Helen Mirren on why being old is ‘cool’ and marriage is great

At 73, Dame Helen Mirren has learnt a few things about life...
Helen MirrenGetty Images

Helen Mirren often makes headlines, and because she’s Helen Mirren, there’s always a certain feisty coolness to the story behind the news.

Recently, there was one such moment when Helen was asked if she had any regrets about how she had been treated as a young actress.

“Being old is cool, but oh, how I wish I were 18 right now with the strength and courage to say ‘F**k off,'” she said.

“If I could go back and tell my younger self anything, it would be this: “Darling, learn these two words: F**k. Off. All my life I never learnt to say those words, I just learnt to be nice, to play along.”

With all the words that could be used to describe Dame Helen in 2019, “nice” would probably not be one of them.

She’s a firecracker, a broad, a titan. Likeability – one of the terms used consistently to define a woman’s worth, but never a man’s – has rarely been a goal for Helen.

And all of that vim and vigour gets mixed in with viciousness for her latest role, playing the legendary Russian leader Catherine the Great.

The new four-part series has seriously impressive alumni – Elizabeth I screenwriter Nigel Williams has teamed up with The Crown director Philip Martin. Plus, of course, there’s the Helen Mirren factor: the Oscar winner will be playing her sixth royal character.

“There are unscrupulous people in Russia – fortunately, I am one of them,” she glowers in the promo, bedecked in the show’s magnificent costume finery.

Whether it’s the small screen or the big screen, every time Helen takes on a new role it is both totally unexpected and highly anticipated – it makes us realise how much we’ve missed seeing her.

Helen takes the lead in the miniseries Catherine the Great

She may be booking back-to-back roles now, in her 70s, but for a long time, the acting industry didn’t quite know what to do with Helen.

She was educated in a convent and was the star of many a school play, eventually catching the eye of the Royal Shakespeare Company when she was just 18 years old.

But one problem – if you can call it that – soon became apparent.

Helen had the extraordinary talent that made it very clear she was going to become a big deal, but she also had a body that people didn’t quite know what to do with, leading to her being dubbed “Stratford’s very own sex queen”.

Some of the other terms used to describe Helen’s stage work throughout the 1970s include: “stirringly voluptuous”, “bursting with grace”, an “amorous boa constrictor” and, the real clincher, “She is especially telling in projecting sluttish eroticism.”

It was in 1975 that Helen finally bit back, in a now-famous interview with legendary television host Michael “Parky” Parkinson.

It was her first-ever television appearance and it’s fair to say the two didn’t get off to a flying start. During the interview, Parky asks if “her equipment” hinders her in the pursuit of being a serious actress.

“Your physical attributes… your figure… if it might detract from your performance.”

Helen, just 30 years old, quietly but firmly rebuts him.

“I mean what a crummy performance if people are obsessed with the size of your bosom over anything else. I would hope that the performance and the play and the living relationship between all the people on the stage and all the people in the audience would overcome such… boring questions, really.”

Thirty years later, when the pair reunited for another interview to discuss Helen’s Oscar-winning role as Elizabeth II in The Queen – luckily one of the least breast-orientated movies of all time – the two appeared to mostly bury the hatchet.

To Parky’s credit, he has since acknowledged that the 1975 interview isn’t exactly something he’s proud of.

“I feel it’s of its time, and of its time it’s embarrassing. It was over the top, absolutely so.”

Watch Helen’s 1975 interview with Michael Parkinson. Article continues below:

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He wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last to get distracted by Helen’s appearance.

The sexpot image has never left her, but it’s become easier to accept as she’s grown older.

“It doesn’t feel like anything,” she says.

“I don’t think about it. I don’t consider it. It’s always been with me one way or the other. It’s like the wind blowing past. It was a pain in the butt when I was younger.” She pauses and then chuckles. “But I don’t mind as much any more.

“The hardest period in life is one’s 20s,” she says.

“It’s a shame because you’re your most gorgeous and you’re physically in peak condition. But it’s actually when you’re most insecure and full of self-doubt.”

In spite of this, Helen believes in the power of insecurity.

“It would be wrong to think you’re always right and correct and perfect and brilliant. Self-doubt is the thing that drives you to try and improve yourself.”

It was the driving force of her early career.

