Dame Helen Mirren stars in Collateral Beauty, an unusual drama about a successful New York advertising executive (Will Smith) who suffers a great tragedy. In grappling with his grief, he retreats from life and seeks answers from the universe by writing letters to Love (Keira Knightley), Time (Jacob Latimore) and Death (Helen Mirren).
Do you see beauty in death?
Yes. I experienced my mother dying which was different from my father, who died very quickly and unexpectedly. That was very difficult but my mother took 6 months to die and I was going through that process with her. She was in hospital, my sister and I were visiting, you know, in and out of the geriatric ward in the hospital you think, ‘Oh my god, how depressing.’ But I didn’t. I found it absolutely uplifting and kind of beautiful. People would say to me, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry about your mum,’ and I’d say, ‘No, no, it’s fine. We’re going through it together.’ There was something very comforting about it, something very transformative about it. You felt like this is absolutely a part of life and I’d never really experienced it before. I’ve lost a lot of colleagues and friends, the great Alan Rickman. Going to Alan’s memorial in London was wonderful. To see the love that he had and to hear about his life was wonderfully beautiful. It was beautiful. Likewise, Garry Marshall who was a great friend of mine, just died recently. Again, an amazing man, so full of love. It’s only really after people die that we understand the beauty of their lives. I wish people could go to their memorials before they die (laughing). It would be good.
Does that mean you don’t grieve?
Oh, no, you do grieve. Of course you grieve. Absolutely you grieve the loss of someone without question but grief doesn’t have to be black. You can grieve but be appreciative and loving and joyful that someone had such an amazing life and did such beautiful things with their life so I guess that’s what I’m saying. It’s the centre of what this film is about – the beauty in the darkest of moments. That absolutely there is pain and the sadness of losing someone you love is absolutely tangible, real, but there is also the collateral beauty in that.
Going back to life – what do you and your husband (Taylor Hackford) like to do when you’re not working?
Well, we’ve built a house in Italy and we love to be in Italy when we’re not working. Obviously, we have to maintain a home in America and we’re in the process actually of building a house in Tahoe which is very exciting. It’s going to be a house for us later in life (laughs) but Italy is where we love to be when we’re not working.
The other two components in the film are Time and Love. Do you look at time differently as you get older? And what have you learned about love?
I certainly look at time differently. I still haven’t learnt the trick of making the most of every moment. I still waste time which is terrible at my age, really. One should stop wasting time but I am much more conscious of time. It manifests itself actually when my husband and I decide to plant a tree. I look at it and I go, “You know what, darling? We’re going to have to buy a tree that’s at least 10 years old, or ideally 15 years old if we want to see it in any kind of state of growth.” So the tree thing has been quite a recent realisation as it dawned on me that we can’t buy a tree that’s 2 years old, otherwise I’ll never see it grown. So yes, I am certainly becoming more conscious of time. About love, and all I can say is how unbelievably grateful I am to have love in my life. The love that I have given to other people, the love that I have received, the love that I’ve experienced for nature, for architecture, for art, the things that I love. What a beautiful thing love is. I’m not talking necessarily about romantic love, that’s a whole other thing, so yes, it has made me think about those elements. Absolutely.
Speaking about architecture, you’ve lived in many different houses. What meaning does a house have for you?
I think a house is really important. It carries your history. I’ve always lived in London as well so we’ve always been sort of bi-country.
As you say, you live half your life in America. We’re about to enter a new administration. What do you think it will mean for women’s rights? Will we going backwards?
Well, I do believe we have come far actually because I think the young women who have entered into a world, anyone under the age of let’s say 30 has entered into a world where certain rights for women are completely accepted which wasn’t the case when I was under the age of 30. They are not going back I don’t believe unless ISIS take over. I don’t think they’re going back. There are too many women now in positions of professional power, in politics, in law, in medicine, in education. Women are really beginning to come through in all those roles so I don’t think we’re going back on that.
Your co-star, Will Smith was saying that he loves to be famous and he he loves the attention. That’s a very rare view from a celebrity.
Oh, he does it incredibly well. I think in embracing it he – he does it so beautifully, yes.
What about you?
Well, that’s difficult because you say, ‘Oh, yes, I love being famous,’ but it’s a misnomer, really. I think Will is a classic example because he could be the professional actor that he is and be the successful actor he is and have some modicum of private life but he can’t, so instead he behaves with extreme good grace, energy and love for the people who love him. He loves them back and that’s a beautiful thing to witness. I witnessed it on set. He’s extraordinary. He’s so generous and kind. I look at people like Will and I learn from them and I say to myself, that’s the way to be. It’s often demanding but I take him as my inspiration.
There’s also the idea in the film that you don’t have to be a mother to experience maternal love. Does that speak to your own life?
It does speak to my own life, absolutely. I’ve never had any children but I have many children in my life and although I’m not a mother to them they are absolutely without a doubt the most important part of my life. My family is way really beyond my profession. I work and I love to work but if a gun was to my head and I had to choose, I know what I would choose, and now those children are having children so the whole thing goes on.