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|How perfect that Chicago was in the midst of violent thunderstorms during a scheduled phone
interview with the acclaimed Oscar winning actress Helen Mirren, who stars in director Julie Taymor’
s forthcoming adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (releasing at the end of the year)? But it was
actually Mirren’s role as the tough owner of a Reno brothel in the based on a true story Love Ranch (in
which she co-stars with Joe Pesci and is directed by husband Taylor Hackford) that was the jumping
off point for a lively discussion with this adored queen of the cinema. In this Windy City Times
exclusive interview the forthright Mirren touches on everything from her desire to work with more
women, her pride in her queer fan base, her innate sensuality (visibly intact at 64 – yeah!), and her
heartfelt reflections on celebrating Gay Pride every day of the year.
HELEN MIRREN (HM): Hi Richard. How are you?
WINDY CITY TIMES (WCT): Hi Helen, or is it Dame Helen?
HM (laughs): Helen’s fine.
WCT: Greetings from your huge queer fan base in Chicago.
HM (brightens): Oh love it! Hey Chicago! Hey guys.
WCT: Where it’s raining cats and dogs.
HM: Oh no, it’s beautiful here. I’m looking out at the sunny Californian sky.
WCT: So – let’s just jump right in. From Countess Sofya (her Oscar nominated role in The Last
Station) to a bordello Madame (in Love Ranch).
HM (laughs): Yes, yes.
WCT: It seems like a stretch but really they share what a lot of your characters do – great passion,
they’re intelligent, there’s a certain world weariness…
HM: Yes, yes. In terms of shooting I did Love Ranch before I did Last Station. It just took a long
time for the film to be completed and distributed. But that was the way round I did them. It’s true,
yes, well, I guess maybe when you get to a certain age that’s the name of the game (chuckles) world
weariness. But I mean, what two great characters – how lucky am I really? You’ve reminded me; I’ve
completely forgotten about Sofya and to go from Grace Bontempo to Sofya Tolstoy…I mean
fantastic. In basically one year. I think I shot both of those in one year.
WCT: And it speaks to your wonderful range. I’m thinking of Countess because that’s just out on
DVD as well and just watched it again.
HM: Oh great.
WCT: How lovely was it to finally do a project with your husband (director Taylor Hackford)?
HM: It was so great to have someone to go home with. You know 90% of my working life I’ve got to
go off to my little hotel room or my rented apartment on my own and put my head down. It’s like
going into the nunnery, really, you know, going off to do a film. And here I had someone to play
with at the weekend; I had someone to hang with. It was just great. Having said that, on the set we
lived separate lives. I was the actress, he was the director and you’d never have guessed that I was
his wife. If a stranger had walked onto the set and didn’t know, I don’t think they would have
guessed that we were married. Except when occasionally I told him to shut up (laughs hard) which I
would never normally do to any director except my husband.
WCT: Women are finally big box office again which is great – says the gay man who loves chick
flicks – so when are you going to do a film with Meryl, or Bette, or Cher, or Liza or Barbra, our gay
icons like yourself?
HM: Oh, whenever anyone asks me. Whenever they…you know it’s the script that’s difficult. It’s
difficult to find the right, good, wonderful work that we all want to do and once it comes along we’ll all
jump at it. Because women actually love to work with other women. They looovvve it; they have a
ball. Because we get to do it so rarely. All of our working lives we spend on a set with 150 guys
basically and about 3 women. It’s getting better but we love to work with other actresses.
WCT: In a couple of your roles coming up they’ve switched the gender and you’ve just worked with
(director) Julie Taymor on The Tempest on one of them (the male lead Prospero has changed to
Prospera with Mirren in the part). Or, are you doing that now?
HM: No, no. We did that. That’s finished. That will be showing in Venice.
WCT: Lovely. So a difference between working with a male director, your husband say, and a female
director like Julie Taymor?
HM: Very similar. Both obsessive. Both unbelievably energetic. Both totally committed and
visionaries. I mean every director is different because they’re different artists and they all have their
own visions and the story that they want to tell and the way they want to tell it is individual to every
director. But that said, they have very similar characteristics as well and I would say, especially,
incidentally, Taylor and Julie. It’s not a loosey goosey situation on either of their film sets.
