The iconic 77-year-old British actor finds her inner dame in the wide-open spaces of Montana — driving a buggy, ignoring her phone and appreciating the craftsmanship of a nicely sewn shirt
It’s the tail end of a sun-sparkled afternoon in Butte, Montana, and here I am in a windowless basement bar with — if you’ll excuse the expression — this dame I met a few minutes before. I was standing on the street outside the Miner’s Hotel, minding my own, when she pulled up in her car, looking a bit tiny behind the wheel. Then she whipped into this swift, effortless U-turn, settling without a hitch, nice and tight to the sidewalk. Oddly impressive.
She pretty much jumped out of the car, and she seemed just a shade invigorated.
“It’s extraordinary!” she told me later. “There’s no traffic! You can do a U-turn here in the middle of the road.”
This dame, her name is Helen. Dame Helen Mirren. We shook hands right there on the street.
Next, we were in a lobby in the hotel basement. Dame Helen dialed 5 on the rotary phone on the wall and — presto — a hidden door slid back, allowing us entrance to the bar. It’s set up like a speakeasy, in what used to be the city’s fur vault, where the women of Butte once stored their minks. “Back when furs were worth something,” Dame Helen says.
This is the hour before evening gathers; the joint is predictably dead empty, and the music a dim country riff. We sit by the fire, which is really this sort of newfangled electronic deal. Not a fire at all. Not even all that warm. I give her my coat, and she puts it over her knees. She orders a Bloody Mary, then Helen Mirren, 77, famous actor, London-born daughter of Russian and Scottish parents, tells how she ended up in the American West. Well, it starts with a trip as a young actor in 1968.
“I was in San Francisco with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and our next gig was in Detroit four days later. So a handful of us took the train. The train went through slowly. It didn’t whiz through. That gave me a view and a vision of America which I had never seen. The train would stop in the middle of a town with no train station or anything. I remember stopping in Cheyenne, getting off the train, going into a bar and having a drink with a couple of cowboys, then getting back on the train again.”
So at least a couple of cowboys can back me up when I say she is fun to have a drink with. Jolly and engaged. Brassy at times, but ever gentle. She looks you dead in the eye and really listens. She laughs when she feels like it, louder than you’d expect. You feel like you know her, and learn mostly that you want to know her better.
No surprise there, I suppose. Classic dame.
In fact, she’s The Dame. Helen Mirren, DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire), a title bestowed upon her by the late Queen Elizabeth II, whom Mirren has portrayed on stage and screen.
The Dame as an action figure
These days, despite her established status as a serious dramatic actor, she has a Hollywood superhero movie in the can, playing the villain Hespera in the upcoming film Shazam! Fury of the Gods, a role that comes with an action figure to be sold in stores. “Have you seen it?” she exclaims when I mention the Hespera doll. Sadly not, and neither has she, not yet.
She’s in Butte for work, a streaming TV series called 1923 (premiering in December on Paramount+) in which she costars with Harrison Ford. It’s a second prequel to the popular hit Yellowstone, which stars Kevin Costner as Montana ranch owner John Dutton. Dame Helen, who plays Cara Dutton, his ancestor, gladly joined the endeavor.
“I grew up watching Wagon Train on my neighbor’s television. But one thing that has always annoyed me about Westerns is that the people were all simply American. There were no immigrants.” She raises a finger and spins it in the air in front of us. She’s done her research. “Here in Butte, people came from Cornwall, from Wales, many came from Ireland, from Montenegro, from all sorts of European mining areas. You can imagine the cacophony of accents that you must have had.
“So I thought it would be good if Cara were an immigrant. I’m playing her with an Irish accent, working on the theory that Cara never really lost that accent when she got here, which feels a bit like me. I had an accent coming to America, and I’ve never lost it.”
The Dame rides — or rather, drives — again
One thing Dame Helen has lost is her riding ability. “I’ve been on the back of a horse many times in my life, but when I signed on to 1923, I told them, ‘I don’t ride now.’ ” But she allows this: “I am a pretty good buggy driver, however.”
Buggy driving is a skill she learned in her first weeks in Butte, working with 1923’s horse wrangler, movie veteran Diane Branagan, who got a great sense of how Dame Helen works. “She’s a sponge, a total sponge and just a delight. She really pays attention to what you say and then applies it very much the way you say it.
“When you’re driving a horse, you have to be ahead in thinking about what it is you want them to do. She is really good at being able to know 50 feet out what she wants to do and have the horse do that. What helps is that she has so much feel. She just gets it.”
The Dame’s failure as a tailor
The bar is beginning to fill with couples coming in for a drink before dinner. They glance at Mirren but give her plenty of space. We turn down a second drink; she’s driving, and I, at least, am too old for that kind of business anymore. It’s Saturday, and the next day I’ll go to watch her photo shoot for the magazine. She’ll be in costume, she tells me, which brings to mind her career in fashion; at age 69, she was named an ambassador for L’Oréal Paris, becoming one of a select set of fashion icons who act as spokeswomen for the brand. Eight years later, does she still find it invigorating? Does it ever become tiresome?
