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 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.

Fast forward to 2011, and many more men share the fantasy. One could say that my ex-beau was ahead of his time. But, in fact, Mirren has spent her entire career being the object and subject of the male gaze, being dubbed “Stratford’s very own sex queen” in 1974. She has gotten her kit off in a slew of television, stage and film roles since, including the notorious Caligula and the art-house flick The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover – though it was her more straight-up roles that garnered her superstardom as well as the veneration of men and women of all ages.

But even this rise was slow and steady, beginning with her groundbreaking 1990s television show Prime Suspect, where her portrayal of DCI Jane Tennison as a workaholic detective whose combination of intellect, will and grit went a step beyond “feminism.” The series won worldwide acclaim and more than 20 international awards, including an Emmy for its star. It also brought Mirren into the homes of millions who may have missed her in more obscure film roles.

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.

And if all this wasn’t enough to dub Mirren “the thinking man’s Betty White,” add in a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live and the short comedic film When Harry Met Sally 2, a spoof in which she and Billy Crystal play “Grampires,” aging vampires who stalk people at a nursing home, which is as violent and gory as it is hilarious. In other words, she is fearless and has no qualms making light of herself.

I spoke to Mirren via telephone from London, England, before she takes a much-deserved hiatus from work and heads to the home in Italy she shares with her husband, film director Taylor Hackford, whom she met on the set of White Nights in 1985 and wed in 1997. If it’s possible to exude grace and warmth from across the Atlantic, she does so simply when I ask if I should call her Dame Mirren – she was appointed a Dame of the British Empire in 2003 –  and she answers, “Oh no, Helen is fine.”

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 film The Debt, which is coming out this summer, premiered at TIFF last year. It’s an intense film. What attracted you to it?

A. A great role and a wonderful director (John Madden, Shakespeare in Love), and when you get that combination, you say yes. There’s nothing to argue about there. It was a great proactive role, and it’s not the leading role, far from it. It’s a story that, as you know, spans 20 or 30 years, so there are two different casts playing the same people. But, you know, a really lovely role.

Q. You’ve played such strong women and you’ve played roles that were originally written for men, whether it was in Arthur or The Tempest. Are there any other parts out there that have been men’s roles that you’d like to play?

A. I don’t know. I mean I’ve always said it’s very easy to write for women. If you don’t think you can write for a woman, just write for a man and then give it a woman’s name. Really, any role can be played by anyone! That’s a gross exaggeration – obviously, a mother of six children cannot be played by a man, but in the general world of movie making, I watch movies and I so often think, “Why didn’t you cast a woman in that role? It could so easily have been a woman.” I’ve always said, as well, that I don’t tend to complain about the roles for women in movies. I tend to complain about the roles for women in life because as there are more roles for women in life, there are more roles for them in movies. That is what is happening now, in fact. Ten or 20 years ago, it was kind of inconceivable that the editor of a major newspaper could possibly be a woman. I’m talking about State of Play, for example. I play the editor in a role that was originally played by a man. When the original TV series came out, which was not so long ago, maybe 10 years ago, they just didn’t think that way. They are beginning to think that way. As far as The Tempest is concerned, I recently had been feeling that that was a role that could absolutely, legitimately be played by a woman as a woman. The great thing about Shakespeare is you can kind of do anything to it and it doesn’t break it.

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 
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.

A. Yes it did. It was funny, almost in my whole life I’ve never been papped like that and it went as you say, “crazy viral.” I was paparazzi’d once coming out of a cheap electrical store ¨with a microwave, that was my last extremely glamorous ¨appearance in the pages of the paparazzi-type magazines. Honestly, that was very unlikely and rare.

Q. It made the whole Helen Mirren as a sex symbol come to the forefront of everyone’s minds.

A. These things pass, you know, and they’re not really remotely important.

Q. You say it’s not remotely important but at the same ¨time you’ve demonstrated that women of a certain age are still sexy and you’ve become a role model in that regard.

A. I guess that’s true but I think we all have to understand that everything comes to an end. If it doesn’t happen at 65, it will happen at 75 or 85. Or it won’t end but something different will happen. It’s a different world. My world at 65 is very different from how it was when I was 45 or 35. It’s a world that I love and a world that I enjoy, but it’s different. Things change. You can’t expect to cling on to what is gone. You can’t.

Q. At the same time, you’ve embraced sexuality for women of any age in your work like The Last Station where you had love scenes with Christopher Plummer.

A. Yes, absolutely, but I have to say I just get a little tired of the obsession with sexuality when there are so many other human qualities out there in the world. It just becomes kind of boring.

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 
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.’

A. Yes! Fantastic honour. The fact is that it’s a fly-catching, insect-eating flower. I’m not too sure about the implications of that. But, yes! It’s a great honour.

Q. No shrinking violet for you!

A. No, I’m sort of the Lady Gaga of plants. Deep in the Borneo jungle will be a flower with my name.