironoff to a Russian immigrant father and working-class mother from West Ham, who both told her she could never be an independent woman unless she went out and earned money. She grew up with her brother and sister in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, on a tight family budget (her father drove a cab and worked as a driving test examiner). The Mirrens – her father had anglicised the (at one time quite grand) family name when Helen was a little girl – were, and still are, very close. Like Walters, she attended vocational college (studying teaching) rather than drama school, but got her big break through theatre groups: at the National Youth Theatre (Ben Kingsley, David Suchet and Ian McShane were contemporaries), she was spotted by director Trevor Nunn. “In the 60s and 70s, the Youth Theatre was so important,” she says. “That’s the one organisation that cuts right across. And you still need some sort of financial support, even there. It’s very tough.
Prime Suspect’s late producer, Paul Marcus, once told me that Mirren was extraordinarily professional and popular on set. Today, the crew assembled for the photoshoot also tell me she is unusually courteous, punctual and easy, “for a celeb”. (She spends 30 minutes in makeup and puts on the first outfit handed to her. The schedule had budgeted for a not untypical three hours of general preening and rejecting clothes.) I mention her good manners (shortly before she informs me that my very expensive, carefully chosen shoes look too big for me). The manners are meant, she says. “It does become more important as you progress through life and realise a) how much it’s appreciated by others, and b) you get everything done much faster. So it’s a kind of laziness on my part, because, really, I’ll want to go home.” She laughs. “And as you carry on through life, you gain a greater respect for other people and their requirements, and the fact that everyone’s got a family to go home to and everyone’s got issues in their lives that they’re struggling with.” I share a horror story about a young TV personality I once interviewed, who went for a four-hour nap after arriving several hours late. She pulls a face. “Mostly that sort of attitude is to do with a kind of innocence, or a kind of ignorance, if you like. Just a lack of experience and thinking of yourself as the centre of the world. As you get older, the biggest lesson you have to learn is that you’re not. It’s a much bigger place than you.”
She works constantly (next up is Trumbo, the story of a Hollywood screenwriter blackballed during the McCarthy era, co-starring Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) and claims, somewhat improbably, that there is still always competition for roles. She credits maturity, not fame, with her increased self-confidence in a notoriously precarious profession. “I’m always very insecure and nervous before I do any job. It would be so nice not to have to be nervous any more, not to have to be afraid. But the other thing you learn is that your fear and nervousness and insecurity is your own business, nobody else’s.” Worrying this sounds brusque, she adds: “Not because you want to be secretive about it, but because it’s impolite and self-centred to put it on other people. You should deal with it yourself. There’s a degree of arrogance: ‘I’m so nervous everyone, look at me!’”
When Mirren’s not working, she loves gardening and describes herself as “the classic lady out there with the secateurs”. She reads a lot – she has just finished All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, “a fabulous novel about the second world war. I’m really upset that I’ve finished it. You know when you’re reading a really great book and keep checking how many pages you’ve got to go?” She sees her sister Kate as often as she can (they dye each other’s hair), and likes to travel with her husband, An Officer And A Gentleman and Ray director Taylor Hackford, whenever their schedules allow. She particularly loves Italy, where they have a home and where, she says, she loves how “women of all ages, shapes and sizes walk around in bikinis, free, self-confident and without care or judgment” (this comes a week after the Mail approvingly names Mirren a “Gran-bod” for doing the same).
I ask what has been her greatest achievement and immediately regret it, expecting her to give me a stock “the best is yet to come” answer. But she doesn’t. “The longer your life, the more you have to remember, and I do have amazing memories.” She pauses for a moment and volunteers, “I feel particularly grateful that I’m in a happy marriage. I love my husband, I love being with him. He’s a nightmare, but he’s great, and I look forward to seeing him and miss him when he’s not there. Not that I can’t live without him, because I can. But that is a really nice part of my life, when I look back and think of what we’ve done together. Family in general, I think. It’s not any of my doing really, and the fact that I’m very close to my family is great, even without children. Maybe especially without children.”
Being 70 is a pleasure, she says; it has all been a pleasure. “You live your life,” she says. “The reality is, you either die young or you get old. There is nothing in between.”
L’Oréal Excellence Age Perfect hair colour range is out now.