When I first met Helen Mirren 20 years ago, she was England’s premier stage actress turning her nose up at Hollywood.
Today she’s Tinseltown’s busiest import. And you can thank her husband director Taylor Hackford for that.
They met on the set of White Nights, fell in love, and began a 30-year relationship, which for her meant relocating to Los Angeles.
Nineteen years ago they were formally married in a much-publicised ceremony in Inverness, Scotland.
While still in her teens, Mirren was an overnight sensation when she played Cleopatra at the Old Vic. She loved theatre so much that although Hollywood came knocking, she was hardly interested.
“In my early 20s, I was offered many film roles. I had opportunities to come to America, but I wanted to become the great classical actress. So I pursued that. I didn’t pursue money or fame. I pursued artistic ability,” Mirren, 71, said.
But after she had mastered her craft in theatre, Mirren pondered what she should do next. Love happened. Mirren met and fell in love with Hackford who directed her in the 1985 movie White Nights.
“I used to put my work ahead of my personal happiness. Quite honestly I thought it was more interesting. Now, it is lovely to have love. It was always secondary, the icing on the cake, not the bread and butter. The bread and butter was always my ambition to be a great actress. But now it’s kind of different,” she said of her marriage.
You turned 70 last year. Has that made you think about your own mortality?
My father died very quickly and unexpectedly, and that was very difficult, but my mother took six months to die.
She was hospitalised, and my sister and I were in and out of that geriatric ward, and normally people would think, “Omigod, how depressing”, but 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,” and there was something very comforting about it, something very transformative about it. You felt like this is absolutely a part of life.
I’ve lost a lot of colleagues and friends recently, the great Alan Rickman for one. But 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’s only after people die that we really understand the beauty of their lives.
When you’re not working, where do you spend most of your time?
Well, we’ve built a house in Italy; 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 of building a house in (Lake) Tahoe which is very exciting.
It’s going to be a house for us later in life, but right now Italy is where we love to be when we’re not working.
How about your home in England?
Oh, yes, I will never let go of that.
Do you feel lonesome for England?
It used to be strange living as an exile. You missed things, the sense of humour, the way of telling a story, those deep cultural things you don’t know you have lost until you actually lose them. But I go back quite often.
In your new film Collateral Beauty, you play an unemployed actress who could use a gig. Did that role resonate with you?
Absolutely, because there are so many actors who were my colleagues and my companions, and they’re around here on the streets of New York. Go into any little theatre that seats 150 people, and you’ll find those very actors.
Did you ever have to work as a waitress while waiting for your first break?
I have to say I never did. My whole career, I’ve always made a living at acting, and I’ve never had any downtime.
Will Smith (Mirren’s co-star in Collateral Beauty) admits that he likes attention, the fans, celebrity itself. How about you?
Well, you know, that’s a difficult thing – because saying I love being famous is a misnomer really, and I think Will is a classic example of that.
In a perfect world, 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, but it’s often demanding. And I take him as my inspiration.
Have you ever craved recognition?.
Not really. I don’t read reviews at all because either way they’re destructive. They’re equally destructive whether they’re really good or really bad, so I tend to avoid them nowadays.
Can you think of a performance you gave where you felt you had really nailed it?
You can get that in the theatre. You don’t get it so much on film because of the whole process – by the time the film gets to the audience and has its effect on the audience, you’re often long gone, working on something else.
You never viscerally experience work you’ve done on film, but in theatre you do. and I’ve had more than one experience like that.
Kate Winslet’s character in Collateral Beauty says you don’t have to birth a child to be a good mother. Did that speak to you?
It did, absolutely. I have never had any children, but I have many children in my life, and although I’m not their mother, they are absolutely without a doubt the most important part of my life.
Are you equally maternal to the young actors you work with?
I don’t know about maternal, but I love actresses who are really good. I so enjoy watching and being exposed to another generation of actresses.
I’m so excited about Naomie Harris at the moment. I have only one scene with her in (Collateral Beauty), but I spent a whole night with her doing that scene.
There are a lot of really, really great young actresses out there who I’ve had the great privilege to work with. I was very excited about working with Keira (Knightley) and Kate obviously. I’ve watched Kate and she’s another brilliant actress. We’re all Brits. It is fantastic … there I was with all my British girls. It was lovely.
You rarely play an American on screen, how come?
Because I have such a terrible American accent! I’m so bad it’s ridiculous.
My husband’s American. I’ve lived in America. But, it’s so difficult for me.
I can do German, I can do South African, I can do Australian, I can do French, I can do Italian kind of, but American is really hard for me. The reason I think is if I did an American accent, my husband would laugh at me and say that’s terrible so I’ve become very self-conscious about it.
With the holidays soon approaching, what does Christmas mean to you?
The perfect Christmas for me would take place in London where it would be snowing. That to me would be the perfect kind of Dickensian idea of Christmas, with the carol singers and the snow.
Yes, I love Christmas, and I love the repetition of Christmas, and the fact that you do the same things over and over again, and you pull out the same old Christmas decorations.
I’ve still got decorations at home that were on my Christmas tree when I was a child. They don’t even look the way they were. They’re like a bit of old dented tin now. They have lost all their paint and everything. You can’t see what the hell they were originally but I still put them up on the tree because it’s that moment when once in the year you simply repeat the old traditions. And I do love that.