Half a century into an illustrious career, with its queens and detectives and other kaleidoscopic women, one thing still eluded Helen Mirren. “I’ve always wanted to be in an Italian movie,” she said recently, recalling her lack of fascination with the American films she saw growing up in Essex, England. “What alerted to me the potential of film as an art form was Italian film.” So when the director Paolo Virzì asked her to star in “The Leisure Seeker” — his version of an American road-trip movie, opening Friday, March 9 — Ms. Mirren climbed into a recreational vehicle with Donald Sutherland in the driver’s seat and an Italian crew in the back, and set off in the sweltering Georgia heat. Ms. Mirren and Mr. Sutherland play Ella and John Spencer, a long-married couple who defy their adult children by absconding in August 2016, during the early days of the presidential campaign, for one last journey in their decrepit R.V. Destination: Key West, Fla., where John, a retired English professor whose failing mind clings hard to beloved literary quotations, can visit the home of Ernest Hemingway. “I like being a foreigner in this country and, in a way, this film is very gentle and loving but as foreign as I on a certain kind of America,” Ms. Mirren, 72, said in a call from Los Angeles. Later this year, she plays Mother Ginger in Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” alongside Keira Knightley as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Morgan Freeman as Drosselmeyer. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
This is a road-trip movie, but it’s also something more.
I think it’s about love. So many movies are about love, but they’re about the beginning of love or sometimes about the middle of love. This is about the end of a love story — the trials and challenges of the happily-ever-after bit. It’s much more difficult than the beginning.
The Clinton and Trump campaigns each get a nod in the film. A Vanity Fair headline from November suggested that you’d like to play President Trump.
Oh no, I didn’t say that. I think I may well have said that’s an interesting character to play. These people who want to make that kind of a mark upon the world are always incredibly flawed and also incredibly self-delusional. They have to be.
You called him Shakespearean.
Whether it’s “Timon of Athens” or “Macbeth” or “Coriolanus” or “Henry V,” Shakespeare was brilliant at looking at the public figure, and then immediately underneath that human being full of insecurities or failures or paranoia or delusion. So on that level, I think all of these people are Shakespearean. [Pause] I don’t think Barack [Obama] was a Shakespearean. I have to say I look at Barack with very, very romantic eyes. [Laughs] Maybe he’s Romeo.
Have you ever taken a road trip?
Yes, my husband [the director Taylor Hackford] and I drove across the South from Natchez [Miss.] to Charleston [S.C.] in a van. We were buying furniture for our house in Los Angeles, so the van got more and more filled as we drove with less and less room for us. We stayed in bed-and-breakfasts, and I learned about all-you-can-eat buffets — fried chicken, mac and cheese, grits, collard greens, total soul food. That was a fabulous trip.
Do people take road trips in Europe?
I think it is an American invention, actually. I was astounded when I first came to America how people would get in the car and drive for five hours without even thinking about it. I think 50 percent of Americans don’t own a passport because there’s an awful lot of America to see. There’s a ubiquitousness that Europeans find quite difficult to deal with, the fact that you can drive for thousands of miles into a place that looks exactly the same, with a Marshalls, Staples, T.J. Maxx, Home Depot. But I have yet to go to a part of America that is not unbelievably beautiful — New Mexico, the Smoky Mountains, South Dakota, the redwood forests, Yosemite, the bayou.
In “Winchester,” out now, you play a woman haunted by the ghosts of people killed by the Winchester rifle.
I was part of [the Control Arms campaign] created by Oxfam to limit the sale of small arms in the world. Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, America — all are making fortunes by selling armaments. In Yemen and the Arabian desert, people were getting their hands on guns to basically raid the next village. It’s absolutely out of control.
You’re a longtime Hollywood sex symbol. What do you make of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements?
It’s an amazing moment, isn’t it? I’ve never wanted to be younger than I am, but the only thing that makes me think, God, I wish I was 18 now, is that 18-year-olds now are coming into a very different world. People often ask, “What would you say to your younger self?” And I say I would teach my younger self to say, “[Expletive] off” with more alacrity and confidence, and more often. I think [the movement] will have its flaws and its backlash. The whole uncomfortable, wonderful-but-weird relationship between men and women has got a lot more unraveling to do. But I’m thrilled the journey has started. Honestly, I thought it was something I went through when I was young but that it was over. I had no idea. I’m an idiot.