At one time, Helen Mirren was best known for her Oscar winning performance as the title monarch in The Queen. But then Red opened in 2010 and became a surprise hit. Audiences embraced Dame Helen’s turn as a deadly assassin, and she quickly began developing a different kind of reputation.
“Well, the word badass does occur quite frequently,” she says with a chuckle. “I love being a badass. It’s just the best. To lurch from being a queen to a badass is really cool.”
Mirren is nothing if not cool. And this year, she’s red-hot too. The actress recently wrapped up an acclaimed run reprising her role as Queen Elizabeth in The Audience, the new play by Peter Morgan, who also penned The Queen.
Mirren also starred alongside Billy Crystal, John Goodman and Charlie Day in Monsters University, one of the season’s
biggest hits. And she returned to her role of former sniper Victoria in Red 2, which opened on July 19.
Mirren didn’t have to think twice about joining the cast of the sequel. “People really enjoyed the first one and I’m glad we got to do a second one,” she says. “It’s lovely to reprise a character as well. The character takes on a different kind of life when you come back to it,” Mirren explains.
“It’s like when I did Prime Suspect and I kept coming back to Jane Tennsion. It’s funny, they become more a part of your personal life.”
“I feel that about Victoria now. She’s just a great, funny, surprising sort of character. She’s someone who hasn’t really been done before on screen. It’s always sort of a miracle when you can do something that hasn’t been seen before. She’s a very refined character who has this other life.”
In Red 2, Mirren goes back to “this other life” when she’s called upon by her fellow former black ops agents (Bruce Willis, John Malkovich) to help them hunt down a weapon of mass destruction. Also on board for the adventure film: Anthony Hopkins, Mary-Louise Parker and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
While Red is a comic thriller, Mirren still took her work in the film seriously. She attended classes on how to handle a gun and read dozens of books about the secret lives of spies.
“I think the wonderful thing about Victoria is that she’s so sort of lady-like and together and of course, in reality, that’s what these [spies] are like,” says the actress.
As she did with the first movie, Mirren was adamant about at least one aspect of Victoria’s wardrobe. For the scenes in which the assassin showed off her prowess with a rifle, Mirren insisted she be given the right footwear.
“I think Victoria absolutely prefers killing in formal wear,” says Mirren. “But she’s got to have the right shoes on. The shoes are very important.”
“In the first one, there’s a sequence where she has a purse and out of it comes these combat boots. That was completely my idea. I said, ‘you can’t do this sort of job in high heels. If you’re going to be serious about it, I want her to be wearing the right shoes.’”
Mirren says she works hard to make Victoria look confident and relaxed onscreen.
“The challenge in doing something like Red, and it’s why Bruce is so brilliant in these movies, is having a sense of ease and relaxation. And that’s where the real work is in a movie like this. It’s not in the preparation. If it’s in the preparation, it’s prepping yourself to realize that you’ve got to be free.”
“And it’s very difficult to be free on a film set. The whole setup is not free. It’s so technical and controlled. To get on that set and be free requires a great skill. Bruce has it to the max. I would always watch Bruce and take my lead from him.”
To hear Mirren tell it,
“UNDERNEATH THE LAUGHS AND BURSTS OF VIOLENCE, RED 2 IS ABOUT SOMETHING SUBSTANTIAL. AT ITS HEART, THE MOVIE IS A LOOK AT HOW TOUGH IT IS TO GROW OLD.”
“These are old professionals,” says Mirren. “They are retired, extremely dangerous people with a depth of knowledge and professionalism and world weariness that makes them very phlegmatic and down-to- earth. It’s lovely to play that.”
“At the same time, [they exude] the resentfulness that one gets as one gets older and people are sidelining you and not paying sufficient respect to the amount of work you’ve done and the knowledge you have.”
“It’s very annoying to be condescended to by younger people and that’s what these people are all about – proving themselves.”
At 67, Mirren doesn’t have much left to prove. She’s one of the most acclaimed actresses in Hollywood, with an Oscar for The Queen as well as three more nominations for The Madness of King George, Gosford Park and The Last Station. She’s earned the Best Actress prize twice at the Cannes Film Festival for The Madness of King George and Cal. And she’s netted four Emmys and six more nominations.
In addition to enjoying professional success, Mirren has been married to director Taylor Hackford (Ray, Parker) for the last 16 years. They’ve been together since he directed her in White Nights back in 1985.
“We had the advantage of [finding each other] quite late in life,” says Mirren. “I said, ‘I can’t believe we didn’t get together when we were in our 20s. We’ve missed all that time,’ and he said, ‘If we got together when we were in our 20s, we wouldn’t be together now’ and he is absolutely right.”
“When we were in our 20s, both of us were pursuing our goals and our professions and there wasn’t room in either of our lives for a relationship. We were very lucky that we met when we did.”
Another key to the couples’ happy marriage is the unconditional support they give each other.
“There’s no criticism,” says the actress. “We get enough of that, professionally speaking, in the world. We get brickbats thrown at us all the time so to each other, we are both fantastic. In terms of work, we say ‘it was darling or brilliant.’ That’s all I want to hear from Taylor and vice versa.”
While Victoria might be happily retired from MI:5, Mirren can’t imagine giving up show business to spend her days puttering around Costco.
“I do love Costco,” she says with a laugh. “But Home Depot is really my place. They know me by name in Home Depot.”
But that doesn’t mean Mirren is looking to retreat from Hollywood.
“My husband and I have been building this house in Italy that’s sort of our retirement dream house but actually, in reality, [it’s debatable] if we will ever actually [retire],” she says.
“It’s hard to let go of our business. It’s hard to let go of the creativity involved. It’s also hard to let go of the attention that you get. You don’t think that you’re addicted to, or in love with, that attention. You think it doesn’t mean anything until suddenly you don’t get it anymore.”
By: Amy Longsdorf INSIDE NICHE Magazine Fall 2013