Sunday Times, 27 March 2016
The last time I interviewed Helen Mirren was in 2001. We got drunk in a French restaurant near Victoria station, discovering, among other possibilities, the use of nuns as drug smugglers. Waiters dropped plates at the sight of her. She was very rude about the treatment of Hollywood stars and she said f*** a lot.
This time, I am in the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, there’s only water to drink and she is trying to be diplomatic, even at one point stopping herself saying f***. Back then, there was just one last reprise of Prime Suspect (The Final Act) left, and she wasn’t to be The Queen until 2006.
Now she is Helen Mirren, screen goddess, heroine of older women, ageless L’Oréal lady and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In fact, the only things our meetings have in common are her legs.
“They’re not her legs, you know,” my wife called as I headed out for Victoria. This was sort of true. A Virgin Atlantic TV ad was running, and in one lingering shot, the gams in question were a model’s. She admitted this, saying her legs were like Gazza’s (Paul Gascoigne, football star, for our younger readers). Oddly, they are still named after a footballer.
“They’ve had various names, all footballers’. They were Kevin Keegans, now they’re Wayne Rooneys — just between me and my husband, really. I would have been a good footballer. One thing that was really, really sad about my era was that women weren’t allowed to play football. I’m built like a footballer, and I never liked any of those girly sports, hockey and netball.”
Here we are in Hospitality Suite 1518 (which is anything but hospitable). Mirren is wearing a slinky knee-length purple dress and her legs look footballer sturdy, but in a feminine way. Her hair is silky and silvery, and she wears a good deal less make-up than in the L’Oréal ads. She is 71 in July and looks exactly like the perfect glam role model for grannies everywhere.
“There should be a new word for that. I am becoming aware of the fact that there are a lot of women to whom I am a beacon of hope. It’s fantastic — yeah, we’re here and we’re available and we’re relevant, it’s OK.” (Her accent seems to be a touch grander, slightly more cut-glass than in 2001, as it was in that weird 2016 Super Bowl anti-drink-driving ad I saw soon after our meeting. But, OK, she’s earned grand and cut-glass.)
She has always been sceptical of the desperation with which people fight ageing. Back in 2001, she spoke of stars like Demi Moore getting up at four in the morning and going to the gym for five hours. “And here I am now, still not going to the gym!” she exclaims. “Except I do go to the gym occasionally. As you get older, it becomes a necessity. I’m still not a Hollywood actor, but maybe what has happened is that Hollywood has changed.”
I remind her that, last time, she said Hollywood actors were “infantilised by the community around them and, at the same time, disdained”. “There’s still truth in that, but what’s happened now is that a lot of actors are taking responsibility for their own material. In fact, with this film [Eye in the Sky, the subject of this encounter], Colin Firth is a producer, and it came to me from Colin.”
She also seems to be smitten with the latest generation of film actors. “Jennifer Lawrence! Saoirse Ronan! How can they be so self-possessed? And wonderful and beautiful. I don’t mean just physically beautiful — they are beautiful things in their self-possession, their intelligence and their ease. I’m just in awe of them.”
She is in two big current films, the other being Trumbo, in which she plays Hedda Hopper, the absurdly powerful gossip columnist who terrorised Hollywood from the mid-1930s until the late 1950s. She was the high-hatted showbiz attack dog for Senator Joe McCarthy’s commie hunt, one victim of which was the eponymous screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. She is the villain of the movie and, incontestably, the best thing in it. In one chilling scene, she confronts Louis B Mayer. She blackmails him because he once attempted to seduce her.
“She was aware of her power and not afraid of using it in what seems a not particularly feminine way, but, actually, it was a very feminine approach. I think women are hugely underestimated on that level. Certain women get away with it because they are underestimated. She was cartoonish, and deliberately so. Her hats weren’t elegant, they were ridiculous. She wanted people to know she was in the room.”
Yet she sets Hopper’s aggression and cruelty against the sexism of the age. “I suspect, where she says to Mayer, ‘You tried to f*** me, now I’m going to f*** you if I can’, that was true. There was a lot of sexual harassment, and she was angry about that. That’s my theory. She became so obsessive, there was something unbalanced about her.”
There’s also ambiguity about Colonel Katherine Powell, the part Mirren plays in Eye in the Sky. It’s a taut, documentary-like film about the moral complexity of a drone strike on terrorists in Kenya. Part of the complexity is that it’s a British operation using American kit and an American pilot — Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul — based thousands of miles away.
