It's no surprise that British actress Helen Mirren has played royalty, especially queens -- she's played monarchs six times (and is the only actor to have played both Elizabeths). Born Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironov in 1945, the Oscar-winner can claim aristocratic roots -- Russian aristocracy that is. Her grandfather was Piotr Vasilievich Mironoff, a White Russian nobleman (who was in London finessing an arms deal when the Russian Revolution broke out) who thus had his wife and son -- Helen's father -- joined him there before it was too late.
But that doesn't mean that at 65 this stage and screen doyen behaves in a haughty, doyen-ish manner. Besides her convivial ways, she exudes a blend of sex kitten and commanding aura that has been infused in her many roles since she played an authoritative police captain in the BBC series Prime Suspect.
When in town to promote Red -- the sometimes absurd, tongue-in-cheek thriller about retired ace CIA agents directed by Robert Schwentke -- she made her presence known here. She was seen topless in bubble bath pix shot for a New York Magazine story done to promote her hubby Taylor Hackford's critically-panned saucy tale, Love Ranch (about the first legal Las Vegas brothel). She also was on view for the New York Film Festival premiere of director Julie Taymor's re-imagining of William Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest (which now enjoys further scrutiny given the flap surrounding Taymor's trouble-plagued Broadway show Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark).
What's more, Mirren was seen at sundry locations shooting scenes from the upcoming remake of Arthur (starring The Tempest co-thesp Russell Brand). But Mirren knows there's more to life than being in the limelight, so she's the hardest working female Brit of her vintage, gracing the screens with these three films in 2010, not to mention her Oscar-nominated turn as Ms. Leo Tolstoy in 2009's The Last Station.
And even though Red had a sterling cast -- John Malkovich, Bruce Willis, Ernest Borgnine, Morgan Freeman were among the boldface names -- it was not a tough call as to whom to feature from among them; between Mirren's charming demeanor and expansive presence, the petite performer made for an especially compelling conversation.
So after Red's press conference she lingered to answer some additional questions, setting the stage for this interview.
[Photo left: B. Balfour]
Q: The Tempest recently opened. Before that Red came out, and I saw Savage Messiah as part of Lincoln Center's Ken Russell retrospective. Love Ranch was out this past summer. What a long, strange journey you've been on throughout your career -- you've played an amazingly diverse set of characters. How do you decide to do a movie like Red in the wake of The Tempest and Love Ranch?
HM: I did Red before I did The Tempest. No, maybe it was the other way around. I can't remember now -- that's terrible. 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 [she won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II], 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 [usually] 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; you just want to try and push the last thing out of people's minds so they can look at you with an open mind, basically.
Q: How long ago was it since you saw Savage Messiah -- which came out in 1969?
HM: Actually, I don't think I've ever seen Savage Messiah. The day I had to do that nude scene... I have this nude scene and have to walk completely bollock naked -- as we say in England -- down a flight of stairs. And it was early day and that sort of thing; I was so mortified and embarrassed.
I remember that morning looking out of my trailer, a 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 sounhappy about it.
So I don't think I ever saw it, actually. I can't remember the name of the character now. I was a bra-burning suffragette at the turn of the century. It's about an artist [Henri Gaudier-Brzeska], and is [directed by the legendary transgressive] Ken Russell.
Q: As for The Tempest, how did you like re-imagining Prospero as a woman, Prospera, in this controversial take on Shakespeare?
HM: It could so easily be a woman's part. It's not a man's part in anything except that it's a man, but everything about the play and about the part can be played by a woman without changing really anything except for a little bit of the back story.
Q: Is that the same as playing a butler in Arthur, which you've been shooting on the streets of New York?
HM: No, that was very different. It was written as a woman, as a nanny. I'm not playing a butler, I'm playing his nanny.
Q: Are you getting back on stage again?
HM: I hope so next year. That's what I'd like to do.
Q: Red is a lot of fun -- did you approach playing Victoria with a sense of comedy behind her glamor, furs, and wonderful hairdo?
HM: 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 had this flash of inspiration -- Martha Stewart came into my mind. I thought that's who she is: Martha Stewart. So from that point on I based everything on Martha Stewart. The hair was Martha Stewart's hair; even the color and the cut; the clothes were Martha Stewart. I thought Martha Stewart combines this perfect combination of sweetness, kindness, gentleness and unbelievable efficiency with this kind of laser-like ability to concentrate and get the job done.
