Helen Mirren on Her Social Media Appeal, Exploring Different Roles and Embracing Your Age
Photo: Scott Trindle/August Image
With both a major film and majestic new miniseries on deck — not
to mention her status as a social media superstar — we’re all witness to the golden age of Dame Helen Mirren.
Helen Mirren is heading for the airport and, as her car navigates Los Angeles traffic, our phone connection becomes dicey. The 74-year-old actress and I are, appropriately enough, talking tech, with Mirren musing, “I am rather happy that I knew the world before technology. The constant learning process of technology can be sort of exhausting. It seems like every week you have to learn something new about how to pull up WhatsApp or something.”
We laugh but, a moment later, the phone cuts out.
I begin to lament. My conversation with the great Dame Helen Mirren — the sole claimant to both the American Triple Crown of acting (an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony) and the British equivalent (a BAFTA Film Award, BAFTA Television Award and Olivier Award for theatre) — is lost to the digital ether. I want to shake my fist at the sky and shout, “Damn you, technology!”
Never mind. Crisis averted. She’s back after an accidental switch to call waiting when her husband of 22 years, Oscar-winning director Taylor Hackford, rang.
“Talking of technology …” she quips.
I never expected to find myself discussing tech with Helen Mirren. Then again, you can talk to Helen Mirren about pretty much anything. She’s one of the most beloved and relatable celebrities in the world. And while an actress closing in on the three-quarters-of-a-century mark would find herself in line for the next “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” commercial in decades past, Mirren isn’t ready to be fitted for a rocking chair just yet. She exudes sophisticated glamour, vivacity and an authentic everywoman sensibility, personified by the fact that she may be the only person alive whose social circle includes members of the British Royal Family and Vin Diesel.
“She’s what we all aspire to be,” Canuck actor Colm Feore, 61, who starred alongside Mirren in the 1990 Canadian film Bethune: The Making of a Hero and the 1997 film Critical Care, says. “She radiates this conviction that she’s beautiful and talented and delightful and delicious. And you just think, ‘I can’t get enough.’”
As it turns out, the internet can’t either. In an era of celebrity defined by youth and digital follower counts, social media has helped elevate Mirren to ultimate influencer status, offering fans from 18 to 80 an example for aging on your own terms.
The actress routinely goes viral, including when a recent video of her busting a move with fellow Oscar winner Viola Davis made the rounds on Twitter, as well as for photos of her posing with actor Idris Elba across the hood of a white sports car in a floral dress at the première of Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. And on Instagram, her platform of choice, she boasts more than 600,000 followers on an account largely made up of landscape travel photos and up-close selfies that, like Mirren, remain unapologetically unfiltered.
“I go to the supermarket and I catch the bus and I take the subway, but I don’t feel the need to constantly advertise that side. I don’t really like self-advertisement, so I am very un-millennial in that sense,” Mirren says, before confirming that Diesel, her Fast & Furious co-star and producer (and a relative spring chicken at 52), helped set up her Instagram account. “But I do get some very lovely things in my life, like sitting on cars with Idris and dancing with Viola.”
When I bring up her social media appeal, she laughs it off, claiming the credit goes to those who post the content. But don’t confuse that for her being ungrateful. When I ask what her younger self would be most surprised to know about Mirren at this stage of her life, she says, “She certainly would be happy that she was still working, still able to do the thing that she wants so much and that she feels very intellectually and emotionally and absolutely committed to it.”
Technology also plays a central role in Mirren’s most recent film — The Good Liar, based on the novel by Nicholas Searle, which hits theatres in November — starring the actress as wealthy widow Betty McLeish, who joins a dating service and meets Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen), a conman with a secret past who aims to steal all her money before the two find themselves more entangled than expected. “Not that much difference between me and the character that I play [in terms of technology],” the actress admits, “although I would say I am a little more savvy about scams and people.”
Amazingly, the film, directed by Oscar-winner Bill Condon, marks the first time that Mirren and the 80-year-old McKellen — two of the U.K.’s most successful acting exports, who co-starred in a 2002 Broadway production of The Dance of Death — have appeared on the big screen together. As well, it speaks to the perils seniors face when navigating an unfamiliar digital landscape.
“[For] the people of my generation, it is sort of exploring wild country that you are not greatly familiar with,” Mirren explains. “We all approach it with a sense of wonder and amazement because it’s not natural to use.”
On the flip side, she recognizes the importance of keeping seniors connected. In England, she’s among a group of celebrities who’ve petitioned the government to continue offering free cable TV service — a crucial link to the world — to people over 75. She shares a similar attitude about the importance of digital technology for seniors. “The internet actually has liberated older people. The world is accessible to them through their computer where it wasn’t before. They would be at home, isolated very often. So there are also extraordinary social and cultural changes that we are witnessing.”
