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Helen Mirren: Queen of the screen

Helen Mirren: Queen of the screen

With a career spanning five decades, perennial favourite Helen Mirren, 74, has well and truly broken the mould for actresses of a certain age, with starring roles in films and TV series.

Helen Mirren: Queen of the screen

Dame Helen Mirren sweeps into London’s Corinthia Hotel. She’s in a gorgeous mood, and understandably so. Last night, she was hanging out with Barbra Streisand – who gave a concert to the masses in Hyde Park. 

Dubbing the singer “a legend”, following the concert Mirren joined Streisand in her dressing room to hang out with the likes of Antonio Banderas and Richard E. Grant. “She is an icon and a legend – and yet she just seems utterly human,” Mirren says. “Certain people do know they’re legends – I think she does know she’s a legend.”

You might say the same about Mirren. The 74-year-old has enjoyed a career on stage and screen stretching back to the 1960s – when she started with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In her time, she’s practically redefined female detective roles with her turn in  the TV drama series Prime Suspect, and has given the definitive portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in 2006’s The Queen

But Mirren refuses to see herself – or any actor – in the same light as Streisand. “Definitely not,” she says, “because we don’t play ourselves.”

While Mirren and I could sit here all day debating her status as a national treasure, there are much more pressing things to talk about – like her role in Bill Condon’s new thriller, The Good Liar. It’s the tale of a con artist, Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen), who starts dating Mirren’s widowed pensioner, Betty McLeish, with the intention of swindling her retirement fund.

I tell Mirren it feels like the sort of film Hollywood doesn’t make much anymore. “Absolutely,” she says. “These sorts of movies are becoming rarer and rarer. [But] I think audiences are going to come back to these kinds of stories,  because I think the whole big franchise thing has really finally exploded.”

Whether that’s true or not, Mirren is no stranger to blockbusters – having recently played the villainous cockney matriarch Magdalene ‘Queenie’ Shaw in the last Fast & Furious movie – The Fate of the Furious – and the franchise’s spin-off, Hobbs & Shaw.

Still, The Good Liar is much more in her wheelhouse – not least for the sophisticated way it treats characters in their senior years. “[It’s] not a story about Alzheimer’s or having a heart attack or getting a stroke,” she says. “Of course the age that they are is an important part of the story – but it’s not about them being that age. It’s a story. That’s what I’m always looking for … characters that drive a story.” 

In this case, Roy and Betty meet on an internet dating site. Married for the past 22 years, Mirren admits that this phenomenon has passed her by. 

“I am very curious about internet dating,” she says. “I have friends who have had great relationships through internet connections … Maybe it’s better to meet somebody online, as long as they’re telling the truth. You can chat to someone, find out their interests, and have quite a developed relationship with them online before you meet them.” 

Mirren first met her husband, American film director and producer Taylor Hackford, in the ’80s – when he directed her in White Nights. They began dating soon after, and married in 1997. This came as something of a surprise to many – Mirren had once vowed she would never wed. “Marriage was never on the cards in my early days,” she says. “I was uninterested in marriage. Love affairs? Nice! But not marriage. No, honestly, I think it was just my destiny … Life has taken you on this journey, so all you can do is go with it.”

Even Mirren’s pre-fame days were fascinating. Born Ilyena Lydia Mironoff, her grandfather was a Russian noble and diplomat – though her father later anglicised their names. So it’s perhaps no wonder that she gravitated towards playing the titular Russian empress, Catherine the Great, in HBO’s recent mini-series. 

And she did it all – from shooting in Catherine Palace in St Petersburg to seeing the leader’s real-life wedding dress up close. “Her waist was about that big,” says Mirren, squeezing her fingers together. “And the tops of her arms were about the size of my wrists.” 

Then again, as Mirren knows all too well, legends come in all shapes and sizes.

Helen Mirren attends a premiere for the HBO miniseries “Catherine the Great” at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, California, U.S., October 17, 2019. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

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