Essex icon Dame Helen Mirren extols the virtues of pomegranate farming, comments on the fight for equality in Hollywood and reveals why you should never call her a movie star. Oh, we just have!
There’s no stopping Dame Helen Mirren. Smart, sassy and outspoken, the actress is still revelling in the career renaissance that began, age 46, when she landed the role of DCI Jane Tennison in TV’s Prime Suspect. And though born in London to an English mother and Russian father, the actress was raised in Leigh on Sea and proudly declares that she, “is still an Essex girl!” Having traversed the globe, working extensively in Los Angeles, and now splitting her time between the US, the UK and Italy, the feisty Brit is not about to extol the endless virtues of Hollywood. “I am more than aware of the illusionary nature of the place,” Helen explains.
“People can see it from the outside, and most within that bubble know it, but not all. I prefer a simpler existence.” It is those simpler times, Helen says, of walking by the sea in Southend, afternoons with friends drinking ice cream cherryades and dreaming of the future, that she cherishes most; not the plastic glamour and overplayed glitz that came long after.She also recalls fondly how her mother encouraged her to lose her estuary accent, perhaps believing her daughter might fare better in the world with a less regional dialect.
“Back then there was an expectation of how you should sound in this business,” says Helen. “Of course, so much of that has flipped nowadays – such lack of diction has since become popular among England’s upper classes. “However I’ve sounded over the years, I would never lose my roots, though. They define who I am.” It is this honesty, integrity and ability to crack the odd joke, letting that raucous laugh ring out, that makes Helen so beloved in her homeland.
The outspoken star has long been a feminist trailblazer whose performances have inspired generations of women, distinguished by a palpable intelligence and steely determination whether playing a military commander (Eye in the Sky), royalty (The Queen) or a Mossad agent (The Debt). If ever there was an archetype of an actress suited to playing strong women, it would be she. It should come as no surprise then, that Helen has much to say about the current movement to fight sexual harassment and eliminate gender discrimination, including flagging the pay gap among her female peers. “The thing I wonder about the most is why it has taken so long for this to come about,” she says. “The only possible explanation I see is that it takes a long time to change behaviour that’s been ingrained in our culture for so many years.
“We’ve started to see how conditions for women have been improving even though there is still so much work left to be done. “The difference now is that in the past women had almost no voice. Now they’ve unleashed this volcanic movement and the lava is slowly starting to come down the mountain. The best advice that I can give men is to get out of the way!” she quips. The formidable, iconic actress’s latest role is in The Leisure Seeker, directed by acclaimed Italian filmmaker Paolo Virzi, and co-stars Donald Sutherland. The compelling film tells of the romance between a woman with terminal cancer and her husband who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
And while the elegant star undoubtedly looks fantastic for her 72 years, she is characteristically candid about the inevitable pitfalls of accelerating age. “If I have to be honest, there is nothing that pleasant about growing old. You learn to accept your age and all the faults that come with it, and you console yourself by believing you are wiser. “When you’re a teenager it seems impossible to think of becoming old. But then you learn to accept it and renounce many things that seemed so important before, like plunging necklines and miniskirts!” she adds with a laugh.
Over the years, the actress’s sharp wit and boundless talent have earned her national treasure status. But she is also surprisingly humble, and despite an extensive back catalogue and slew of awards, insists that she is not a movie star. “No, I’ve never thought of myself as that; never considered myself anything close. I’m a working actress who’s been fortunate and lucky, and sometimes the stars align in a certain way,” she offers, with every essence of modesty. Her life off-camera is also admirably straightforward. Helen has never had children, stating in the past she has, “no maternal instinct whatsoever”, and has spent the past three decades with Hollywood director Taylor Hackford (Ray, An Officer and a Gentleman).
They were married in 1997 and currently divide their time between homes in Los Angeles and the village of Tiggiano in Puglia, Italy, where the couple grow pomegranates. “Yes. Apart from acting, my other job is that of pomegranate farmer,” she laughs. “My husband and I have planted over 400 trees and we’re producing juice for the market. “The juice is delicious. Our little company is still in the early stages, but we want to sell in Italy and abroad. I love the people of Italy and I love the climate there. The first time I saw the full moon rising from the sea and shining on my pomegranates, I burst into tears.” Even Helen admits it would be easy at this point to while away the days soaking up the wonders of the Mediterranean, but unfortunately, for all her strength, she has one terrible weakness. “I can never find the willpower to say no to a very good part when one comes along,” she confesses.
“I often tell my husband, ‘I’ve done enough, I’m not going to keep pushing myself’. But he’s so used to hearing me say that he doesn’t even pay attention to me anymore when I make that kind of a declaration. The terrible truth is that I simply cannot resist a good role.” True to her word, Helen has three films slated for the rest of 2018: fantasy epic The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, romantic drama Berlin, I love You, and Luc Besson’s crime thriller Anna… which is the kind of high-brow roster usually held by movie stars, but never mind. Helen is steadfast and will not be moved on her deepest beliefs. Much like the fact that despite no longer living in Essex, she insists that it will always be home… which is just as well, as we will always claim Dame Helen Mirren as one of our own, wherever her films and fruit juices take her.