Helen Mirren is one of the most celebrated, decorated and revered British actors of her time. She’s poised, confident and sexy in a way that remains unambiguous even at the age of 72. And the Oscar, Emmy and Tony winner is still producing compelling work that runs from prestigious indie fare such as Trumbo (2015) and Woman in Gold (2015) to the upcoming Australian horror thriller movie, Winchester. So when she casually describes herself as “permanently frightened of everything” during our chat, I think I’ve misheard her.
“No, I know it’s ridiculous,” she responds in a sheepish tone. “I know I don’t look it, but I’m just frightened and insecure all the time.”
“I rejected the attention-seeking side of telling everyone how scared I was, and looking for sympathy. Now I just put my chin up and do the British thing of getting on with it quietly.”
Helen Mirren is on the phone from her Beverly Hills hotel room. It’s the morning after her appearance as a presenter on the Golden Globe Awards, supporting the Time’s Up movement by wearing black – a Zuhair Murad long-sleeved lace dress with floral appliqué, but adding her own rebellious splash of colour with harlot-red lipstick. It’s hard to believe this sultry senior – who has done countless nude scenes throughout her 54-year career – was literally shaking as she took to the stage with co-presenter Viola Davis.
“I was terrified going out on that stage,” she maintains. “But I’m also frightened when I have to travel a lot. My whole life is constantly packing and unpacking and I’m always antsy when I start a new job, thinking, ‘Will they like me?’ ‘Will I be good enough?’ ‘Will I remember my lines?’ ”
The reason you haven’t seen her publicly melt down is simple. “I realised quite a long time ago that if you are frightened, it’s nobody else’s business,” Helen says firmly. “I rejected the attention-seeking side of telling everyone how scared I was, and looking for sympathy. Now I just put my chin up and do the British thing of getting on with it quietly.”
As the face of L’Oréal’s Age Perfect moisturiser range, the youthful-looking septuagenarian has also mined those self-doubts for the company’s “Because You’re Worth It” campaign, to help young people find their self-worth.
I tell them that even the most confident-looking person in the world feels incredibly nervous and insecure, but they’ve found a way to act like they are not,” she says. “Now I’m suspicious of anyone who isn’t insecure!”
Helen is happy to hear an Australian accent on the other end of the phone as she reminisces about her recent experience filming in Melbourne. Winchester is an Australian production co-directed by twins Michael and Peter Spierig (Predestination) and co-starring Aussie actors Jason Clarke (Mudbound) and Sarah Snook (The Dressmaker).
“I was in Melbourne before,” she says, referring to one of the first starring roles of her career, in the 1969 Australian film The Age of Consent.
“But I never spent any substantial time there, so it was absolutely great this time. I would say the greatest thing about Australia, which is already a very beautiful country, are the Australians. They are still a sack-load of fun to be around, and the Aussie wit and humour is just catnip for me.”
Winchester is inspired by the true story of Sarah Winchester (played by Helen), the wife of the inventor of the Winchester repeating rifle.
Sarah believed that her family were cursed by their connection to the weapon that had taken thousands of lives. In the early 20th century, after she was widowed and had lost her daughter, she inherited half of the company. She moved to an isolated area outside San Francisco and spent the next two decades building, tearing down and rebuilding hundreds of rooms in a house shrouded in mystery and reports of ghosts.
“I hadn’t really heard of the Spierig Brothers and then I watched their film Predestination and thought their work was very interesting,” says Helen. “I like making films that don’t have enormous budgets, where young people are having to fly by the seat of their pants, so it was an adventure to work with two directors prepared to jump in where angels fear to tread.”
Helen says she was curious when the production moved to San Jose in California to briefly film around the exterior of the real Winchester house, now a tourist attraction hailed as one of the most haunted houses in America.
“Certainly, something weird was going on in there and with our film, there’s a span between truth and mythology,” she says. “Whether it’s to do with ghosts, no one really knows why she went down this road. But she did literally build all day, every day, for decades, so there was some kind of madness there.”
In the film, the Winchester company sends psychiatrist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to the Winchester house, where Sarah is living with her niece (Snook) and young grandson (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey). Price’s job is to evaluate her sanity and capacity to retain her rights as a voting majority shareholder. But the tortured doctor also discovers his own tragic connection to the house.
“I am not a great believer in ghosts per se,” Helen says bluntly, “but I do understand the concept of the fact that literally in your DNA you carry the history of the people who went before you and I think there’s something very powerful and true about that.”
Helen was born Helen Lydia Mironoff in Hammersmith, west London, in July 1945. Her mother was English, her father the son of a former Russian diplomat stranded in Britain during the Russian Revolution. He became a London taxi driver to support his family and changed the family name to Mirren in the 1950s.
Despite her working-class childhood in the town of Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, Helen has made a career out of playing sophisticated, aristocratic women. She has portrayed Queen Elizabeth II twice (winning the Best Actress Oscar for the 2006 film The Queen, and more gongs for her performance in the play The Audience), and Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George.
Reminiscing about her childhood, Helen says a visit to Luna Park in Melbourne last year brought back early memories of her job as a “blagger” at the Kursaal amusement park in Essex.
“When I saw that old-school amusement park with a little mouth on it that you walk through,” she says, referring to Luna Park’s entrance, “I felt like I’d gone halfway around the world to come back home again.” She explains that a “blagger” was a carnival worker responsible for attracting people to spend money on arcade games. “I worked on the dart stall, so it was my job to shout at people to get them to play darts. I guess you could say it was good training for what came next!”
What came next was immediate success as a revered theatre actor. At only 18, Helen landed the lead role of Cleopatra in William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in London and after numerous appearances in other Shakespearean plays where she’d shamelessly shed her clothes, one journalist labelled her the “Sex Queen of Stratford”
It wasn’t until Helen was in her 40s that her career shifted dramatically, when she landed the Emmy-winning role of Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the British police-procedural television drama, Prime Suspect.
Fresh from the blacked-out Golden Globes red carpet, Helen wonders if she was too old for the casting couch by the time Prime Suspect led her to Hollywood and a string of big films.
“I knew nothing about that whole sexual harassment arena,” she continues, “but I think this movement has been a long time coming and it’s the volcano that has been bubbling away for the whole of my life.
“While I feel stupid that I didn’t fully grasp the whole sexual harassment side of things, I did grasp the side-lining of women, the demeaning of women, the talking-over of women, and that’s been enraging me for my whole life.”
As Helen wraps up the call to pack her bags and fly home to London (suffering more fear in the process, no doubt), she reflects on the question of how she’s achieved such a brilliant career while remaining happily married for the last 21 years to filmmaker Taylor Hackford, director of An Officer and a Gentleman. The pair met in 1985, when he directed her in the film White Knights, and married 12 years later.
“I am not a believer in telling your partner everything about yourself, because I think a certain amount of privacy can help make a wonderful partnership,” she offers in careful response. “If you can find a way of becoming equal partners in whatever the decisions are – whether it’s decorating your house or what you order for dinner at night – then it becomes a respectful partnership and that’s what has longevity.”
While she says the couple love to go on “long bike rides on country roads”, Helen’s also passionate about spending time in the community garden overlooking the Thames near their home in Wapping, in London’s Docklands.
“I have a huge affection for gardening and compost,” she says proudly. “That’s when I feel the happiest; when my compost heap and I are talking to each other!”
Winchester opens in cinemas on Thursday.