Helen Mirren is neither sexy nor beautiful. She despises both of those words. And if anyone ever describes her as such again, she will – she theatrically tips back her head – ‘SCREAM!’
‘I know people mean it as a compliment,’ she continues, brushing back a stray lock from her immaculately cut white hair, ‘but I find it very annoying. I am not beautiful, that’s just a fact. And I have always been uncomfortable with the tag of “sexy”. ‘I spent most of my career feeling incredibly embarrassed and awkward about every intimate romantic scene I had to do. I would push myself to do them because acting is about challenging yourself, liberating yourself and all I ever wanted was to be a good actor. But sexy? No. Beautiful? No. And then there’s the element of being objectified and patronised thrown in. All it’s ever made me feel is awkward.’ So at 74 years of age, how would the Oscar-winning daughter of a Russian viola-player turned London cabbie like to be described? She thinks for a moment, legs crossed beneath a patterned midi skirt, back ramrod straight within her pastel cardigan. ‘Cool,’ she says finally and gives a short laugh. ‘That’s not true either, but it would be nice. I would like to be cool.’ This week sees the release of The Good Liar, her fourth movie of 2019, in which she plays opposite Ian McKellen and a cast stuffed with the best of British, including Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter. It’s a plot-twisting modern morality tale in which Mirren portrays a well-to-do widow who wreaks revenge on a villainous fraudster.
‘It is difficult to explain without spoiling the plot for audiences,’ says Mirren, ‘but there is real female empowerment in this movie. It’s something that absolutely appealed to me as a woman and as an actress. ‘Times have changed. I sit and watch a whole new brave generation of women from the #MeToo to the Time’s Up movement. I also admire these incredible new writers and actors who are truly liberated women, and who make me proud.’ I ask her for an example and she answers straight away. ‘Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I haven’t met her but I think she’s absolutely marvellous. Brilliant writer, brilliant actress. What is so amazing about her is that she is just telling it how it is to be a woman, unashamed, unbridled.’ As a young actress, could she ever have taken on the role as the eponymous Fleabag? ‘God no. Even now I find it shocking. I love her, I love the show, but it would have been way too much for me. I would have been crippled by embarrassment. And back in my day, it wouldn’t have even been an option. But that’s why I’m such a fan, because we all need to be shocked.’
I am, I confess, somewhat confused. Throughout her long career, Mirren has made it her business to shock. Her appeal has always been as a taboo-busting, edgy, free-spirited actress, whose CV contains classic British films such as O Lucky Man!, The Long Good Friday and The Madness Of King George alongside cult staples including The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover and the controversial Caligula, which involved her being filmed in various states of undress. At the National Youth Theatre, her sensual, bohemian approach to the classics set her apart from her peers. She first came to public attention at just 20 when she starred in Antony And Cleopatra at The Old Vic, which led to an impressive theatrical career with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In her 20s and 30s, she lived like a hippy, making art house films in Europe and regularly appearing on the West End stage. She talked about drinking and taking drugs (she stopped taking cocaine in the Eighties after discovering Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie was profiting from it in South America) and dated men including Peter O’Toole and Liam Neeson. On her first major interview on British television in 1975, she was introduced by Michael Parkinson as ‘the sex queen of the RSC’. The chat show host went on to ask her if her ‘equipment’ undermined her credibility as an actress. She hit back, saying: ‘Serious actresses can’t have big bosoms, is that what you mean?’ and in later interviews went on to describe Parkinson as ‘creepy’ and ‘sexist’. Forty-odd years on, he has yet to apologise.
In her 20s and 30s, Helen Mirren lived like a hippy, making art house films in Europe and regularly appearing on the West End stage She shrugs: ‘I watched that interview recently because obviously now everything is on YouTube. I’d never seen it before. At the time I was incredibly nervous, but I was surprised to see that I didn’t actually come across as anxious as I felt. He behaved very badly, but of course I was the one who got criticised at the time for answering back. You couldn’t win. ‘I grew up in the Sixties. It was all supposed to be about sexual liberation, but that was all a complete con. The men still called the shots. ‘In the movies made back then, women were always the girlfriend, the partner, the evil seductress; there were no great movie roles for women. I fought tooth and nail on The Long Good Friday to bring my character Victoria [the girlfriend of gangster Harold Shand, played by Bob Hoskins] into the story and give her an identity beyond being the girlfriend.
