Call Me Helen
Our summer 2011 cover star surprised fans at the BAFTA awards in London, Click here to read about her new pink hair. Read below for her cover story.
THE ILLUSTRIOUS STAR OF STAGE AND SCREEN, WHO TURNS 66 THIS JULY, SPEAKS TO KIM IZZO ABOUT HER WORK, HER SENSE OF HUMOUR AND THAT LITTLE RED BIKINI. PHOTOGRAPHY BY JACK GUY
The first time I heard Helen Mirren’s name, it sparked a jealous rage. Well, perhaps rage is too strong. My university boyfriend cited her as one of his top five sexual fantasies. It was 1987, and my then-boyfriend was still panting over Mirren’s dark and dangerous portrayal of Morgana in 1981’s Excalibur. I’m ashamed to admit it, but my 20-year-old self was affronted by his choice. After all, she was 36 when that movie was released; she was old. Out of the mouths of babes.
She continued to do quality television and also more commercial art-house fair such as Gosford Park and Calendar Girls. But it was 2006’s The Queen, which garnered her a slew of accolades and awards, including a Golden Globe and an Oscar, that shot her into the stratosphere. Her intelligent and sympathetic portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II during the week following Diana’s death probably did as much to reinvigorate the British monarchy’s popularity as Wills and Kate’s recent royal shindig.
Of course, the stellar career is only one part of the Mirren world-domination equation. The sexy side could not be ignored even once the actress hit her 60s; indeed, no other performer her age has embraced sexuality with as much bravado. Take that provocative layout for New York Magazine in 2010 where she posed nude and makeup-free in a bathtub. All with a lustrous head of grey hair and Botox-free face. And, of course, the now famous 2008 red bikini photo, which sent Mirren, 63 at the time, to the top of several “sexiest women” lists, beating out young stuff like Megan Fox and Halle Berry. In the interim, my jealousy had morphed into fawning admiration.
Sex appeal aside – and let’s get one thing straight, Mirren is bored with the whole bombshell business, but more on that later – she has given the world a body of work that is compelling and awe-inspiring (can you think of a bad Mirren performance? Neither can I) but also edgy, brave and borderline avant-garde.
Her work since The Queen has glided easily from action movies like Red and comedic ones like Arthur to dramas, including her Oscar-nominated turn in The Last Station, and this summer’s The Debt, where she plays a former Israeli Mossad agent whose past comes back to haunt her. And of course, her beloved Shakespeare, where she turned gender on its head by playing the lead in The Tempest.
The stage cannot be neglected either, and this June, Mirren and fellow Brit Jeremy Irons tread the boards of the inaugural BlackCreek Music Festival in Toronto, for Music Inspired By Shakespeare where they will perform verses from A Midsummer Night’s Dream accompanied by a full orchestra.
Q. What are you going to be doing to relax this summer?
A. I’m going to be planting my garden in Italy, which I’m really looking forward to. Planting out a wonderful rock garden, that’s what I’ll be doing this summer. I will also be with my husband, who will be shooting a film in New Orleans. So I’ll be with him there some of the time.
Q. You’re performing parts of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the BlackCreek Summer Music Festival in Toronto. What made you take on that role?
A. I’ve done A Midsummer Night’s Dream three times now, playing different roles. It’s a play that I’m very familiar with and it’s a play that I adore as well. I absolutely love A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its riffs on love and sexual attraction and the foolishness of love and the magic of nature. It was just a lovely opportunity to revisit that beautiful text and have it in my mouth again, and I love the combining of the text with music. I think it can make for a very magical evening.
Q. It’s your first time performing in Toronto on a live stage, ¨but you’ve been here quite a few times for TIFF and also to film [Red was shot here]. Do you like coming to Canada?
A. Yes, of course! The great thing about Canada is the Canadians. I absolutely love and appreciate Canadians mostly because of their sensibility as far as film is concerned. They are a wonderful film audience, they’re an educated film audience and they are a great audience and you always look forward to doing the Canadian press when you’re doing press for a film.
Q. Your films vary wildly between comedy and drama. How hard is it to make that switch?
A. If it comes your way, you grab it with both hands basically. The great danger in my world is that people really want you to be the thing that they know you as being and they really don’t want you to be anything else. They want you to repeat the thing they â€¨like you as whether it be Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect or the Queen. They see something, they love it and they want more of it. That’s cool for the audience, but it’s not so cool for the artist. To keep myself interested and challenged, I just like to keep doing very different things. I like to do things on a different scale – big budget movies to really small budget movies, art house movies, and I go back to the theatre regularly. The year before last, I did Phedre at the National Theatre and now doing this concert, which is like doing theatre. I have to keep all the balls in the air as much as I can.
Q. Do you consider yourself to be a funny person?
A. I do. My husband doesn’t find me funny at all, but I think I’m hysterically funny and I laugh away at my own jokes!
Q. You’ve had such a lot of great success in the last several years and are constantly in the public eye with various projects. Would you call yourself a late bloomer?
A. I’m a long bloomer rather. We always love the flowers that they say will bloom the whole season. I don’t know. I think I’ve made a lot of missteps but I think one of the secrets is to not take yourself too seriously, quite honestly. Not to get too obsessed with yourself and your career and your level or non-level of recognition. The great advantage of having been around a while is to realize that everything moves on, nothing stays put. If you’re going through a terrible time and you think you’re being badly treated by the press, which does happen from time to time, you just think, “We’ll all have forgotten about it in a couple of weeks so let’s just move on.” Be as honest and as truthful and decent as you can in your life and kind of hope for the best really.
Q. Does being of a certain age allow you to handle fame more than some of the younger stars do?
A. I’m not exposed to the kind of paparazzi world. That always bypassed me. Probably because of the kind of work I did and the kind of life that I led. So I’ve never been exposed to that and I think it must be unbelievably both seductive and difficult. You see that push-pull of people loving it because we all love to be the centre of attention but at the same time being tortured by it. Yet you do think, “You don’t really have to. You can actually live a different life if you want to!” It’s very easy.
Q. Then again there was that very famous paparazzi photo of you in the red bikini that went crazy viral.
Q. NBC is airing an Americanized version of Prime Suspect, with Maria Bello in the role you made famous. Do you have any feelings about that?
A. I am thrilled. They’ve talked about this for a long time and maybe it was going to happen maybe it wasn’t, but I just think she is so great. She is the perfect casting. She’s such a fabulous actress. I can’t wait to see it.
Q. I noticed you have a website where you blog. Do you enjoy being that connected to your fans?
A. Yes, I do. I’m very bad though. I will completely forget about it for months. I’ve been doing some wonderful exciting fabulous things and I should do it every week but I don’t. But it’s nice to just put your thoughts down in an â€¨environment where you can be honest but it’s not like writing a diary. It’s in the public domain so it has to be considered to a certain extent. You can’t just blab away. You have to consider what you’re putting out there but, at the same time, it’s like writing a little letter to people. It’s great. I really enjoy it.
Q. At this year’s Chelsea Flower Show you had a flower named after you – an exotic carnivorous green plant, Nepenthes ‘Helen.’