Powell is the British officer trying to get the strike done, in the face of resistance from politicians, lawyers and even, at one crucial moment, Americans. After the film was made, Mirren discovered her part had originally been written for a man.
“I don’t think they changed a word of the dialogue. But I think having a woman in that role changed a lot. The director [Gavin Hood] said he didn’t want people to see a movie all about men and war, a bloke’s film. Casting me in that role emphasised that you really had to think about the morality and ethics of it. People say I was channelling my Jane Tennison a little bit.”
Every character is ambiguous, the point being that there are no right or wrong decisions. There are equally powerful arguments for and against the strike. But, to be honest, since on the “for” side are Mirren and the late, great Alan Rickman (who gets the best line right at the end), most people will be urging Aaron Paul to pull the trigger and launch his Hellfire.
Almost all the dialogue is through screens, and the film was shot in discrete segments in different countries — Mirren had to interact with crosses on an otherwise blank screen, but, of course, she pulls it off. I suggest there is something of Jane Tennison in this. In Prime Suspect, she just turned up and became Jane with miraculous consistency; in this, she becomes Powell without a human to react to.
The secret is to limit thinking time. “I do work to fulfil the requirements of a role. I did a lot of research on Hedda Hopper, to see what she looked and sounded like. But I don’t overthink things. I’ve become a great believer in the Gérard Depardieu school of acting — you just read the script and do what’s on the page.”
Next, she is doing a really starry Hollywood movie with Will Smith, Kate Winslet and Keira Knightley, called Collateral Beauty. (The title is a play on collateral damage, but it’s still an awful title.) This is not the thriller she would like to be doing — she misses them. I say, as the supreme older woman, she must be deluged with offers; she says she isn’t, very few good ones, anyway.
Mirren’s father was born in Russia. She agrees with me that she looks Russian, and adds that, in Russia, people assume she is, asking directions and so on. But culturally, she’s all English. The story of her departure for America in the early 1980s is that she left in a huff because she failed to win an Olivier award for Antony and Cleopatra with Michael Gambon. She was quoted as saying: “F*** it, that’s it, they don’t want me.” Now she says it was more to do with film offers and meeting the director Taylor Hackford. They lived together from 1986 and married in 1997.
She now has homes in LA and London. Her nephew and his family are in the US, and she has two stepchildren via Hackford, so, she says: “All my family lives in America.” But she will never give up British citizenship, though she might take dual citizenship because of the dread subject of “estate planning”.
She is enough of a Brit — perhaps because she is The Queen — to get quite passionate about a royal: Prince Charles. “Charles is going to be a great king, unfortunately not for very long. Not that I’m into kings and queens. I know him a little, but not well. I don’t understand why people attack him for being concerned enough about his country to write to people about it. When you read those letters — those black spider things — what you see is a very, very nice man who is concerned about architecture and the look of the country, and what a jolly decent chap he is.”
She sounds motherly about Charles, which raises the question: why didn’t she have children?
“I love children, they are so funny and so sweet, but I never wanted my own. I have never had a moment of regret about not having children. Well, I lie. When I watched the movie Parenthood, I sobbed for about 20 minutes afterwards.
“It was about the whole story of being a parent and how it never stops, even when you’re a grandparent. I realised I would never experience that, and for about 20 minutes, I sobbed for the loss of that and the fact that I never experienced it. Then I got over it and I was happy again.”
Her blood relatives are, as a result, few in number. She lost her brother, Peter, in 2002, while she was shooting Calendar Girls. He was, she said in 2001, “an adventurer in the Philippines and a sort of hanger-out with bar girls”.
Peter died of skin cancer. She tried to manage his care and treatment while running on and off the set to call the Philippines. “They don’t have skin cancer there. If he’d been in Australia, he’d be alive now.”
The mood has turned dark and depressed. I lead her out of it into the comedy of politics. She’s anti-Brexit and seems quite taken, in a crazy, surreal, 2001 kind of way, with Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.
“They’re slightly old school, sort of left, with the weird clothes that they wear and their hair and everything — and, suddenly, the rediscovery of that kind of political thinking.
“It seemed to be lost. It’s like the Welsh language — just as it’s about to be lost, people rediscover it.”
Daft but true. The Mirren of 2001 is not lost to the world.
I am preparing to leave Room 1518 when we discover we are on the same flight back to London that evening. Luckily, it’s British Airways, not Virgin, so she won’t have to unscrew her legs.