Dame Helen Mirren is enjoying her time in the spotlight, but did her latest role in Trumbo playing a celebrity hack change her view on fame?
Dame Helen Mirren breezes past a gaggle of enchanted 20-something PR girls as she sweeps into a bright, airy hotel suite at Claridge’s where we are meeting. They audibly whisper: ‘Can you believe how young she looks? What is her secret?’
As she perches on a soft beige couch in front of me, soft blonde waves framing her striking features and puzzlingly youthful in dark skinny jeans and a loose white sweater, I have to ask – just what is her secret? She laughs and rolls her ice blue eyes. ‘I hear this, “You don’t look your age, what is your secret?” But I do look my age. There’s nothing remarkable. There’s no secret, there’s no magic potions.’ Surely the 70-year-old face of L’Oreal Paris has some tips? Some advice? ‘Well I do bathe in the blood of many sacrificed virgins,’ she says with a mocking grin.
During an interview with the charming, irreverent Oscar-winner, anything can happen. She operates without a filter, saying and claiming whatever comes to mind – a rarity for a Hollywood A-list star.
But this is always how Mirren has functioned and she’s not about to change. ‘Doing press isn’t digging ditches,’ she insists. ‘It can be nerve-wracking, but all you can be is yourself, be honest, truthful. And sometimes it can be rather fun.’ So for upcoming young actors about to make their mark on Tinseltown and terrified to put a foot wrong in an interview, what is her counsel? ‘Ultimately, it’s not life or death and if you say something stupid, it will blow over. You’ll only be in hot water for five minutes and back out of it again.’
Doing press isn’t digging ditches. It can be nerve-wracking, but all you can be is yourself, be honest, truthful. And sometimes it can be rather fun.
It’s an ironic topic of conversation given Mirren’s latest role in Oscar-nominated drama, Trumbo. In typically dazzling form, she’s unmissable as the notoriously ruthless celebrity journalist, Hedda Hopper, who used her column in the LA Times to smear and destroy the career of renowned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston – named and proverbially crucified as a Communist sympathiser thanks to his vocal support for organised labour during the McCarthy witch trials of the late 40s and early 50s.
‘She was ghastly, utterly ghastly,’ the actress explains, sipping on a piping hot cappuccino. ‘She thrived on the gossipy underwire and used it to hurt and destroy a lot of people. But I must say, while I found her tactics and ideals completely abhorrent, Hedda was ultimately a lot of fun to portray.’
While admiring of the tabloid tormenter, how would Mirren have fared in Hopper’s presence? ‘I’d crumble and wilt. I would be utterly terrified of her. Just the sheer force coming at you, looking for any indication weakness to bring you down, to rip you to shreds.’
One of the cinemas biggest draws, Mirren – married to director Taylor Hackford for nearly 20 years – reportedly rakes in €8million per movie since her Oscar win for an unforgettable turn as The Queen in 2006.
However, it was a long road to glory for the celebrated star. With 50 years as a working actor, the first 25 were spent in relative anonymity. A darling of the Royal Shakespeare Company and West End, the Essex-raised actress of Russian extraction appeared on the big screen with notable performances in Caligula, Excalibur and The Mosquito Coast.
Do I have the prototype career for the older actress? Not at all, I’m just very lucky because there are certainly far fewer roles now for women over 40, 50.
But it wasn’t until halfway into her 40s when she landed the part of DCI Jane Tennison in Lynda LaPlante’s Prime Suspect. The series was a smash hit and Mirren enjoyed overnight success and household name status, with subsequent big screen roles in The Madness of King George, Some Mother’s Son, Gosford Park, Calendar Girls and RED.
As a result of her remarkable success, Mirren is often revered for defeating ageist attitudes in Hollywood, though she ardently rejects those claims. ‘Do I have the prototype career for the older actress? Not at all, I’m just very lucky because there are certainly far fewer roles now for women over 40, 50. But none of this success is by my sheer choice and consideration. I never got anywhere when I was younger so now is my time.’
While many are relatively mature in their retirement at 70, Mirren is simply growing in stature and grace. Upcoming roles in gritty thriller Collateral Beauty, alongside Rachel McAdams and Will Smith, and military saga, Eye in the Sky, leading an ensemble including Aaron Paul and the late, great Alan Rickman, is testament to her soaring prowess.
However, the dame has desires to take life at a more leisurely pace. But just which of her many homes, including a sprawling ‘pied-a-terre’ in Manhattan, a rugged, 16th century villa in Puglia or a £1.6 million Grade II listed Georgian house in Wapping with panoramic views over the Thames, would she ultimately choose to devote her time?
‘I’m assuming you’d prefer if I suggested Wapping, wouldn’t you,’ she shrewdly deduces with a wry grin. ‘And largely, yes, to be honest, we’re increasingly spending more time in London for work. And yes, there is something rather peaceful about the waters of the Thames rolling past your window. You feel almost like the captain of a ship.’
Having lived in numerous locations around the city, including Fulham and Battersea, what is it about Wapping that captured her heart? ‘A gorgeous property for one,’ she laughs, ‘and my husband is a great fan of the creativity and art based in the area.
‘And me? You know, Tower Bridge, all that beauty is only a stones’ throw. And East London itself, it represents one of the last bastions of London of a time gone by. Which I know is a difficult notion given the pace and speed and development of the City, but I feel a history there. Perhaps my history.’
WORDS Stephen Milton
Trumbo is in cinemas London-wide now