“I was wracked with self-doubt: fear of failure, of feeling I was fat and ugly and my legs weren’t right. I still have a great sense of insecurity. I used to look at other girls and think, ‘Oh, I wish I were that confident.’ But being an actor is a great escape. You can be whoever you want to be. A lot of people go into the profession because they don’t know how to behave in real life; I think this is true of me. I will never feel good enough.”

(Credit: Getty Images)

While her stage roles made her name in the UK, there were a lot of near misses along the way as well.

Helen was allegedly considered for roles like Thelma in Thelma & Louise, Ripley in Alien and the Bond girl in Live and Let Die that eventually went to Jane Seymour.

But it was her role as Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect in the 1990s that sparked her Hollywood career.

Small parts in US movies followed, before the role that changed it all: that of Mrs Wilson in Gosford Park in 2001. Calendar Girls was a monster hit in 2003, and then in 2006 came The Queen.

Since then, Helen has become a legendary figure – pun very much intended – and also something of a pop culture phenomenon.

When a paparazzi photo of Helen was released in 2008, the shot of her in a red bikini at age 63 made front-page news.

Recently, she put up a photo of herself at the New Orlean’s bar Pal’s, having a drink named “Helen F**king Mirren”. It’s clear to see that she is having an absolute ball.

Helen with her husband, director Taylor Hackford.

Despite her sex-symbol status, Helen has been happily married for 22 years to Oscar-winning An Officer and a Gentleman director, Taylor Hackford.

The pair married in 1997, after living together for 11 years. Helen was 52 when they married, and says she felt very lucky to have met someone later on in life.

“It’s very hard to unpick your choices,” she says.

“A lot of it was luck, but a lot of it was choice, absolutely. Yes, I did very consciously choose my work over my relationships right up to the time that I met Taylor. I was 38 when I met Taylor, pretty late in life.

“We got married in the end because we realised that we were going to be together for ever. We got married, ultimately, for legal reasons more than anything else – estate planning and other complicated things like that. And our families, we sensed, wanted us to be married. I always said I have nothing against marriage; it just wasn’t to my taste, like turnips. It took me a very long time to come round to acquiring the taste. I just had to meet the right turnip.”

Another serious relationship in Helen’s past remains a little known fact, which is surprising, considering the star power of both of them.

Before meeting Taylor, Helen was with Taken actor Liam Neeson. The pair lived together for four years after first meeting on the set of the film Excalibur in 1980.

Reunited on The Graham Norton Show last year, Liam reminisced about the first time he saw Helen on set. It was Liam’s first movie and the director asked him if he wanted to meet Helen.

He turned around and walking towards him was a 35-year-old Helen Mirren, dressed in an outfit that can only be described as gladiator wench. Liam recalls swearing under his breath at the sight of her.

“I was smitten,” he says. Who could blame him?

“She was so sexy. I thought, gosh, that’s Helen Mirren! She was as beautiful up close as on stage. Just so human. I was in love with this extraordinary human being… Can you imagine riding horses in shiny suits of armour, having sword fights, and you’re falling in love with Helen Mirren? It doesn’t get any better than that.”

But the pair were at different stages of their acting careers and it took a toll on their relationship.

“It was difficult for him to be under my shadow. I was well known. I had the money,” Helen says.

Eventually, she recalls, it was time for Liam “to come out from under my wing. He handled it with great elegance and grace. We loved each other. It was difficult to let go.”

They split up, and Liam moved to Los Angeles in 1987. One year later, Helen met Taylor and that was it.

The making of a red-carpet star: on Instagram Helen documents her transformation from make-up-free to glamour queen.

As glamorous as Helen is on the red carpet, she’s also clearly comfortable being low-key in regular life.

Her Instagram account – which is a thing of joy – shows photos of her without make-up as a defiant “before”, followed by pictures revealing the process of hair, make-up and styling that transform her to her movie-star “after”.

She even once shared what has to be one of least likely movie-star clothing tips of all time (and a really good way to avoid luggage charges while travelling).

I love a good charity shop, especially when I’m travelling. When I’m going to cold places, I take nothing – just underwear. On my way from the airport, I ask the driver to take me to a good charity shop and I buy boots, socks, trousers, jumpers, sweaters, hats and scarves – usually for £30 [about $58]. On the way back to the airport, I have it all in a big bag and drop it off at another charity shop.”

It’s simple, she says. “I’m a ‘get a dress at the thrift shop but open a bottle of Champagne’ kind of person.”

How’s that for advice to live by?

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