The Oscar-winning Queen muses on the theater of politics, the trap of stereotypical glamour, and why age-appropriate makeup calls for subtlety and, occasionally, over-the-top false lashes: “I’m not a rule maker myself.”
In a season of uncertainty, it’s wise to consult the oracles. Prince Harry sought out Queen Elizabeth’s company last weekend, mending the road out of senior-royal life over cups of tea. A few days later, as America braced for Super Tuesday, Helen Mirren—also The Queen, per her Academy Award–winning performance in the 2006 film—had wise words of her own. “Everything changes. Everything is cyclical,” the 74-year-old actress said in a phone call from Los Angeles, referring to the tumultuous politics on both sides of the Atlantic. “It’s just an exciting and sometimes depressing—but at the same time fascinating—element of getting older: watching life change in the most unexpected ways.” Mirren has seen it all; we have all seen Mirren. Since playing Cleopatra at 20 at London’s Old Vic, she has carved out her place as an indomitable monarch, the most recent example being HBO’s 2019 miniseries, Catherine the Great. “History really doesn’t want women to be successful,” the actress told Vanity Fair last fall, speaking about the warped mystique around the ruler. “And if they are, they have to have gotten their success through sex, basically.” (You can imagine how Mirren felt about the magazine headline that ran during her early Royal Shakespeare Company days: “Stratford’s very own sex queen.”)
Still, the actress has an undeniable magnetism, which is why Mirren has been such a coup for L’Oréal Paris, which signed her as a face in 2014. This year, together with fellow spokeswoman Viola Davis, she fronts the new Age Perfect line—“makeup for, as they say, ‘more mature skin,’” per Mirren—which includes a lightweight serum foundation, glide-on kohl, and anti-feathering lip liners. The lipstick might be forgivingly creamy, but the shock of saturated color is worthy of Peter Greenaway’s 1989 visual feast, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, in which Mirren swans in red corsets and spiraling updos. Meanwhile, earlier this week in L.A., she found herself swanning through the “most amazing house that, I was just told, maybe Tom Ford is looking to buy,” Mirren reported from the scene of a L’Oréal event. “It’s pretty extraordinary—Beverly Hills, full-on, uber chic.” In other words, a palace fit for a queen.
Vanity Fair: You’ve played a great many monarchs. In times of royal upheaval, as with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, do you feel a strange resonance, given that you’ve spent so much time inside Elizabeth II’s head?
Helen Mirren: From my perspective, they did exactly the right thing, to step away, because I think the British royal family has been trying to bring itself more in line with the other royal families of the Western hemisphere—the Danish or the Swedish—who are much more accessible. I think when the queen dies, there will be a very big change. I’m not a monarchist. I don’t believe in aristocracies and so forth. Having said that, I much prefer a benign, non-political monarch to a dictator anytime.
There is politics embedded into the theater world, from Shakespeare to your work in The Audience. What do you make of the theater in our current politics, with the plot twists and fiery debates in the primaries?
The wonderful, brilliant, great thing about theater is the way it can reflect and define and give us a deeper understanding of what’s happening to our world about us. I find it an incredibly important function that drama has, and I would count movies into that world. Fifteen years ago, even ten years, even five years ago, I would never have imagined that I would see what is happening not just in America, but actually all over the world. It just teaches you yet again that nothing is static. I’m a great believer in learning from history. I try to involve myself as much as possible in pieces of drama or documentaries or anything about the Holocaust because, as we are losing that generation of people who experienced it firsthand, I find it incredibly important that we, as a race on this planet, have to remember what we are capable of. How terrible, how monstrous we are capable of being. We have to remember that, so that we don’t come back to it.
Do you have a favorite film or book that has been a good ballast?
All great literature grounds us—modern literature or classical literature. If you think of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, for example, what an incredible piece about politics and about the populace and about voting. It starts off with a revolution, and the interesting thing about Coriolanus is that it can be used as a diatribe for the right and a diatribe for the left! It can be used in both ways, which is absolutely fascinating.
Sometimes there’s talk of age-appropriate makeup, in terms of colors or textures. Have you found yourself ever steering away from certain looks as you’ve gotten older, or is that all hogwash and you can wear whatever you want?
I feel both things, actually! I count myself very lucky to be still alive in a generation where the technology of makeup has advanced so enormously. I know I’m here as a spokeswoman, but at least I can honestly say that the Age Perfect line is fabulous. But in general, I think as you get older, it’s better to wear less makeup—or at least makeup that appears to be less makeup. It’s funny: When I do movies and the director’s like, “I don’t want her to wear any makeup at all!” me and the makeup artist look at each other and go, “He doesn’t understand.” If you wear absolutely no makeup—at least if I do—on camera, your expressions just [disappear]. You can use makeup so minimally and so beautifully that it looks as if there’s no makeup, but you can see a face! There is an eyebrow there; you can see a mouth; the eyes have power. On the other hand, it’s great to go mad and have fun. I’ve got huge false eyelashes on and a great big sparkly red lip. I’m not a rule maker myself.
Speaking of minimalism, there’s something about red lipstick against white hair that is so striking.
Yes, a red lip is great, and I use that device quite often. And I’ve gotten very into turbans recently. A turban, dark glasses, a pair of earrings, a red lip, and a black suit, and you honestly need nothing else. Anyone wearing that outfit walking into any place is going to look amazing. Unfortunately you have to stumble around in the dark with your dark glasses on. That’s the only downside: bumping into things.
You once said that, early in your career, “I fell into the cliché of sexiness: blonde hair, tits, waist.” The idea of sexiness seems to follow you around regardless of your age. How have we evolved in thinking about it?
Not very far. Because of the way I was born, I fell into a rather ’50s understanding of sexy, which I found so annoying and embarrassing and mortifying and humiliating. It just wasn’t ever my taste. I wanted to be, you know, a skinny girl in black with a Gitane cigarette—Françoise Hardy, ideally—and physically I just wasn’t. I had to deal with what I was given genetically, but at the same time not allow it to rule my life. I mean, by “sexiness,” do you mean that men want to fuck you? Is that what it means fundamentally? Otherwise, we’re talking about interest or chic or elegance or personality. There’s a lot of other words to use.
I do find it interesting to think about what women see in other women. It’s more like an extreme sense of self, an exuding of power that has a kind of intoxication.
Those words are all great, aren’t they? Much better than the word sexy. Maybe we just have to find different terminology. That all works great: exuding confidence. Of course, none of us is really confident. We can exude it like mad, but inside we’re all little jellies.
You seem so in tune physically, both in your work and in your life. How do you stay grounded in your body?
Well, I kind of take care of myself. I’m not an obsessive in any direction. I go through phases of doing exercise, but it never seems to last more than a month or two. I go through phases of eating really, really, really, really well. My weight has always fluctuated in the same basic 7-to-10 pounds, and the minute I reach the upper end of that, I go, Uh-oh, time to deal with this. “Do everything, but don’t do too much of anything” has always been my mantra.