Great Dame: Helen Mirren

Acclaimed actress (and action hero!) dishes on guns, nude scenes, and her not-so-secret crush on Bruce Willis.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

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Helen Mirren, Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, and Catherine Zeta-Jones
Helen Mirren, Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, and Catherine Zeta-Jones team up for trouble once again in Red 2. Illustration by Kagan McLeod.

Q: What about John Malkovich?

HM: John just keeps us all entertained because he’s just a fund of unbelievable stories. He does so much with his life. You say, “So where were you last month?” And he says, “Oh, I was directing an opera in Berlin.” “Where were you the month before?” “I was in Italy for the launch of my clothing line, and, before that, I was directing a play in Sweden.” He’s an amazing person.

Q: Well, it’s true that you’re best known as the queen. Ironically, early this year you became the mean queen in real life while you were doing a play in London.

HM: It’s true. I was starring in The Audience—playing the queen at many ages and stages. During a performance, this group began demonstrating outside the theater banging on drums. You couldn’t hear anything on stage but the drums. So at the interval [intermission] I went outside in my costume, and let them have it. I was doing it, not as the queen but as Helen Mirren, because her majesty would never have used the language I used. I suddenly looked round and realized I was surrounded by camera phones and I thought, “Oh, dear, what have I done?” There were a few headlines the next day, but they did stop drumming.

Q: Do you frequently get into rows?

HM: Actually, I’m so not confrontational. I’ll always run away from confrontation because I find it very embarrassing. I called my husband later and told how I stormed out, and he said, “Good for you. Obviously, I’ve taught you a lot.”

Q: So he took all the credit. You’ve been married to Taylor Hackford a long time, lived together for a good stretch, and finally married in 1997. You were quoted at the time saying you were afraid “marriage might change things.” But it seems you’re doing well together. What’s the secret?

HM: Loyalty, love, and respect works every time. We’re there to support each other and say to each other, “You’re fantastic,” even if everyone else says you’re terrible. It sounds pathetic but we’re really very proud of each other’s work. Hollywood is very much about optimism. So when you say “You’re wonderful,” it’s not necessarily lying.

Q: What about when you have disagreements?

HM: Taylor and I have been together for a very long time and obviously we have fights. When you are in the middle of a fight you are upset—which is never a good thing—so you’re not really particularly conscious of what you’re doing or saying. And you can do and say hurtful things or you can be hurt. But it gets back to respect. That’s the key.

Q: When did you first decide to become an actress?

HM: I made my debut as the Virgin Mary when I was 7, and I loved it because I got to wear a nice dress. When I was 15, I was like, “I’m ready, I’m here, where are you all?” But it took a long time. My father was Russian, and we were brought up talking and having deep discussions. We had no TV and the only movie I remember is Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Q: What do you do when you aren’t acting?

HM: I’ve been sewing. I love sewing. I get my mum’s very old Singer treadle machine out. It badly needs a renovation. Anyway I just made myself a new gown to wear in my dressing room.

Q: You wear everything well. We’ve seen a few shots of you in a bikini, proving that you could still tackle a nude scene like the ones that got you a lot of attention earlier in your career.

HM: I think it’s worse when you’re young to do nude scenes, funnily enough, because you’re more of a sex object. It’s never comfortable. The best thing would be if all the crew took their clothes off too, and then you’d feel fine. But if my body is still holding up, it’s not because I’m a fitness person. I am really not. I constantly feel guilty about the fact that I am not going to the gym.

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