I arrive 15 minutes early at the Standard Hotel, but there appears to be some confusion. A guy at the front desk, a lanky twentysomething who looks like his other business card says “Williamsburg barber,” is helping me track down the events staffer I’m supposed to meet. “What are you here for?” I look around and whisper, “I’m here to interview…Helen Mirren.” “Oh, my God,” he enunciates quietly. “You just made me so excited. She’s like the most beautiful woman…” he stutters, “…woman…woman of a certain age.” In just two minutes, the mere mention of Dame Helen Mirren, the 72-year-old badass and Oscar-winning feminist icon, has reduced this man to mush. After a few panicked text messages, I realize I’m at the wrong Standard and race across town in an Uber, making it, miraculously, only a few minutes late. I enter the correct Standard Hotel, in the East Village, and almost instantly spot Mirren’s silvery blonde hair at reception. She gives me a warm “Helloooo,” then walks with me while I apologetically recount my geographical screwup. We’re ushered to a comfortable private dining nook, and before we even sit, Mirren tells the waitress, “I’ll have scrambled eggs, please.” No need to look at a menu. Helen Mirren knows what she wants. Of course, anyone who writes about Mirren speaks of her fierce wit, incomparable talent, sailor’s affection for cursing, ageless sex appeal, and admirable DGAF candor. For a woman who has played a queen multiple times in her five-decade career, she possesses the unique quality of appearing both royal and edgy. At first glance, she looks surprisingly conservative, in an A-line dress and classic white cardigan. But then there are the shoes: a pair of strappy red cage heels that I imagine she pulled off a shelf labeled “Pure Sex.”
Not only in her career but also in life, the woman’s got range. She’s the blueprint for every Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone who came after her, proving that you can be outspoken yet respected by so many disparate groups if you stay wholly true to yourself. In recent years, the term “authenticity” has been so maddeningly overused that it often fails to mean anything anymore. But Mirren has earned her reputation for authenticity, radiating a sense of humor and a passion for fun that’s often — unfairly — referred to as youthful (because, really, does fun die at 40?). She’s the rare A-list Dame who can pull off five-inch Lucite stripper heels on the red carpet and pink hair inspired by an episode of America’s Next Top Model at age 67. She can hang with Vin Diesel one minute and the freaking queen the next. It’s not that she transforms the lowbrow into highbrow — she just makes it her own. As her Collateral Beauty costar Kate Winslet put it: “She is everyone’s friend.” During our morning together, I learn that Mirren is a fan of condiments (her scrambled eggs get ketchup and Tabasco). She’s a self-professed terrible procrastinator. She loves to sleep late. She’s a generous conversationalist who asks copious questions. Her perfect day consists of a long family barbecue in New York, then England, then Los Angeles, and ideally she’d have a teleportation machine.
A few days before we meet, Mirren made a rousing commencement speech at Tulane University that seamlessly covered the gamut from Mike Tyson face tattoos to the war in Syria. The clever, hopeful, and seriously funny remarks were packed with pearls of wisdom: “No good can ever come from tweeting at 3 a.m.” and “No matter what sex you are, or race, be a feminist.” When Mirren was a child, open political discussion was encouraged in her household. Her father, a Russian-born musician turned taxi driver, took part in demonstrations against fascists in 1936. Eighty-one years later, his daughter would join New York City’s Women’s March; she recalls that everyone there “had good reason to be angry,” but she marvels at how the event was “positive, funny…joyous.” Mirren has been a vocal detractor of the current administration. “[Trump] just said and did whatever it took to get what he desired,” she scoffs. “That is quite terrifying, because it means there’s a lack of morality there and a lack of conscientiousness.” But if there’s one bright spot, she supposes, she suspects he’s less of an extremist than he lets on. “That was the horror of the Republicans: They thought that he was actually a bit of a secret New York-y-type liberal who was quite cool with gays getting married, wasn’t he?” Staying actively engaged in helping to push forward change is one thing, but she cautions that we’ll all need to wean off the IV drip of constant rage eventually. “It’s a bit like watching a car crash. There is a sort of mesmerizing horror — it’s why we love horror films.”
A champion for women’s rights, she admits she’s conflicted when I ask her about Melania and Ivanka. “You look at old Mel there, and she is one of the most powerful women in the world because she could take him down. She almost did that with the hand. [She puts on a Disney Evil Stepmother voice and mimics the hand brush-off seen round the world.] ‘Don’t touch me.’?” “I’m Eastern European, you know; [we’ve] got these dark souls,” she quips. “That dark Slovenian soul is about to come out. She’s only got to do a nice interview with Allure,” she laughs, drawing out the “u,” making it sound entirely regal. All-yyooooorrr.“[Ivanka] talks a good game, but there’s no substance. Her book is so ignorant about how the majority of women live, talking about ‘Make time for yourself to have a massage.’ Puh-lease.” In her lifetime, Mirren has seen the lasting impact of women in positions of authority. “Although I completely disagreed with her politics, Mrs. Thatcher was a great role model for women…a little four-year-old watching TV says, ‘Who’s this, Mommy or Daddy?’ ‘That’s the prime minister.’ Immediately, the girl thinks, Oh, I see; that’s possible.”
She can’t fathom why others still don’t get the optics. “The idiocy of the Republican Party to have a room full of 25 old white men making decisions about the health of this country that is 50.8 percent women and 37 percent other races — I looked this up!” she says. She firmly believes that putting women on an equal playing field helps everyone. “If you go to a place where women are given advantages, life gets better, especially for children.” Mirren considers herself a proud feminist today but has had a complicated history with the label. “I wasn’t into the very didactic feminism of the ’60s and ’70s because I liked wearing makeup and high heels,” she recalls. “That was a no-no. It was sort of ‘That’s playing to the patriarchy.’ I was thinking, Well, I just really like it. Then as feminism developed, they realized you can like nice dresses, high-heeled shoes, and makeup. That’s not stopping you from being feminist.”
