This year alone, she’s played the madam of a Nevada brothel who romances a hulking heavyweight boxer in her director husband Taylor Hackford’s (Ray) film Love Ranch, voiced a CGI owl in the animated film Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, and, in her latest film, the action-comedy RED, she plays a retired wetwork agent-cum-homemaker. If that’s not enough, you can also catch her later this year as sorceress Prospera in Julie Taymor’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and as a retired Mossad agent in The Debt, reuniting Mirren with her Prime Suspect director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love). Oh, and lest we forget: nude magazine cover model.
That’s a hell of a lot of work for an actress who, at 65, seems to only be getting (and looking) better with age.
Born Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov, Mirren first made a name for herself in the British theatre, while also starring in an eclectic array of films like Caligula, The Long Good Friday, The Madness of King George, and, oddly enough, the MTV aud-targeting black comedy Teaching Mrs. Tingle, opposite Katie Holmes. British audiences, however, best know her as take-no-shit Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the celebrated UK TV drama Prime Suspect.
But it wasn’t until the 2000s that Mirren became a bona fide superstar. She was nominated for her second Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Robert Altman’s parlor drama Gosford Park, and starred in the left-field comedy hit Calendar Girls. In 2006, Mirren won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen, and was nominated for another Best Actress Oscar as the wife of Count Leo Tolstoy in 2009’s The Last Station.
RED – an acronym for “retired, extremely dangerous” – is Mirren’s latest. In the film, she plays a member of a group of retired government agents who suddenly find themselves marked for termination. Joining Mirren are Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, and John Malkovich.
MMM attended Mirren’s press conference in New York where she talked about shooting guns, her Martha Stewart inspiration, getting naked, and her massive crush on co-star Bruce Willis.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: This movie is a lot of fun for people. How did you approach playing this woman? Was it with a sense of comedy behind her furs and her wonderful hairdo and her glamour?
HELEN MIRREN: No, I approached it very seriously, like I do everything really. It’s always great to find someone that you can pin your character on. Obviously in The Queen it was very easy to find the person to pin the character on; she’s called Queen Elizabeth. But here I was kind of looking for who this woman might be and then I had this flash of inspiration and Martha Stewart came into my mind, and I thought that’s who it is, Martha Stewart. So from that point on I based everything on Martha Stewart. The hair was Martha Stewart’s hair – the color even and the cut. The clothes were Martha Stewart. Because I thought Martha Stewart combines this perfect combination of sweetness and kindness and gentleness and unbelievable efficiency with this kind of laser like ability to concentrate and get the job done. And I thought that was the perfect thing for Victoria. So I had a picture of Martha up in my trailer in the makeup room, so everyday I could look at her and be inspired. That was just my secret story. That’s who I got inspiration from. Obviously, I didn’t try and imitate her or impersonate her, that wasn’t the point. It was getting inside of Martha.
MMM: I just recently saw The Tempest. Just before that I saw Savage Messiah, and then the ranch movie, and I think what a long, strange journey you’ve been through. What an amazingly varied number of characters. How do you make the decision to do a movie like this coming from having done The Tempest and Love Ranch?
MIRREN: I did this before I did The Tempest, I think. I can’t remember now; that’s terrible. No, maybe it was the other way around. The whole idea is to do something different from what you’ve just done. The Queen was an incredible experience for me in terms of the attention the film brought, but that sort of attention kind of sticks and I was getting a bit sick of people saying, “Oh you’re so evil. You play all these queens.” Actually, I don’t play queens; I play lots of different things. For a long time before that I was a police detective and then I transmogrified into the queen, and you just want to always try and push the last thing out of people’s minds so they can look at you with an open mind, basically.
MMM: How long ago was it since you saw Savage Messiah?
