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Great Dame: Helen Mirren

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Helen Mirren

On Receiving the Legend Award: “I was like, ‘Why do I have to be a legend? Couldn’t they wait a few years? OK, I’ll take it.'” Illustration by Kagan McLeod.

Leave it to Bruce Willis to define Helen Mirren. “She’s a dame,” he says admiringly, “a real dame.” Willis, with whom she co-stars in this summer’s action comedy Red 2 (premiering July 19), isn’t talking about the “knighthood” bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II, an honor that literally made Mirren a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He’s zoning in on what makes the acclaimed actress—an Oscar winner for her performance in the 2006 classic The Queen—impossible to forget on and off the screen.

In person, she’s a beguiling blend of no-nonsense opinions and a quick wit that she’s always ready to turn on herself. Time hasn’t dimmed her cool beauty. The 67-year-old is at the top of her game.

Mirren has played an amazing range of roles, including several royals (more on that later), but none has surprised her fans more than her deliciously comic turn as a skilled assassin in the Red movies alongside Willis and co-stars including John Malkovich, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and for the sequel, Anthony Hopkins. Before Red, you probably wouldn’t have described Helen Mirren as “gun toting.” Whether elegantly dressed or done up in camo, she plays the former British intelligence agent with a dry humor, reflected in an on-screen confession: “I kill people, dear!”

And she does seem to have a way with firearms. “With that automatic gun, in a cocktail dress, she is the true definition of rock ‘n’ roll,” Willis laughs.

Malkovich deadpans, “After seeing Helen Mirren handling weapons, I was ready to depart this earth a happy man.”

Q: You’re always surprising us with your choice of roles, especially in Red and, now, Red 2. How did that happen? An action heroine? Was the chance to play with all those guns part of the attraction?

HM: Really, I’m not a fan of guns. In fact, I don’t even own a gun. I’m not too sure that guns nowadays are that useful. I’m certainly very ambivalent about them in civilian life. The guns I found the most horrifying are those small machine guns. They’re terrible because you can cause such havoc.

Q: Are you a good shot?

HM: I’m not bad. I like target practice, especially clay pigeon shooting, which is very difficult. That’s a great sport. So I’m up for shooting at a target, just not a human being.

Q: So what was the appeal of this part?

HM: I was getting a bit sick of people saying, “Oh, you’re so evil. You play all these queens.” Actually, I didn’t just play queens. For a long time I was a police detective, and then I transmogrified into the queen. You just want to always try and push the last thing out of people’s minds so they can look at you with an open mind. Also, it’s the cast. John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, and, of course, our fearless leader Bruce Willis.

Q: You’re quite taken with Bruce Willis aren’t you?

HM: He’s so masterful. I think he’s one of the top 10 American actors. I would love to see him back in the theater. He has become this fantastic action hero but he’s just much cleverer. I think he’s brilliant. I kind of sit at his feet a bit on the set and watch him and learn from him.

Q: That sounds like a crush.

HM: Don’t let my husband [Oscar-winning director Taylor Hackford] know. I’m joking. My husband knows that I do have a crush on Bruce. Actually, I have two kinds: The classic fan crush and a more aesthetic one as an actress looking at an actor who I think is really wonderful, it’s the venal and the respectful.

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