For Mirren, one of the most pivotal cultural changes occurred in her mid-40s when the entertainment world’s focus shifted away from her youth and sexuality, allowing her to take on “characters that were complex and have lived a life.”
That’s not to say, of course, that Mirren is no longer deemed desirable. After all, in the second half of her life she, ironically, became something of an accidental sex symbol — see the famous 2008 vacation photo of her, at age 62, as a bombshell in a red bikini — an avatar for maintaining one’s sensuality as we age. But the essence of her appeal lies far beyond bikini pics, in a sort of magnetism of spirit that you can’t quite put your finger on but that you also can’t resist as it draws you into her orbit. Whether walking the red carpet at the Oscars or posing casually on Instagram with a specialty cocktail called a “Helen F***ing Mirren” at a local bar, she projects a fierce self-confidence, affable charisma, sincere comfort in her own skin and an “I-didn’t-ask-for-your-opinion” attitude. She’s a multifaceted diamond, glittering and robust, shaped by the pressure of decades spent in the public eye — a level of scrutiny that may have consumed a person of weaker resolve. And now Mirren has taken control of that narrative, too. A brand ambassador for L’Oréal Paris, she’s gone on record with her dislike of the terms “beauty” and “anti-aging.”
“The reality is that the vast majority of us are not beautiful. So it’s fighting a losing battle and inevitably creates dissatisfaction and insecurity,” Mirren explains. “However, to be fit, to be healthy, to take good care of your hair and skin, to do a great makeup that makes you feel good, that works for me. We just have to find a word for it.” When it comes to “anti-aging,” she adds, “We start aging from the moment we are born. It’s the natural part of the forward thrust of life, and there is no point in trying to stop it. You have to embrace it and go with it. And looking after yourself inside as well as outside is the most important. So find a way of living with it and making it work for you, making it a positive thing.”
In the same way, Mirren shifted the narrative of her acting career in the last three decades, carving out her own legacy while helping to shatter popular conventions for how women in their 50s, 60s and beyond are perceived in Hollywood.
It started the year she turned 46, in 1991, when, after decades of working in film and theatre, she landed the role of detective Jane Tennison on the British TV series Prime Suspect. Tennison offered Mirren the rare opportunity to play a female detective who anchors her own show, a pioneering anti-hero who struggles with her own flaws and deals with issues from abortion to alcoholism while solving murders and combating misogyny in the police ranks. Mirren nabbed two Emmys and three British Academy Television Awards over seven seasons, setting the actress on an upward career trajectory that continues to this day.
On a 2018 episode of The Late Late Show with James Corden, she illustrated the point — literally and lyrically — when she engaged in a rap battle with the host and dropped the verse: “I’ve played the Queen/But also warriors and witches/Crime lords and wizards, bosses and bitches/Detectives and whores/From Altman to Shakespeare/The only role you ever played is ‘Guy Who Begged to Be Here.’” (Yes, this Dame can rhyme. And guess what? She went viral for that, too)
Since 2010, Mirren has played a deadly assassin in the action films Red and Red 2, an army colonel ordering drone strikes on terrorists in the thriller Eye in the Sky and a jail-breaking criminal in the Fast & Furious franchise — all roles that in a previous generation would go to men. In the process, she has kicked down the door for other older female badasses like Linda Hamilton, 62, who returns guns a-blazin’ in 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate and Jamie Lee Curtis, 60, who’ll lay the smackdown on Michael Myers in two more Halloween films.
When I ask why it’s important for her to take on such varied roles, Mirren exclaims, “So much fun! It’s wonderful. What a privilege to be able to go to different extremes like that.”
She balks humbly, though, at the suggestion that she blazed a trail for older actresses. Instead, she credits “a change in the culture, a change in attitudes, which really has taken energy and force over the last 10 to 15 years. I think I was luckily well-placed at that point to be able to take advantage of that.” Mirren adds that her regular returns to the stage help her stay fresh on screen. “I have never relied upon my film or television career to be the only string in my bow.”
In Reality, aging isn’t always a celebration of exceeding expectations. Sometimes we get ill and start to break down as we get older, finding ourselves making the best of difficult situations. And Mirren hasn’t shied away from roles in that vein either. In the 2017 film The Leisure Seeker she starred alongside Canadian acting legend Donald Sutherland (who also appeared with her in Bethune) as one half of a terminally ill couple embarking on one last road trip. When I asked Sutherland, 84, about Mirren at the time, he declared, “I love, adore, admire, treasure, cherish [her]” before launching into a story of the two driving in a camper van during filming.
“They were filming behind us, and I turned to her and said, ‘What if we just go?’ And she said, ‘Could we?’ And I said, ‘Should we?’ And she said, ‘Probably not.’ And then we accelerated and, suddenly, the [crew’s] going, ‘Slow down! Slow down!’ So the temptation was there, always.”
