At the age of 65, Helen Mirren is defying the gods of Hollywood. Her new films – no fewer than three are set for release within a few months of each other – prove that the careers of leading ladies do not necessarily end after the age of 40, and that actresses of a certain age can still play seductive roles. As always, her work represents a combination of poise, intelligence and undeniable sex appeal – a tribute paid her by Bruce Willis, her co-star in Red, the new action comedy directed by German filmmaker Robert Schwentke.
The film is an adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name by Warren Ellis, and boasts a cast that also includes Morgan Freeman, Brian Cox and John Malkovich – all veteran actors of high pedigree opting for lighter fare than usual. Willis plays a former black-ops agent who is threatened by a high-tech assassin and reassembles his old team in his defence; Helen Mirren plays a gun-toting secret service agent.
But since Mirren is “very ambivalent” about violence, on screen and off, Red presented a challenge – as she explained last week in New York, where she was promoting the film. “I find guns in civilian life so horrific, so dangerous, so destructive. But I knew going into this film that we were all going to be using guns. I thought a lot about the violence, but then I decided to do it anyway, because I thought it was a smart movie.”
Mirren was also “attracted to the project for the chance to work with Bruce Willis. He is an incredibly talented and generous actor. Those attributes are often not reflected in the image or personality of someone of Bruce’s level of stardom.”
The part of Victoria, Mirren’s character in Red, is a far cry from many of those that made her famous. Yet the name’s royal associations seem appropriate, since Mirren has played more queens than any other actress of her generation. Her first Oscar nomination (as supporting actress) was for portraying the loyal queen in The Madness of King George, in 1994, opposite Nigel Hawthorne. And in 2006, she won plaudits for playing Elizabeth I in the Channel 4/HBO 2006 mini-series and an Oscar for Stephen Frears’ The Queen, in which she played Elizabeth II to perfection.
Since then she has amassed Oscar nominations (most recently last year, for The Last Station, in which she played Tolstoy’s wife), Tony nominations (for her Broadway debut, A Month in the Country, in 1995), Emmy Awards (The Passion of Ayn Rand in 1999) and several Golden Globes. Mirren has been acting in theatre, film and TV for over four decades, but it was when she starred in Prime Suspect and its sequels, on British television in 1990 and then on American television in 1991, that she became a star for whom writers and directors plan projects. “I was flattered when I was told that Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber had written the part [in Red] with me in mind,” says Mirren.
The duality inherent in being an actress and a movie star does not escape Mirren. Early in her career she was labelled a sex symbol (“they called me the blonde girl with the big tits”) and was asked to 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.
Since then, an impressive list of film credits has culminated in this remarkable year. Love Ranch, in which Mirren played a married madam who opened the first legal brothel in Nevada, appeared earlier this year on limited release in the US. The film was directed by her husband, Taylor Hackford, their second professional teaming since they met when Mirren auditioned successfully for White Nights (1985). The couple have been together since 1984, and married in 1997.
Then, in prestigious position as the closing film at last month’s Venice Film Festival, came The Tempest, in which Mirren plays “Prospera” in Julie Taymor’s audacious, gender-bending version of Shakespeare’s play.
“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 is aware of progress in the position of women in the industry, both in front of the cameras and behind them. “It’s taken a long time, but producers, writers and directors are finally opening their minds. They can have a woman like me in a leading role without thinking it is going to be a detriment to selling the movie.”
Another film that features Mirren this year is The Debt, a political thriller directed by John Madden, who made Shakespeare in Love. Again, there’s a stellar cast, with Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hindes, while Sam Worthington of Avatar fame and rising star Jessica Chastain play the roles of the younger characters. This tale of international intrigue, set in 1997, focuses on three veterans of Mossad, Israel’s secret service. 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 executed a Nazi war criminal.
The mission catapulted them to the status of national heroes in Israel but, decades later, cracks begin to appear in the official story when a man who claims to be the target of their original mission resurfaces in the Ukraine, ready to talk.
“It was great to shoot the film in Israel, and it was essential,” says Mirren. “I hadn’t been to Israel 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’.”
Last month Mirren visited the Toronto Film Festival to promote another big project, Rowan Joffe’s remake of the noir classic Brighton Rock, due for release next year, in which she plays Ida. No matter how busy her Hollywood schedule, however, Mirren makes it a point not to neglect her first love: “Every four years or so, I go back to the stage and I show myself and other people that I can still do that. Last year I did Phedre at the National Theatre in London.”
Mirren feels “very lucky” in the culture she comes from. “We don’t have the distinctions that you have in America, where you’re either a film, television or stage actress. I have done film, television and theatre – all at a pretty substantial level – I don’t think it’s possible for American actors to do that.”
‘Red’ is released in the UK on October 22; ‘The Debt’ – which opens the UK Jewish Film Festival on November 4 – and ‘The Tempest’ are released in December; ‘Brighton Rock’ is released in February 2011