In a frank and revealing interview, Dame Helen Mirren talks to Juliet Rieden about Harvey Weinstein’s aggressive bullying, her “wonderful” time shooting a ghost film in Melbourne, the sheer joy of clothes that make you feel “cool”, and how she copes with on anxiety, fighting bullies and loving Oz!
It’s the day after the Golden Globe Awards and Dame Helen Mirren is on a high. “It was a great night. I don’t think it will ever be quite repeated in that way, ever again. It was a moment in time,” she says, adrenalin still coursing from an evening when, even though the beloved Brit didn’t win the Best Actress award she was nominated for, history was being made. “The Golden Globes is a heady experience,” Helen tells The Weekly. “The room is so small and even the stars’ top agents can’t get in. It’s really only those who are nominated and their very close associates who are there. It’s like a concentrated Hollywood. So for that to happen that night in that context, it was quite a powerful thing.” The Oscar-winning star is talking of the agenda-setting explosion of woman power that erupted on stage to universal cheers and tears. The dress code was a uniform black and there were rousing, angry, heartfelt speeches from stars including Nicole Kidman, Elisabeth Moss and Laura Dern, topped off with a defining oration from Oprah Winfrey declaring, “their time is up” and resulting in calls for Oprah to run for President dominating the next morning’s news cycle.
This was the first awards ceremony to take place in Hollywood in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, which exposed decades of bullying, sexual abuse and Machiavellian career assassination suffered by some of Hollywood’s finest actresses. The subsequent #MeToo social media tempest that rained down betrayed an industry desperately in need of reform – and not just in Hollywood, but here in Australia also. I ask Helen if she felt proud hearing her colleagues speak with such conviction and courage about what had been Hollywood’s dirty secret for so long. “Yes, I did,” she says. “The film industry gets constant attack and criticism and flak and insults and hatred thrown at it, but at least, unlike other industries, they came together and spoke as one and said, ‘enough, it’s over, this is a new day dawning’. I haven’t seen that happen in the world of universities or media or business or politics.”
Harvey Weinstein had distributed films Helen had worked on and she says, “the irony and the contradiction and the pain of the whole thing, if you like the loss of Harvey, is that he did the kind of movies that an awful lot of filmmakers want to do, the independent films, the interesting films. “The very first time I met and worked with Harvey was on The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover which he distributed in America. He’s very courageous and he took that little, “There will always be that element of extreme passion and people losing it and shouting … that’s not going to go away. But there has been a major cultural shift,” says Helen. Men are weird! It’s nothing to do with sex, it’s more to do with power.” low budget, high art movie and he made sure that it was seen in America.” The 1989 film shocked, delighted and horrified critics and audiences with its graphic violence, bondage costumes by French couturier Jean-Paul Gaultier and nudity. Over the years Weinstein proved to be the champion of brave and brilliant movies but as we now know it came at a cost. Did Helen have any sense of the abuse at the heart of Harvey’s seemingly creative world? “Absolutely not at all. No, not at all,” she says firmly. “When I first arrived in Hollywood I was already in my mid-30s, so I was just not a candidate for that kind of thing. No, I didn’t know anything about it at all. I knew that Harvey could be very, very aggressive, very bullying, very demeaning to people he worked with. And a lot of people in Hollywood can be like that, incidentally. They’re very passionate and it’s a dog-eat-dog world where people can be absolutely ferocious. I knew filmmakers who had been subjected to very violent bullying – but I guess I put that down to that sort of passion that I saw in the early days.”
Helen says she was shocked and increasingly perplexed when the scandal broke. “The shift has been coming, the volcano has been bubbling away there,” she muses. “It was weird, all of them – not just Weinstein; Bill O’Reilly [former Fox News host], Roger Ailes [former Fox News Chairman]. Weird. Eww! Men are weird! Obviously it’s absolutely nothing to do with sex, it’s more to do with power, and what is it in men that needs that?” Helen’s film director husband Taylor Hackford was equally stunned. “He was like me, I don’t think he had any concept of that. He had a concept of the nature of people losing it and shouting at people and demeaning people in front of other people, that sort of thing. It’s part and parcel of existence in Hollywood, really, and people know that and they toughen up and they deal with it and they get on with it … But yes, a major shift has happened.”
Meanwhile at 72, Helen’s career is soaring, proving that the Weinstein scandal isn’t the only force changing the landscape of Hollywood. At last, films with roles for women over 40, 50, 60, 70 and 80, covering a kaleidoscope of genres are filling our theatres, and I’m here today to talk to Helen about Winchester, the actress’s first haunted house movie (in cinemas from February 22) filmed last year in Melbourne and directed by Aussie brothers Michael and Peter Spierig. This scary ghost story is actually based on real events and Helen delivers another arresting and deeply thought-provoking performance as leading lady Sarah Winchester. The real Mrs Winchester is a fascinating character and something of a legend in America, where her bizarre and extraordinary house is a fixture on the spooks’ tourism trail.
Sarah’s husband invented “the gun that won the West”, the deadliest single-handed weapon of its day, and when William died in 1881 from a bout of tuberculosis, Sarah became heiress to a staggering fortune and 50 per cent shareholder in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. But that legacy preyed heavily on the grieving widow who – in the film at least – believed that the vengeful souls of those killed by her husband’s rifles were coming back to haunt her and seek retribution. To that end she built a house on an isolated stretch of land outside San Francisco – still in situ – which remained a constant work in progress throughout her life as she endlessly constructed hundreds of rooms to house the spirits.