MIRREN: I don’t think I’ve ever seen Savage Messiah, actually. The day I had to do that nude scene – I have this nude scene and I have to walk completely bollock naked, as we say in England, down a flight of stairs. And it was early day and all that sort of thing and I was so mortified and embarrassed. I remember that morning looking out of my trailer, a little funky little caravan thing, and wondering if I threw myself off of the top step of the trailer if I could manage to break my leg and not have to shoot the scene. I was just so mortified and unhappy about it. So I don’t think I ever saw it, actually.
MMM: Are there similarities between the Teaching Mrs. Tingle character and your character in RED?
MIRREN: No, no, no. Mrs. Tingle was an unhappy person. Victoria’s not an unhappy person. I wanted her to be charming and nice and Martha Stewart-ish, but a charming character. Mrs. Tingle is absolutely not charming at all. It’s funny, there’s a segment of the population who usually seem to be working in the Gap, or for a while, they’ve moved on now, but who only knew me from “Mrs. Tingle.” They’d never seen any of my other work but they had seen “Mrs. Tingle,” and they were usually about 17 or 16 years old. And I’d go into the Gap and I’d be buying my t-shirt and they’d look up and they’d go “Oh my god! It’s Mrs. Tingle!” so horrified. Luckily, they’ve moved on and they’re much older now.
MMM: What were some of your favorite costumes in RED?
MIRREN: Oh I loved my white dress. My white dress was great. That was made for me and the costume designer made that and designed it and I thought she did a beautiful job. It was a brilliant dress because it was so comfortable and yet it looked so chic and lovely, and it worked for the scenes and everything. It was just like the perfect dress. I loved that dress. And I did actually rather like my snow camouflage thing as well; that was kind of cool. I didn’t realize such a thing existed in the world, snow camouflage, but apparently it does.
MMM: How was it doing action scenes?
MIRREN: Oh fun. It’s fun. It’s always great to do action scenes. They’re called action scenes because they do the acting for you. You don’t have to act in action scenes; the action does it all for you and it’s great. And I was very lucky; a lot of my action scenes were with John Malkovich, and he was just so good at that gun stuff. He was just brilliant. John, you wouldn’t believe it would you? But he was great. The difficult thing I found was not sticking my tongue out when I was shooting my gun.
MMM: Which gun was most fun?
MIRREN: I don’t like to ever say a gun is fun, but guns can be fun in the sense of target practice. Trying to hit a target carefully is interesting and I guess on that level I like the sniper gun the best. I hate to hear myself even saying that, but it’s true. The guns I found the most horrifying are these small machine guns. They’re not funny; they’re terrible, because you can cause such havoc. I could literally wipe out a whole room of people if I had one here. And I happen to have one here! [Laughs] That would be a headline, wouldn’t it? But anyway, awful, these little hand machine guns. As far as I understand, you can buy them here in gun shows; it’s dreadful. But anyway, the whole idea of targeting, careful target practice, that is interesting to me.
MMM: Is there a vision that you have of when you’re retired?
MIRREN: I don’t know. You don’t know that until it happens, I guess. I mean, as night follows day, inevitably it will happen, but I have no idea. I think we all have a dream of what it would be like not to work and grow heirloom tomatoes, and I do have that dream, it would be lovely. I do love gardening and all of that, but I do love my work. But mostly I love the people that I get to work with. In my job and all the jobs related to my job, including your jobs, you get to constantly meet and work with and be involved with clever, imaginative people who constantly surprise you and push you forward and inspire you. So I think I would miss that a lot if I didn’t work anymore. I’d miss the people that I get to meet and work with, including the press. All the elements of it really.
MMM: I read in “Bust” magazine that you said that men like to play with guns because firing one off is akin to ejaculation. What is the sexiness for women or for you?
MIRREN: Probably the same thing. Probably penis envy.
MMM: You seem to be one of these people who are fearless. What scares you today? Would it scare you to walk naked down the stairs?