That was a 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.
Q: If you could be on Martha Stewart's show, what would you like to talk about?
HM: I have been on her show, actually.
Q: What would you like to do on her show? Anything you could get from Martha Stewart in terms of advice?
HM: Oh my God, it's like, where do you start, really? The woman is amazing. I watch her shows, and I'm always sitting there with notepaper. Oh that's how you clean windows. Oh that's what you should do with your washing-up gloves after you've finished with them. You've got to dry them properly or turn them inside out or do something or other.
I mean, she's absolutely amazing. Amazing fund of unbelievable, lovely, domestic information that I love. When I was on her show I think we repotted something. I do love gardening and I know quite a bit about gardening, so I think we were repotting or regenerating geraniums or something. I can't remember.
Q: Are there similarities between this character and your Teaching Mrs. Tingle character?
HM: No, no, no. Mrs. Tingle was an unhappy person. Victoria is not an unhappy person. I wanted her to be nice and Martha Stewart-ish, but a charming character. Mrs. Tingle was absolutely not charming at all.
It's funny, there's a segment of the population who usually seems 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.
I'd go into the Gap and be buying my T-shirt, and they'd look up and go, "Oh my god! It's Mrs. Tingle!" -- I was so horrified. Luckily, they've moved on and are much older now.
Q: What were some of your favorite costumes?
HM: Oh I loved my white dress from Red. My white dress was great. That was made for me and I thought the costume designer 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.
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.
Q: How was it doing action scenes?
HM: Oh 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. 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.
Q: Which gun was the most fun to handle?
HM: 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 almost all of you out 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 I understand it, you can buy them here in gun shows. It's dreadful. But the whole idea of targeting, careful target practice, that is interesting to me.
Q: In your Bust magazine interview you said something about men liking to play with guns because it has to do with their penis and ejaculation. What's the sexiness for women -- or you -- to play with guns?
HM: Probably the same thing: penis envy.
Q: You seem to be a fearless person, despite what you say about walking naked down stairs. What scares you today?
HM: Oh, 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 off 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 about the proliferation of plastic.
Q: What leads you to put yourself in these situations that you describe as uncomfortable or embarrassing?
HM: It's to constantly conquer your own fear, isn't it, that you put yourself in these ridiculous situations. To challenge your own feelings of fear or inadequacy or whatever you have to do that.
Q: Where does your passion for acting come from?
HM: I wonder. I don't know. It started early in my life. Very early; I was about 13 or 14 [years old]. Originally it came through Shakespeare, and I kind of discovered Shakespeare when I was about [that age]. 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, 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.
Q: Your background is Russian.
HM: Yes, well half Russian. My dad's Russian, my mother's English. I always say my bottom half is Russian.
Q: Often in films Russians are depicted as villains.
HM: 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, fat and ugly. There were no beautiful Russians in the times of Communism as far as the Americans were concerned.
Of course now 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.
Q: As someone with a Russian background, how do you rate fellow Red actor Brian Cox as a faux Russian?
HM: Brian is an incredible actor, and I've worked with him on a couple of occasions, actually, so we've known each other for a long time. He's a fantastic actor, and I'm very proud of him being British. It's funny, isn't it, how your features suddenly look as you play characters. I don't think Brian is Russian at all, but goodness, he looks amazingly Russian in Red. He just looks the part so perfectly.
Q: I read that one of the reasons you wanted to do Red was that you had a chance to work with Bruce Willis and actually had a bit of a crush on him. Could that be?
HM: 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 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 whom I think is really a wonderful, wonderful actor.
There are two Bruces; 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 the sort of respectful kind.
Q: Is there an action franchise, an action film star or action director you'd like to work with in the future?
HM: Good question. I'm too ignorant to really answer it properly. I guess John Woo. And [Quentin] Tarantino is an incredible action director. It's so sad that he lost his editor recently because his films are so brilliantly edited. 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 sad that he's lost her and the movie world has lost her. But anyway, I would say John Woo or Quentin Tarantino.
Q: Do you have an idea of yourself when you retire?
HM: 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 yours, I get to constantly meet, work with and be involved with clever, imaginative people who constantly surprise you, push you forward and inspire you. 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.
For more stories by Brad Balfour go to: http://filmfestivaltraveler.com/