Dame Helen purses her lips, perhaps thinking over the “tiresome” thing, then smiles. “It’s energizing. I’ve always loved clothes, and I love dressing up. I’ve always loved costumes too. One of my favorite places to go is a costume house. I love the artist’s animal nature of clothes.”
When AARP’s Movies for Grownups Awards ceremony was first televised in 2018, Career Achievement Award winner Helen Mirren observed, “Everything changes as we get older, and we have to applaud that fact, don’t we? I am greatly honored by this award.”
Since 2002, the annual Movies for Grownups Awards have championed films and TV shows made by and for grownups, to encourage entertainment that resonates with the 50-plus audience. The awards began as an article in this magazine, and at the first public ceremony, in 2006, cohost Angela Lansbury said, “In many cultures, the storytellers are the village elders. It is only with the passing of years and a lifetime of experiences that the true storyteller can construct a meaningful context for these stories.” Grownups have made a big dent in Hollywood ageism in the years since, and AARP’s awards have played a part.
Then she admits to something she doesn’t do well, yet something she has always done. “I make clothes myself, extremely badly, and then I hardly ever wear them because they’re so awful. But I like the process of making them.” What sorts of pieces? “I’m always trying to make the perfect sarong, for example,” she says, and suddenly she is laughing.
“Yes, it’s so difficult,” she says, and I suspect she’s laughing at my confusion. I’d really never considered a sarong. She must be joking with me. I’m thinking a sarong is just a large bolt of cloth, like a blanket or a bedsheet you wrap around yourself. But she’s serious, even through the laughter: “The perfect sarong hangs well. You just hook it on, and it’s just perfect.”
She looks at my shirt. “Then I went through a phase of making men’s shirts.” I’m wearing my best shirt, a patterned Ben Sherman button-down number, so I don’t cringe. Much. Dame Helen holds out her hand, as if she were about to touch my shirt pocket, then turns it palm up in a gesture of explanation. “I really appreciate what it takes to put a placket on a shirt and to put those buttonholes in. It’s really difficult to put that pocket in exactly the right place, then stitch it. And that was all done by hand.” Then she says it again: “The artist’s animal nature of that I find really wonderful.” I have no idea what she means, but before I can ask, she says, “All my boyfriends had to have a shirt made by me.” It’s a list that includes Peter O’Toole and her husband, director Taylor Hackford.
“You’re saying there’s a group of men who have shirts made by Helen Mirren?”
“Does Liam Neeson have a shirt?” I ask.
“I did make one for Liam, oddly enough,” she says. After a moment, she adds, “We loved each other. We were not meant to be together in that way, but we loved each other very, very much. I love him deeply to this day. He’s such an amazing guy.”
“So, in a way, you already have your own line of shirts.”
We’ve been sitting together for almost an hour, and I realize that she has not once looked at her phone. I appreciate that, but I’m recording the interview on mine; I apologize, then touch the screen to see that the voice recording app is still working. “I hate that the screen goes black,” I say. “I’m always afraid that I’ve lost something.”
Dame Helen sighs. “I’m awfully glad for the technology,” she says. “But it seems like every week, there is some new technological thing I’ve got to learn.”
Does she think she has changed with age? “Well, the thoughts that you have when you’re 16, you have exactly the same thoughts when you’re 76, which is very annoying.”
After a pause, she runs on. “And every year, I make the same New Year’s resolutions: I will not procrastinate. And every year, I procrastinate. I will be more communicative. And every year, I fail to be communicative. Certain character failings stay with you forever, it seems to me.
“But in another way, we change totally. I mean, I am a completely different person compared to the person I was at 22 or 23. Even your skin changes. Your body changes. How you think changes.” She looks at me like I’m on her team. “I mean, you and I have got to learn how to work with these damned phones, you know.”
It’s getting to be evening, the end of a working week for Dame Helen. Yet she doesn’t appear tired or lonely. Or homesick. She begins to speak to the customers who have been respectfully ignoring us until that point. She seems occupied by the place she’s in. This cozy bar. Butte. Montana. America. “I think that experience of going across America by train made me understand how powerful geography is upon American consciousness. When I first came to this country, I couldn’t see what held it together apart from shopping malls.”
Eventually, she knocks around the ice in her glass with a stick of celery, and I know we are done. We stand up, shake hands, and that’s when I ask her, “Have you ever been called a dame? Not The Dame, just a dame.”
She’s smiling when she declares, “Oh yes. My husband thinks I’m a dame. He absolutely thinks I’m an American type of dame.”
“How would he characterize that part of you?”
She looks around the place one more time. “Probably something exactly like this. Me drinking a Bloody Mary at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. In a speakeasy.”
He’s got a point, I think. And with that the dame is gone, back through the secret door, out into the world where her work awaits.
Tom Chiarella is a longtime writer for Esquire and a National Magazine Award winner.