As Helen Mirren features in Vogue’s Non-Issue Issue, we revisit the actor’s interview from March 2018, in which she candidly discussed the advice she’d give her younger self, and life in Hollywood in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
Helen Mirren walks into the Hôtel Regina in Paris with a steely resolve. Throwing off her tan cashmere coat amid the red-velvet grandeur of the Bar Anglais, she reveals a delicate crimson top then runs a hand through her burnished silver hair. A small tattoo – two interlocking Vs at the base of her thumb, a reminder to “love thy neighbour” and the result of a drunken night out with a Native American theatre group some years ago – is just visible below the hem of her left sleeve. She is perfectly windswept. Mirren is not L’Oréal Paris’s oldest ambassador (that honour goes to Jane Fonda), but she is definitely its most frank. “I was stuck in the damn tunnel,” she explains of her slight tardiness, her crackling azure eyes on full beam. “I told the driver, ‘Fuck it, I’ll walk!’” By her own admission, the Academy Award winner tends to “swear like a potty-mouthed sailor”, and hearing Mirren swear is surely one of the great wonders of the modern world. Although the actress’s colourful language has been noted before, I somehow expected it to be a little like hearing one’s own mother swear. It’s not like that at all – it’s guttural. And it suits her.
Mirren is in Paris shooting the new Luc Besson film, and says she has had a long relationship with the city, her love for France stretching back to her teenage years in Southend. It was here, in a little house in Westcliff-on-Sea, that she learnt French to impress the visiting Parisian boys who would turn up in the holidays to improve their English. Indeed, she says her first “proper” boyfriend was a French boy named Jean Louis; when she visited his family in Paris she took them an uncooked leg of lamb out of a skewed sense of national pride. Later, aged 26, she moved here to work for the theatre director Peter Brook. “I used to be something of an inverted snob about these grand hotels,” she says, glancing around at the staid opulence. “I lived in a series of extremely funky little garrets – very bohemian.
“If you’d met me back then in Paris, I would undoubtedly have been a lot scruffier,” she continues. “I was never a designer-handbag sort of a girl. I had just done four years at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and my career had begun to cook a little – television, the odd film role; I was on the cusp. When I announced to my agent that I was moving to Paris, they thought I was committing career suicide.” After six months, Mirren went on to tour Africa with Brook’s company, which was even more eye-opening; payment for one performance was in the form of a live goat. Was Mirren not interested in the heat of a Hollywood career? “Well, of course, eventually I understood my own horribleness!” she says, laughing. In what sense? “I realised I wanted a startling career. I was vain and ambitious and, yes, I wanted to be personally successful, rather than famous. I wasn’t so righteous, or so committed to my utter submergence into the artistic life. I wanted a bit more fun than that.”
Yet this sense of “fun” has, for many years, cloaked a lack of self-confidence. Part of her role as L’Oréal Paris ambassador, apart from wearing carmine lipstick to better effect than many ingénues, is to talk up the cosmetic giant’s joint initiative with the Prince’s Trust, the All Worth It programme, dedicated to improving the confidence of disadvantaged young women. It’s a subject that, surprisingly, Mirren feels a profound connection to. “I was driven, but it wasn’t anything to do with self-confidence,” she says of her early career, when she was wowing audiences as Ophelia and Rosalind. “It was all done in a miasma of insecurity. I was wracked with self-doubt: fear of failure, of feeling I was fat and ugly and my legs weren’t right. I still have a great sense of insecurity. I used to look at other girls and think, ‘Oh, I wish I were that confident.’ But being an actor is a great escape. You can be whoever you want to be. A lot of people go into the profession because they don’t know how to behave in real life; I think this is true of me. I will never feel good enough.”
Of course, there is another projection often wrongly assigned to the actress: the notion of Mirren as a sex symbol. It was the British press – most notably a 1970s piece in which the Guardian ran with the headline “Stratford’s very own sex queen” – that compounded the idea of Mirren as the nice, buttoned-up Catholic girl turned the spy Shakespearean sexpot. “It was infuriating,” she admits. “But I determined quite early on not to be afraid of the press. I understood, intrinsically, that this was going to be part of my life. I also realised we are all two completely different people: we are the person we know ourselves, and we are the person that people see us as. You can’t deny either. I relaxed about being called a sex symbol; I became resigned to it. Although that didn’t stop me, internally, being enraged by it.”