“There’s a lot of mythology around Sarah Winchester,” says Helen. “I researched the truth of her but it was very hard to get to that truth. Many different people had different ideas about her. I believe she was a woman with great empathy, deep feelings [for others]. But at the same time the fortune that she’s spending on building this house came from the Winchester rifle fortune. An instrument of death and war and so there is an incredible contradiction.
Our film explores that.”
The timing of a movie tackling gun culture was not lost on Helen – indeed, it was part of the reason she was attracted to the role. “For me, it was something I feel very deeply about,” she explains. “I was a part of an [Oxfam] initiative a few years back to try and stop the proliferation of small arms, the illegal sale of small arms in the world, because the big NGOs like Oxfam were realising all their efforts to feed people, to give people water, all their big efforts, were going for nothing because of the access to armaments, and the way small communities were getting access to arms which was creating unbelievable havoc.
“It’s something I do feel very, very strongly about and this story ties into that in the sense that our character, Sarah Winchester, whether this is true or not, was very, very conscious of the destructive nature of the way her family had made its fortune, the ultimate price that so many humans have paid for the money that she was sitting on. I was feeling the weight of that when I was Sarah Winchester.” Helen now spends much of her life living in the US and says that the constant shootings there and the lack of regulation fuelled by the Constitution’s Second Amendment, “the right of the people to keep and to bear arms”, is “one of the many things I find utterly mystifying. But the reality of that is the culture,” she says. “I think much as one can look at it with horror, a bit like the weird sexual thing that’s been going on; you look at it with horror and mystification and jaw-dropping kind of ‘what the f*** – why, why?’. But also you can’t turn away, you can’t deny it, and I don’t think this country will ever, ever get over it. I think it’s too embedded in the culture… But then you know what, one said that about sexism not so long ago, that it was embedded in the culture, and look what’s happened! So maybe I should be more optimistic,” she quips.
Helen says making Winchester was “wonderful”. She first came to Australia in 1968, to film Age of Consent, a movie based on famous painter and author Norman Lindsay’s banned novel and also starring James Mason. “I remember that so vividly because it was almost my first trip in an aeroplane and I flew from London to Sydney. Of course it was a very different Australia from the Australia of today. We were shooting a lot of the film on the Great Barrier Reef and women weren’t allowed in the pubs!” Filming Winchester in cosmopolitan Melbourne was a whole different experience. “It’s the first time I’ve spent a substantial amount of time in Melbourne. It was wonderful to get to know and love and admire it as much as I did. It’s one of the great cities.” Helen’s outfits for the movie are very structured and buttoned up, reflecting the period. “My costume was repeating the photographs of Sarah and, like the set of the house, they were reproduced as accurately as possible, But it’s never fun to wear a corset all day long!” she laughs.
“I love fashion!”
Fashion is one of Helen’s great passions and for this photo shoot she donned a wardrobe of fabulously chic sculptured dresses and up-to-theminute silver jewellery. “I’ve never had the body for fashion unfortunately; it’s one of the banes of my life, the fact that my hips have always been too big, my legs too short, my bum’s too big, but all my life I’ve loved fashion. “I’m not a fashionista but l love the art of clothing. I love fashion as an expression of personality. I was forever making my own clothes when I was younger because I couldn’t find the kind of things I wanted to wear in the shops.” In October last year, Helen thrilled the fashion world when she and actress Jane Fonda sensationally strutted on the Paris runway in a show for L’Oréal. Supermodel Naomi Campbell was sitting front row cheering on as Helen killed it in on-trend masculine shoes, wide-legged check pants and a super trendy trench coat. She was a role model to all women, but especially to older women tired of being pigeon-holed into fashion choices dominated by elasticated waists and shapeless jumpers. I ask Helen how she approaches her fashion choices and exactly what she can wear with confidence at this time of life. “I don’t think I see it differently,” she muses. “I think with the incredible, wonderful opportunity I have nowadays to wear these beautiful clothes
– I give them back but I get to borrow them or wear them for a photo shoot – it’s an incredible pleasure. I’ve always loved the costume department, I like costume fittings, I love creating the character through the clothing, so I’ve always been very attracted to fabrics. “Probably the clothes I can’t wear are more or less the stuff I wouldn’t have worn when I was 22, because it wouldn’t have looked good on me. But yes, it is quite a difficult line to walk and sometimes I look at myself and I’ll be wearing something that I would have so loved when I was 22 – and I didn’t have when I was 22 and because I didn’t have it then I want it now – but then I look at myself and I go, ‘Helen, you cannot do that … sorry, darling, but you cannot wear an enormous pink net skirt, you just can’t!’”
The secret to great outfits, says Helen, is that, “they can make you feel secure” and “they can make you feel cool.” Incredibly, self-doubt and insecurity is something Helen has suffered all her life and she says it’s still with her. “Absolutely. But you know what, what you learn is you’ve just got to grit your teeth and get through it. Pretend that you’re not feeling like that. Just pretend. I’ve got a deep sense of professionalism and if you’ve said you’re going to do something you do it to the best of your ability. The fact that you feel insecure or stupid or whatever is your business, it’s not their business. You’ve just got to get over that.”
Helen’s professionalism certainly came to the fore when she took on frequent nude scenes for her roles, and she confesses today that she never liked doing them. “Honestly, it was as miserable to do it when I was in my 20s as it was in my 30s and 40s. Finally I’m liberated from that, I hope, but it all totally depends on the material and the requirements of the story. Luckily at my age you’re not going to be there for sexist reasons.” And with the wind of change shaking up Hollywood, hopefully those times are finally in the past.