“Helen Mirren is one sexy, supremely talented dame,” says Bruce Willis about his co-star in “RED, “the new action comedy directed by German filmmaker Robert Schwentke.
An adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name by Warren Ellis, “RED” boasts an all–star cast, including Mirren, Willis, Morgan Freeman, Bran Cox, and John Malkovich—all vet actors of high pedigree opting for a lighter entertaining fare than is their usual norm.
Willis is not alone in his praise. At 65, Mirren is defying the gods of Hollywood, proving that the careers of women as leading ladies is not over at 40, or 50, or 60, and that actresses of a certain age could still play seductive roles. As always, her work represents a combination of poise, confidence, sharp intelligence and undeniable sex appeal.
It’s hard to think of another British actress—not even Judi Dench or Maggie Smith, both older than Mirren–who has benefited so much from winning the Oscar, in 2006 for the biopic “The Queen,” in which she played to perfection Elizabeth II, a juicy part that made her a household word. The renewed attention to her allure has brought a new generation of fans, accustomed to actresses less than half her age.
Mirren is not a late bloomer, exactly. She has been acting in theater, film, and TV for over four decades. But it’s only when the venerable actress played “Prime Suspect” (and its sequels) on British TV in 1990 and then on American TV in 1991, winning a slate of awards for her performance as the middle-age detective inspector Jane Tennison, that Mirren became an international star. She is now a bona fide actress for whom writers and directors are now planning projects with her mind.
Case in point “RED,” in which she plays Victoria, one of the richest parts. “I was flattered when I was told that Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber wrote this part with me in mind,” says Mirren, who hails from the same, small English town as graphic novel author Warren Ellis.
Mirren says she’s “very ambivalent” about violence on screen and off: “I find guns in civilian life so horrific, so dangerous, so destructive, but I knew going into this film that we are all going to be using guns. There’s an awful lot of ‘shoot ‘em up’ in this picture. I thought a lot about violence, but then I decided to do it anyway, because I thought it was a smart movie. But I was attracted to the project, first and foremost, for the chance to get to work with Bruce Willis.”
“It sounds like such a cliché when people like me sit here and say, ‘Oh God, he’s such a great guy,’ but he is such a great guy, and an incredibly talented and generous actor. Those are attributes that many times are not reflected in the image or personality of someone of Bruce’s height of stardom and success.” She elaborates: “Bruce is a big movie star but he also happens to be a wonderful character actor, so there are two Bruces, and he can bring those two sides of his abilities together. The great thing abut Brice is that he’s unafraid. He is this beautiful, sexy fabulous man.”
The duality inherent in being an actress and movie star does not escape Mirren. Early on in her career, she was labeled a sex symbol (“they called me the pretty blond girl with the big tits”) and was asked to take her clothes off and bare it all in many films, bad ones, such as the notorious “Caligula” in 1979, and good ones, like Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His wife and Her Lover,” in 1989.
When Morgan Freeman introduces Mirren to Mary-Louise Parker, he says “Victoria was the best wet asset in the business, a true artist with a gun.” What does that mean?” asks Louise-Parker to which Mirren’s reply is cool and matter-of-fact, “I kill people, darling.”
Director Schwentke, who has a penchant for making films about strong women played by tough actresses (“Flightplan” with Jodie Foster, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” with Charlize Theron) recalls:“ Most actors get nervous when they are asked to a violent scene for the first time, but Helen never blinked when she fired a gun.”
The film involves a subplot of her character reuniting with her old flame (Brian Cox) and making out during a particularly violent scene. Says Schwentke: “One minute you have Helen rekindles this affair and the next she’s holding a .50 caliber machine gun and firing away.”
Mirren acknowledges that Martha Stewart was the inspiration for embodying Victoria, all the way down to the hair: “She’s obviously not a retired assassin but whatever Stewart does, she does it really well. She’s a perfectionist and I love her combination of feminine softness and incredible strength of efficiency and practicality. I hope she won’t be insulted by this characterization because I am a big fan of hers.”
Asked if she’s like Martha Stewart in her life, she says laughingly, “No, I am sonot like Martha Stewart. I wish that when I open my closet that all my towels were beautifully folded and every item was in the right drawer. My life is rather different from that I’m afraid, but as I grow older, I try to get neater and love the beauty of the world that Stewart creates, especially her attention to detail.
