Helen Mirren had enough with the kind of scripts that her agent kept sending her way. That is, as she got older.
Like, “‘Oh, it’s a wonderful role . . . she’s got cancer,’” says the actress, 72. Or “‘It’s a wonderful role . . . she’s got dementia.’” Finally, the Oscar winner told her agent, “‘I don’t want any scripts where I’ve got cancer or Alzheimer’s—I don’t want anything to do with it.’
“And then this script arrives and it’s got both Alzheimer’s and cancer—at the same time!” She cackles. But it was a charming story with a charming director (Italy’s Paolo Virzì), she says. “And it was Donald.”
Donald is Donald Sutherland, 82, her co-star in the new film The Leisure Seeker (March 9), which features the two actors as a long-married couple with two grown children. Her character is the one with cancer and he’s the one dealing with dementia.
Not wanting to wither away at home, the pair decides to take a trip down memory lane—literally—in their vintage Winnebago RV, dubbed “the Leisure Seeker.” They drive the rickety vehicle down the Eastern Seaboard to a spot that’s always been on their bucket list: the Hemingway Home in Key West, Florida.
This isn’t Sutherland’s first time playing a character who’s ill—or worse. He says years of scenes requiring his characters to die and fall down have taken their toll on his body. “I can hardly move my shoulders,” he says. “When [you die] and fall on the floor, you can’t put your hands down [to cushion the fall] because you’re dead. So I land on my shoulders. I now no longer have any shoulders, basically.”
But taking on their characters’ ailments clearly hasn’t slowed either of them down, as they tease each other in a Beverly Hills hotel suite. Sutherland is commanding, settled into a sturdy armchair as his Jack Russell, Porque, sniffs about the room. Mirren sits sprightly at the end of a chaise, leaning back and crossing and uncrossing her legs as punctuation while she speaks.
While the two—with more than a century’s worth of stage and screen credits between them—play a convincing couple on a classic American road trip, their backgrounds are worlds apart.
Mirren was born in Hammersmith, West London, and raised in the commuter town of Leigh-on-Sea by her working-class English mother, Kathleen, and Russian intellectual father, Vasiliy. The middle child, with an older sister and younger brother, she and her siblings grew up without a lot of frills.
“We didn’t even have a car,” she says, nor did they get television until she’d left home and gone to college. And she didn’t go to the movies as a young girl either. “It sounds a bit Amish, doesn’t it? We didn’t have money for me to go to the cinema.”
Instead, she found inspiration on the stage. By 18, she was training at London’s National Youth Theatre and then invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company. A long, successful theatrical career eventually led her to roles in numerous films—including Caligula, The Madness of King George, Gosford Park, Calendar Girls, Hitchcock and The Hundred-Foot Journey—and led to the lustrous career that earned her acting’s “triple crown”—an Academy Award (for 2006’s The Queen), four Emmys (for the HBO miniseries Elizabeth I, for the TV movie The Passion of Ayn Rand and two for her role in Prime Suspect, which ran for seven seasons on PBS) and a Tony (for The Audience, a Broadway take on her Queen Elizabeth II role).
And in 2003, Mirren—who grew up in a humble household with so few luxuries—was appointed a dame by royal decree from England’s real-life Queen Elizabeth.
Sutherland spent his youth in Canada. He was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, and raised in Nova Scotia. Like Mirren, he says his family didn’t have television when he was a child, but he’s quick to up her ante. “My country didn’t get TV when I was growing up,” he says. Raised by his parents, Dorothy and Frederick, he remembers his mother as “a very honest woman,” he says. “She was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, and she never—not in her whole life—lied.” He remembers at age 16 asking her, “ ‘Mother, am I good looking?’ and my mother went [long pause], ‘Your face has character, Donald.’ ”
He’d already determined he wanted to be an actor. He attended Victoria College in Toronto, then theatrical schools in London and Scotland, before finally relocating to Hollywood. His star rose after his appearances in a string of successful movies beginning in the late 1960s, including The Dirty Dozen, M*A*S*H, Kelly’s Heroes, Klute, Don’t Look Now, 1900, Animal House and Ordinary People. His versatile, prolific work earned him an Emmy (for Supporting Actor in the 1995 TV movie Citizen X) and an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar in 2017.
Hitting the Road
Mirren and Sutherland met almost 30 years ago when they co-starred in the biopic Bethune: The Making of a Hero, about a Canadian doctor caught up in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. He recalls being “in her thrall,” and she says she was struck by his intelligence. “He’s knowledgable, incredibly knowledgable—much more than I am,” Mirren says. “About literature, about history.”
And how he managed driving the rickety old RV in The Leisure Seeker! “It was a dodgy old thing!” says Mirren. “Its brakes were going, its gears are going, its steering . . . but he handled it brilliantly well.”
While neither Mirren nor Sutherland has ever taken a real-life RV journey like the one in their new movie, they’re both fans of road trips. Mirren took one with her husband, Taylor Hackford (director of An Officer and a Gentleman). They once owned a home in New Orleans and drove across the South.
“We did little bed and breakfasts on the way, the Southern buffets—all you can eat for $6.99,” says Mirren. She and Hackford, who have been married for 20 years and together for more than 30, split their time today between homes in Los Angeles and London, where Mirren likes to garden in her leisure time.
Sutherland went on a recent road trip along a more northern route, from Los Angeles through Utah and Colorado, through the mountains, to Quebec to help out his son Rossif with a move. He now lives in Quebec with his wife of 45 years, actress Francine Racette. He has five children—including twins with his second wife, actress Shirley Douglas (one of them is actor Kiefer Sutherland, the star of TV’s 24 and Designated Survivor), and three sons with Racette.
Both Sutherland and Mirren plan to make the most of the years ahead.
Sutherland says he shares a pastime with a lot of people of “retirement” age. “I golf,” he says.
“You are such a liar!” cries Mirren. “You’ll never see him on a bloody golf course!”
Sutherland laughs. “No, I don’t golf,” he admits. “The thing is, I haven’t had much leisure time. I think I’m probably afraid of it. I work a lot, and I love working. I’m afraid if I stop, nobody will hire me again.”
Says Mirren, “I’d like to get freer. My whole life has been an effort to find freedom—freedom from myself, from my own fears. You know, you can get sucked into the horrors of the world around you. Not the real horrors—earthquakes, floods, starvations—but the mundane horrors . . . political nightmares, whatever. You know?”
Lawrence Lucier/FilmMagic/Getty Images
Sutherland with his wife of 45 years, Francine Racette. (Lawrence Lucier/FilmMagic/Getty Images)
Professionally, they each have multiple projects coming up. Sutherland will play J. Paul Getty in the Danny Boyle–directed FX series Trust, set to air this spring, and Mirren will portray Sarah Winchester, the firearm heiress, in the upcoming movie thriller Winchester (February 2). Until then, they hope audiences will be inspired by the enduring relationship of the couple they play in The Leisure Seeker, cherishing what their years together have earned them.
The film is about “where the love between a man and a woman can go,” says Mirren.
“We see the other kind of love so much, the early, lustful love,” she explains. But as for what happens on the other side, the stuff that goes on in the happily-ever-after typically alluded to in all those love stories?
“This,” she says, “is the happily-ever-after.”
The Leisure Seeker opens in Los Angeles and New York on March 9, 2018.