‘There was a scene in the script where he is going off for some violent confrontation. In the run-up to this, Victoria is laying out the clothes he’s going to wear on the bed. I point blank refused to do it. I was an absolute pain in the butt and I wouldn’t back down. Bob Hoskins actually supported me and the scene was changed, but you were always having to fight like that. I did it as much as I could and I knew I had a reputation as difficult.’ In the light of this, you wonder whether she, too, suffered at the hands of sexual predators in the movie industry. She shakes her head. ‘As a schoolgirl, as a teenager and as a young woman yes,’ she says. ‘I think when I was at school I was flashed at every week. Of course it is frightening and at the time that’s all you think. But as you get older, you think more about their motivation, which is less to do with sex and more to do with having the power to make a young girl scared.’ She has talked in the past of her experiences with date rape in her 20s. She says: ‘Again, it was all part of the confusion of those times for women. Free love. Sexual liberation. When birth control came along and the pill was available to women, what it also did was take away your right to say no.
‘There was a lot more pressure to say yes when you didn’t want to say yes. But by the time I got to Hollywood, I was a lot older and a lot wiser and nothing happened to me.’ Nevertheless, Mirren still appeared in a lot of nude scenes. ‘Looking back, liberation did involve a lot of exploitation,’ she admits. ‘I didn’t enjoy those scenes, but I felt it was important for me to push myself out of my comfort zones. ‘In the end, it was a woman who actually did truly liberate me. When Lynda La Plante came up with DCI Jane Tennison for the TV series Prime Suspect, that part changed me and changed my life. It was the first time I played a strong, brilliant woman who was made up of dark and light and who was driven and unapologetic. She wasn’t attached to any man. I adored her. And more than that, I adored that we were bringing this woman out into the world.’ Mirren was 45 years old when she starred in the first series in 1991. Much has changed in her life since. Then, she was single and based in Britain; now she lives between LA and London and has been married to Hollywood film director Taylor Hackford for 22 years.
She is the face of L’Oréal, makes between two and four movies a year, and won an Oscar for The Queen and a Tony award for the 2015 Broadway production of The Audience, in which she reprised her role as the Queen. In Los Angeles, Mirren is viewed as acting royalty. ‘I think I’m lucky,’ she says in response. ‘I don’t buy into any of it. Not the sexy, not the beauty, not the hype. The outside changes, but the thing that drives you inside never changes. I was always driven by the idea of just trying to be as good an actor as I could be.’ Mirren was born Ilyena Lydia Mironoff in Essex, the middle child of a Russian immigrant, Vasily, who fell in love with an East End butcher’s daughter called Kitty. She had a bohemian upbringing: her cab-driving father played the viola for the London Philharmonic, her mother ran up clothes and Helen was performing in every school play that was put on by St Bernard’s High School for Girls in Southend. She describes her family as ‘poor middle class – working-class money, middle-class attitudes’. Her father fought Mosley’s Blackshirts in the East End and it was his rebellious, fighting spirit that his daughter inherited when she decided to go into acting full-time, rather than become a teacher as her parents had expected. She never looked back.
Ian McKellen, 80, says he took the part in The Good Liar because it would be the first time they had played opposite each other on the big screen. They are both cut from the same British theatrical cloth. In the movie, there is one scene in which they physically brawl on the floor. ‘Of course we did that scene ourselves,’ she says, almost offended by the very idea they would use stunt doubles. ‘We are both perfectly capable of making it look ugly and vicious while not exactly hurting ourselves. I’ve become rather adept at geriatric fight scenes,’ she adds. She and McKellen have worked together before, on Broadway in Strindberg’s Dance Of Death. She was on her way to rehearsals on September 11, 2001 when the second of the Twin Towers fell as she watched through the back window of her cab. ‘My nephew had told me a plane had gone into the first tower. It was so early nothing was on the news, and then I got into a cab on 18th and saw the second tower falling in the distance.’ She and McKellen pushed on with rehearsals. ‘A lot of the cast couldn’t stay for understandable reasons, but Ian and I completely took on this Blitz spirit. Our rehearsal studio was in Times Square and every time we took a break, we would stand outside where rows of people would be staring at the huge screens about our heads with absolute shock and disbelief on their faces.
‘But we went on stage that night. Neither Ian nor I were going to let this appalling act disrupt our performance; it was an incredibly emotional one, as you can imagine.’ Being in New York that day made Mirren feel American. ‘I put up the American flag in my apartment. I’d always felt very British, but all of a sudden I felt humbled by the incredible strength and resilience of New Yorkers. I felt completely on their side of the fence. I still feel like that. I feel British but I feel American. I don’t have children of my own, but I have family there. I have nephews there and I feel happy there. But I still love England. I still love the rain. And these great young women like Phoebe Waller-Bridge showing how talented and how truly liberated they are. They make me want to cheer.’
‘The Good Liar’ is out on Friday