When the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in The New York Times in October 2017, it proved a watershed in terms of addressing sexual discrimination in the workplace. Women, in solidarity through hashtags such as #metoo, have been speaking out, and it feels as if a boil has been burst – especially within the entertainment industry. I ask if Mirren has contemplated recent events in the light of her own career and experiences. “It’s the only thing I regret,” she says. “Being old is cool, but oh, how I wish I were 18 right now with the strength and courage to say ‘Fuck off.’ If I could go back and tell my younger self anything, it would be this: “Darling, learn these two words: Fuck. Off. All my life I never learnt to say those words, I just learnt to be nice, to play along.”
Play along to powerful men and their unwanted advances? “Yes, but not just to powerful men – to all men. As a woman one thought, ‘Oh, we mustn’t hurt their feelings, poor creatures.’ Why not? Fuck off! Why women felt they shouldn’t hurt men’s feelings I don’t know. Not only men in the film industry but drunken idiots in bars. I have watched with glee the rise of those women who are able to take on these men. I do wonder why more women didn’t just record these sleazebags on their iPhones? Put the phone in your pocket, hit record and catch them out.” I ask what Mirren’s reaction was when she heard about the allegations against Weinstein? “I was absolutely shocked. I had no idea. He was famous as an out-of-control bully, but then lots of people are in the film industry. They have to be very, very driven to get anything done, so it’s not that unheard of. I never saw it myself, that rage, or even saw it from a distance being perpetrated on someone I knew. But I heard about it. But the whole sexual side I had absolutely no idea about.”
Her contemporary Meryl Streep came under fire for insisting that not everyone within the close-knit Hollywood community knew about Weinstein’s alleged sexual assaults. But Mirren agrees with her. “Not everyone knew. Do you think Obama would have sent his daughter to intern with Harvey if it had been generally known? Absolutely not. But who did know? I guess that’s the point, that it happened behind closed doors, so those it happens to think they’re the only ones. And they stay silent.”
Mirren brings up a recent interview with Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary Films, who recently announced she is stepping down after a long career at the network. “We’re of a similar generation, Sheila and I, a generation that had things like Cosmopolitan. I loathed [that magazine], I must say. I loathed the sort of sexuality it promoted. It was supposed to be feminist but in completely the wrong way, not in the way I thought women should behave. There were endless articles about how to seduce your boss, what knickers to wear for him to pull down in the office… Yuck! But it must have had an impact. And Sheila talks about these things and says, ‘Yes, I was sexually abused, but it didn’t have any effect on me.’ It was just the norm.” I ask outright whether she endured similar behaviour in the past, and had to accept it as “the norm”? “Yes. Yes. I just thought it was what men did, what men were like. I never questioned whether I should stand up to men who behaved like that to me. I tried to not let it get to me, but when I was very young, it ground me down. I felt like a piece of meat that had no value.
“It happened here, it happened there, then you’d go on a date with a guy and it happened again,” she says. “And I started blaming myself. Maybe it’s me? Maybe I am putting something out there that I am not aware of? Maybe it is my fault?” Did she change her behaviour as a result of these intrusions? “Yes, I did. I shut down…” She pauses in thought. And then, just as I think she’s about to change tack, she says something so typically Helen Mirren – a combustible mix of flippancy and dissent, of rebelliousness and brutal honesty – that despite the gravity of the subject matter neither of us can help but laugh a little: “As I got older, I thought, ‘Fuck it.’” The conversation shifts. We talk of the role she is completing with Besson in Paris (“He’s back in his fun Nikita mode”) and also of her most famous role to date, her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen. “I very nearly didn’t do it as I was so concerned about portraying a living family, whose lives and emotions we were conjuring without any consultations at all. It was incredibly intrusive.” Yes, she has seen The Crown: “Claire [Foy]’s portrayal was fantastic.” A dramatic baton happily passed, then.
Before she leaves, I ask about a man in her life who has been a constant for the past 20 years, who is a million miles away from those “idiots in bars”, and whom she lovingly describes as “the unsexist man”. This is her husband, the film director Taylor Hackford. What’s their secret? Mirren smiles, “Oh, I don’t know. Every couple has a formula…” There’s that pensive, thoughtful look again as her eyes trace the hotel’s ornate scenery for answers. Mirren isn’t stalling, or at least doesn’t seem to be, she’s merely searching for that rare thing in these set-ups: honesty. “Taylor and I have given one another total freedom to pursue whatever we each want to do professionally,” she says, finally. “No restrictions. We’re very lucky to be able to do that. Also, trust is important…” There’s a flash of a smile once more, the eyes narrowing wickedly. “Only, of course, if the other person is trustworthy…” And with that, we shake hands and Mirren takes herself back out into Paris’s beautiful freeze.