MIRREN: Oh yes, I wouldn’t like to do that today. I think it’s worse when you’re young, funnily enough, because you’re more of a sex object, and then you become an object of horror or something. No, it’s never comfortable. The best thing would be if all the crew took their clothes of too and then you’d feel fine. But it’s never comfortable to be the only one without clothes on for men or women. I’ll tell you what scares me is plastic; plastic bags and plastic bottles. Why does my water have to come in a bloody plastic bottle? The landfill and the ocean; I don’t know, I’m just terrified with the proliferation of plastic.
MMM: Your background is Russian.
MIRREN: Yes, well half Russian. My dad’s Russian, my mother’s English. I always say my bottom half is Russian.
MMM: Often in films you see Russians depicted as villains.
MIRREN: Yes. And Brits. Usually Brits more than Russians, actually. The Brits are the baddies in American movies mostly. It’s very nice that I’m not playing a baddie in this one. It’s very interesting the way film culture doesn’t lead the way the world thinks, it tends to follow the way the world thinks. I did a film called 2010 in which I played a Russian. Actually, I wasn’t a baddie; I was a goodie. I remember having an argument with the costume designer because she was an American woman and she said, “She’s Russian, she would have horrible, big, ugly clothes.” No she wouldn’t. She’s a Russian astronaut; Russian astronauts have an incredibly high level. “Ah, but we can’t show that.” Russians had to be shown to be sort of funky and behind the times, and in particular, usually fat and ugly. That was the other thing: all Russians were fat and ugly. There were no beautiful Russians in the times of Communism as far as the Americans were concerned. And of course suddenly all of these unbelievably gorgeous Russian models are coming out of Russia. Where were they? It’s interesting how without really realizing it we’re constantly being fed imagery. I think the Brits are a nice, convenient target to make for baddies because you can’t be accused of racism or religious bigotry by making the Brits the baddies. America has a strange love-hate relationship with the Brits in general.
MMM: Is there an action franchise or an action film star or an action director that you would like to be a part of or work with in the future?
MIRREN: Good question. I’m too ignorant to really answer it properly. I guess John Woo. Tarantino is an incredible action director. It’s so sad that he lost his editor just very recently because his films are so brilliantly edited, and of course a director is the person who edits as well as the editor. But obviously that was an incredible marriage of minds, those two people. Very, very, very sad that he’s lost her and the movie world has lost her. But anyway, I would say John Woo or Quentin Tarantino.
MMM: Where does your passion for acting come from?
MIRREN: I wonder. I don’t know. It started early in my life. Very early. I was about 13 or 14. Originally it came through Shakespeare and I kind of discovered Shakespeare when I was about 13 or 14. Shakespeare was a channel but the thing I still love about my job is to be able to find yourself in a different world, whether it’s in the theater or on film. In each thing it comes at you in a different way. In film it’s more visceral, you can literally be in Camelot, I can literally be a sniper outside of a house in the snow, I can literally be that person. And it’s just so exciting to find yourself in these wonderful, fantastical, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but amazing worlds, and I love that side of my job. I loved it in The Last Station I was suddenly in Russia, in the Russia of my grandparents’ photographs. I literally was suddenly in that world and that’s fantastic. When it was Shakespeare and I discovered the world of “Hamlet,” so different form my little post-war life in a dormant town in England, to go into these wonderful imaginary worlds was just so fantastic, and that’s what I love the most still.
MMM: I read that one of the reasons you wanted to do RED was that you had a chance to work with Bruce Willis and you actually had a bit of a crush on him. Could you elaborate on that?
MIRREN: Well it doesn’t really need elaborating on it, it’s all true. I do have a crush on Bruce. Don’t tell him, for god’s sake. Don’t let my husband know—oh my husband knows. I do have a crush on him. And I have two kinds of crushes on him: I have the classic fan-type crush and then I have a more aesthetic crush on him as an actress looking at an actor who I think is really a wonderful, wonderful actor. There are two Bruce’s: he’s brilliant in the action movies but he’s also this fantastic character actor, and I’m hoping we’ll see more and more of that side of him. I think he’s really, really good. So I have two kinds of admiration for him – the venal kind and then the sort of respectful kind.
RED is now playing in theaters nationwide.