Born Helen Lydia Mironoff (her parents Anglicized the family name to Mirren when she was around nine years old) to a Russian father and an English mother, the actress grew up in Southend-on-Sea outside of London. Her life’s highlight reel reads like a legend: In 2015, she became one of only 23 actors in the world to secure a triple crown of acting — Oscar, Emmy, and Tony. She needs only a Grammy for the coveted EGOT. She dated a Russian prince as well as her Excalibur costar Liam Neeson. When she was 38, she met director Taylor Hackford at her audition for 1985’s White Nights; they wed in 1997. For someone who’s spent a solid chunk of her life on movie sets, Mirren is still surprisingly and endearingly a fangirl. “Oh, I’m always starstruck any time I meet a movie star. I’m paralyzed,” she says. “I say, ‘Right, Helen, just be natural; just be yourself. Don’t talk too much; don’t stare.’ I have to give myself all these instructions.” In nearly every profile written about her over the past four decades, the subject of her sexiness inevitably comes up. The self-effacing star humbly downplays it. “I could see why — when I got far enough back from my young self — they called me sexy in those days. I fell into the cliché of sexiness: blonde hair, tits, waist, which I hated at the time because it was not fashionable. You had to be thin and have a cigarette and only wear black. And I just never fit into that look.” Sexiness, however, is not easily defined. I offer my theory that it’s rooted in confidence — a glint in the eyes. She draws a blank for a few minutes to think of the particular human who embodies sexiness. She lands on Jessica Chastain, her costar in the 2010 thriller The Debt, whose sexiness, she says, lies somewhere in the mathematical equation of talent plus intelligence: “It’s not necessarily to do with confidence because I’m sure if [Jessica were] sitting here, she’d say, ‘Oh, God, I’m not confident at all.’ It’s an interior power that comes from her intelligence. When intelligence is combined with beauty, it’s extraordinary…[like] Natalie Portman.”
That said, Mirren takes issue with the word “beauty.” “Maybe we’re attractive, interesting, or mesmerizing, but 90 percent of women are not what you’d call beautiful. Of course, beauty is inside, but still it’s a word. When it’s tied to pictures of people and amazing outfits on girls who can wear that stuff, it’s intimidating for the rest of us.” Our linguistic discussion leads to another term: I tell her that Allure is making a resolution to stop saying “anti-aging,” a move she firmly stands behind. In fact, she says that when L’Oréal approached her to work with the company, she made the same point, and luckily, the company was already on it. “I said, ‘This word “anti-aging” — we know we’re getting older. You just want to look and feel as great as you can on a daily basis.’?” It’s just that when people talk about any touchy subject — race, death, sex — they often lack the proper vocabulary to speak openly without devolving into euphemisms. I tell her the story of the guy from the front desk fumbling to find the right words to describe her as “the most beautiful….” “He wanted to say ‘old lady,’?” she howls. Black-and-white angora elastane dress by Aalto. Black leather boots by Alai¨a. Silver earrings by Lady Grey. Silver ring by Efva Attling.
She admits she stumbles over social behavior around aging as well. “If people treat me like the age I am, I get absolutely insulted, really cross. I hate when people give up their seat for me. No, no, no. I don’t want your seat.” Helen Mirren, smasher of traditions, has also consciously selected roles that aren’t your typical over-50 parts, like her turns in action films such as The Fate of the Furious. “I’m so tired of movies about Alzheimer’s and cancer. And actually…” she catches herself, laughing, “I’ve just done a movie where I have cancer and he has Alzheimer’s. But that’s it — done and dusted.” The truly ageless quality Mirren possesses is that she’s not trying to act like she’s 40. She’s actively shifting the paradigm of what it means to be in one’s 70s in Hollywood and society in general, but without a preachy agenda. She practices skin care but doesn’t worship at its altar. She reveals she’s a wannabe haircutter who’s been “chopping away” at her own hair for the past year, and she confesses she doesn’t have much of a beauty routine. “At least I clean my face now,” she says. Yet she’d never shame anyone for getting a nip or needle prick. “Anyone should be able to do what they want. If they look in the mirror and go, ‘I look good’ and go out in a positive way — I don’t want anyone to feel miserable.”
Throughout her teens and 20s, Mirren was racked by physical insecurity. “It was the time of Twiggy, and I did not look like a twig,” she says. “My cheeks were too fat, legs were too short, breasts too big.” If there were advice for her younger self, it’d be to say “Fuck off” more and stop being so “bloody polite.” “In those days, you had to,” she says. “It’s hard to explain how difficult it is to overcome the culture. You become a voice in the wilderness. No one wants to listen.” I tell her I fully expect to live to 100 since times have changed and 40 is the new 20. She, for one, would like to live to be 150, mostly to witness future mind-blowing advancements in technology. “I’m just amazed and awestruck by the development. It seems every day there’s a new thing that you go, Oh, my God, how does it do that?” she says. “I still haven’t quite gotten over GPS. What did we do before? I can’t get over seeing my little blue dot, especially when I’m walking.” Still, she’s happy to witness those breakthroughs with her feet planted firmly on the ground, should Elon Musk invite her to the moon. “I have a real terror of deep space…those huge, terrifying planets,” she shudders, admitting she even refused to see the movie Gravity in IMAX 3D. “No, I wouldn’t be going to the moon.”
And then Helen Mirren at her absolute Helen Mirren–est: “There are too many places on the earth to explore first.”