While footage of Sutherland and Mirren barrelling down the road in a camper van with a panicked film crew in close pursuit would most certainly break the internet, the idea of Mirren on the open road offers an apt metaphor for this stage of her career. She says her strategy is mostly to wait and see what comes her way in terms of choosing acting roles, though she does demonstrate an uncanny habit of making her own luck. She laughs when recalling how she cornered Vin Diesel at a party, telling him, “You have got to put me in one of your [Fast & Furious] movies!” And voilà, she landed a part.
Then there was the time that she mentioned, in an interview, that she’d love to play Catherine the Great. And now, beginning in October, she stars in the HBO miniseries named after the 18th-century Russian Empress.
“How many people are there in history like Catherine the Great?” Mirren says. “Women who were complex, who were vulnerable, who were powerful, who were successful – inevitably, as an actor, you are going to be drawn to the idea of playing someone like that.”
In Catherine the Great, Mirren’s iron-fisted empress struggles to maintain rule over Russia in the face of saboteurs looking to topple her from her throne at every turn. “To live in that world was extraordinary,” she says. “To shoot in those incredible Russian palaces, to wear those extraordinary clothes and then to engage in the culture or the psychology of that world [was] a very powerful experience for me.”
Gina McKee, 55, the BAFTA-winning British actress who co-stars as Catherine’s close friend Countess Praskovya Bruce, recalls a moment during filming in the historic Peterhof Palace in Saint Petersburg when Mirren’s dress brushed against a priceless chair, causing panic among palace officials.
“I watched [Helen], and she was so gracious and calm, and yet she looked at me just for a nanosecond, and she had this little glint in her eyes. I just felt, ‘My god, that’s fantastic,’” McKee laughs. She adds that Mirren “has this curiosity and energy, which means that she wants to learn, and I think if you keep that, if you have that, you live well and I think you age well. I hope I can do the same thing.”
Mirren adds the role of Catherine the Great to the myriad monarchical stage and screen parts she’s played over the years, including Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George, Cleopatra in a National Theatre production of Antony and Cleopatra and, of course, Queens Elizabeth I and II (she’s the only actress to ever portray both on screen). She won a Golden Globe and Emmy for her portrayal of the former in the miniseries Elizabeth I but became most associated with the latter, both on the big screen in The Queen (winning a Best Actress Oscar and Golden Globe) as well as on stage in The Audience (nabbing Tony and Olivier awards).
British scribe Peter Morgan, who penned both The Queen and The Audience, noted in an interview in August that Mirren is a fan of his hit Netflix series The Crown. And with that one innocuous comment, Morgan unleashed a firestorm of speculation that Mirren could return to play Queen Elizabeth II in a potential fifth season of The Crown, following in the footsteps of Claire Foy and current “queen” Olivia Colman, while affording her the opportunity to win an Emmy to accompany her Oscar, Golden Globe, Tony and Olivier awards for playing Elizabeth II.
Mirren, however, is quick to refute the possibility of taking the throne on The Crown. “No, I don’t want to become the go-to — not impersonator but impersonating the Queen. It is a wonderful role to explore and when I did it, it was kind of dangerous for me to do because it had never been done before. I think The Crown is an incredible piece of work. I really enjoyed it and I am going to enjoy the next season and the season after that. I am going to really enjoy it as an audience.”
And one can’t blame Mirren for not diving crown first into royal reruns. Her sights are set on the future, including possibly convincing Vin Diesel to give her a car chase scene in an upcoming Fast & Furious film.
“I love driving and I end up in the back of an ambulance and then in jail!” she quips, referring to her Fast & Furious character’s on-screen troubles. “However, I live in hope that I can use my spectacular double de–clutch.” (That’s “gear-shifting” to us non-Brits.)
In the immediate future, though, she has a plane to catch. So before we get off the phone, I ask her one last thing: if we were to speak in 10 years, what does she hope we’ll be talking about in terms of her life and career?
“You know, sometimes I think it would be really nice to be talking about gardening,” Mirren, a noted green thumb, admits. “I still don’t know how to quite prune roses, and it’s a constant learning process. Maybe you will be able to give me a few tips in that direction.”
We laugh and I promise to read up on my horticulture. Then she adds, true to form for a woman who thrives on embracing the next challenge: “I hope we’ll be talking about something that is happening in the present and not just talking about what happened in the past.”
Is that a hopeful statement, I wonder, or a kind-hearted critique of my interview questions? I’ll ask her when we speak again in 10 years. After all, as I said, you can talk to Helen Mirren about anything.
A version of this article appeared in the November/December 2019 issue with the headline, “Acting Her Age,” p. 38-43.