WCT: Well I love – and I don’t know how it’s happening – that producers or writers or directors want
to work with you so much that they’re changing the gender (of your characters) (laughs).
HM: Well, you know, The Tempest was something Julie and I both agreed could work. She’d done the
play a couple of times before so she knew the play really, really well which was a great advantage.
And I had seen the play fairly recently and thought, “You know what, you could do this as a woman.”
I was longing to play a really great Shakespearean role but I didn’t want to play Volumnia (from
Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus”), you know. Volumnia’s boring. There’s very few roles that you can play
as you get older. So I thought I’d purloin…
WCT: Wait. Did Helen Mirren just say there are very few roles you can play as you get older?
HM: No, I’m talking about Shakespearean roles. In the canon of Shakespeare. There’s a couple
but in comparison with the number of roles there are for men, they start getting a bit down in the
ground – the Shakespearean roles.
WCT: I love also that you’re going to do Arthur and take on the Gielgud role with Russell Brand. You
must be looking forward to that.
HM (amused): I am. I’m rather nervous, I have to confess. I’m horribly nervous, actually.
WCT: Well, you’re sort of the queen of offbeat casting – you do it so well. You did it in this film with
Joe Pesci; did it so beautifully with my beloved Lee Daniels (in Shadowboxer where she co-starred with
Cuba Gooding, Jr.).
HM: Oh yes, don’t you love Lee? He’s so great.
WCT: I think – when you do the lesbian film with Ellen DesGeneres –
HM: Oh yes, we’ll get Lee to direct it.
WCT: He’s like the perfect guy for that, right?
HM: Yeah, he is. Perfect. He and Ellen might clash horns a bit, I don’t know.
WCT: Of course you’re so aware that you have this huge lesbian fan base.
HM: Yes – which I’m very proud of and I love!
WCT: Well, with this New York magazine photo shoot (Mirren is posed in a tub with her breasts
exposed) I think pin ups of you just went up all over town with the ladies (laughs).
HM: Not a pin up, though! I hope it’s a very naturalistic photo. That was, I think, the intention.
Bold and bare – bare from the neck up rather than from the neck down.
WCT: Yes – and it gets into that thing you’ve talked about of sort of being a bit rebellious. A good
friend of mine – a lesbian who does our podcast (Amy Matheny) – said to me, “You know, one
reason why I love The Mirren and why we (meaning the queer community) love her so much is
because she’s so free sexually or seems to be. And that really appeals to the queer community.”
Would you agree with that assessment?
HM: I don’t know. I mean, I try to be…by nature I think I’m maybe rather uptight but all my life I’ve
kind of fought against my own bourgeois tendencies – if you like – because I kind of disapprove of
them in theory. So I’ve tried to be as open and as real as possible. Having said that, I also love
unreality. I love theatre and I love dressing up and I love fancy and I love glitter and I love lavish
meals and sequins and feathers and I love all of that. I think we’re allowed all of that. We’re
allowed it all. Who’s to make rules, you know? And so called liberated people sometimes make the
harshest rules of all.
WCT: Which is so odd; so strange. I know the title said Prime Suspect: The Final Act but please, say
it ain’t so. Are we ever gonna see some more Jane Tennison?
HM: No, no. Jane is past history.
WCT: Oh, broke my heart.
HM: Ahh, yeah, well, you’ll just have to watch the reruns.
WCT: Okay, that’ll do it. Hey listen – it’s Gay Pride month.
HM: I know. I know!
WCT: Your movie’s opening during Gay Pride. How are you going to celebrate?
HM: Oh gosh, I’ll probably celebrate as usual by working and celebrating all the incredible gay
people that I’ve worked with over the years. You know I get so enraged by bigotry and homophobia
and in my profession, obviously, we owe so much to the gay community – writers, directors, designers
– on every level of every corner of my professional life I’ve worked with brilliant, brilliant gay people –
men and women – and I personally owe them so much. It’s a debt that I recognize that I owe and
the sort of idiocy of homophobia and the ignorance just makes me so enraged; so enraged. So, Gay
Pride month, week, day, I will personally just be celebrating all those incredible people that I’ve
WCT: Well thank you. We’ll be celebrating you from now until…the end of the movies (laughs).
HM: Yeah, brilliant.
WCT: It was lovely speaking with you and congratulations on the new film.
HM: Thank you sweetheart.