Victoria seems to be a most suitable name for Mirren, who had played more queens than any other actress of her generation. Her first Oscar nomination (in the supporting league) was for portraying the loyal Queen Charlotte in “The Madness of King George,” in 1994, opposite Nigel Hawthorne under the direction of Nicholas Hytner, for which she won the top acting prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
And in 2006, the best year of Mirren’s career, she won kudos for playing Elizabeth I in the Channel 4/HBO 2006 miniseries and then Elizabeth II on the big screen.
Since then she has amassed Oscar nominations (most recently last year, for “The Last Station,” in which she played Tolstoy’s wife, opposite Christopher Plummer), Tony nominations (for her Broadway debut, “A Month in the Country,” in 1995), Emmy Awards (“The Passion of Ayn Rand”) and nominations and several Golden Globes.
Earlier this year, “Love Ranch” saw Mirren as a married madam who opened the first legal brother in Nevada in a film that was directed by her husband, Taylor Hackford. It was their second teaming since they had first met when Mirren auditioned successfully for “White Nights,” in which she played Mikhail Baryshnikov’s wife. (The couple have been together since 1984, but they got married in 1997).
Julie Taymor (“Titus”) says that when Mirren signed on to play the lead in “The Tempest,” her audacious, gender-bending version of the famous play, “everything came together.” Mirren took a most natural approach to the role of Prospera: “I just saw it as if Shakespeare had written the role of Prospero for a woman. I never saw it as gender shifting. I had seen the play several times and I thought this could be played by a woman without changing anything, the dialogue or the relationships. With Prospera, I just stole the role, because I wanted to play it. There are not enough great roles in Shakespeare for women.”
Mirren acknowledges the progress made in the opposition of women in the industry, in front and behind the cameras: “It’s taken such a long time, but producers and writers and directors are finally opening up their minds to have a woman like me in a lead role is not going to be a detriment to selling the movie.”
“In RED, it was always a woman, and it was lovely that they thought of that. But I was recently sent a script which was absolutely written for a man, but the writer said he was thinking that character could easily be a woman.”
“It’s a funny coincidence that I play secret security agent in two films, but they are very different” says Mirren about “The Debt,” the political thriller directed by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), in which again she leads a stellar cast alongside Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hindes. (Sam Worthington of “Avatar” fame and rising star Jessica Chastain play the roles as younger characters).
In this tightly-plotted international intrigue tale, which is set in 1997, three vets of Israel’s secret service Mossad, return to a heroes’ welcome. Mirren plays Rachel Singer, a lone woman whose daughter has written a book about the trio’s most famous exploit, in 1965, when they hunted down and terminated a Nazi War criminal in East Berlin.
The mission catapults them to the status of national heroes in Israel. But the attention makes all of them feel tense and uneasy, as decades later cracks appear in the official story. A man in the Ukraine resurfaces, claiming to be the target of their original mission, and he’s ready to talk. Rachel’s fellow agent David (Ciaran Hinds) shockingly takes a decisive action that puts the other agents at risk, provoking new questions.
Hinds and Wilkinson, as a ruthless spy master, are terrific, but it’s Mirren who stands out, conveying full range of emotions to Rachel’s icy discipline and the conflicted emotions of a mother, who may not have been honest with her offspring.
“It was great to shoot in Israel,” says Mirren, “and it was essential. I hadn’t been to Israel in a long time, since the late 1960s so it was amazing to be back. We did talk with Mossad agents, because obviously you need advisers to say, ‘this is ridiculous, or this rings true, this would never happen and this is how you do it.’ We also had an adviser on RED from the CIA, it’s always essential when you’re making these kinds of movies because otherwise you can make terrible mistakes.”
Mirren travels with her pictures. I last saw her at Toronto Film Fest, when she introduced “The Debt,” and last week she was in New York to promote “RED” and to attend the New York Film Festival screening of Julie Taymor’s “The Tempest.”
“Films are very expensive,” says Mirren, ”so I feel responsibility to the people who invested in them to get their money back. You could build one, perhaps two hospitals with the cost of making RED, so I see it as my job to be here and talk about the film.”
No matter how busy her Hollywood schedule is, Mirren makes a point not to neglect her first love: “I’ve always gone back to the theater. Every four years or so, I go back to the stage and I showed myself and other people that I can still do that. Last year I did ‘Phedre’ at the National Theater in London.”
Mirren says she feels “very lucky” with the culture she comes from: “We don’t have the definition that you have in America, where you’re either a film actress or TV actress or stage actress. I have done film, television and theater—all on a pretty substantial level–but I don’t think it’s possible for American actors to do that.”