Helen Mirren: “I’m tired of being called ‘sexy'”

The Oscar award-winning actress discusses opportunities for women, living in the digital age and the morals of war ahead of new movie Eye in the Sky

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It’s unreasonably cold in LA, but this is the way that Dame Helen Mirren likes it. “I love it when it’s raining here,” she says when we meet, the day after drizzle has dampened the West Coast vibe. “It was just like an English day yesterday, wasn’t it? And then it all clears and you have something like this.” She gestures to the fresh blue skies outside.

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We’re perched on a sofa at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills and Mirren looks as dewy bright as the morning. She’s wearing a Ralph Lauren dress in imperial purple and a fake fur stole that has already been hailed as the latest in “airport chic” after she was papped travelling with her husband, American director Taylor Hackford.

At 70, Mirren remains one of the most bank-able British stars – everyone who circles her seems delighted to be in her presence. An Oscar winner for The Queen back in 2007, she has added a Tony and an Olivier (as the Queen again in The Audience), plus enough Screen Actors Guilds, Golden Globes and Baftas to require a special wing.

With recent roles as a waspish Hollywood gossip columnist in Trumbo, and a Jewish lady trying to recover family art stolen by the Nazis in Woman in Gold, she’s as prolific as ever – always radiating intelligence and elegance, but ever ready to subvert expectations. “Would you like me to say, ‘**** *** *** ****,’ is that it?” she purrs when I allude to her penchant for swearing – which she assures me she picked up from her years at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

We’re here to talk about her latest role, as Colonel Katherine Powell in Eye in the Sky. Directed by the South African Gavin Hood (inspired by his own unhappy experience of national service), the film is a tense tale following a secret British/American drone strike in real time. “It looks at the morality and ethics and philosophy of warfare in a way that is… well, if not entertaining then very watchable,” says Mirren. “I think of it as a courtroom drama – and the audience is the jury.”

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Guy Hibbert’s script, which has mordant echoes of Dr Strangelove, creates a global drama from a few claustrophobic locations. There’s a house in Nairobi, where a group of Al-Shabaab militants are preparing for a suicide attack on a shopping centre; there’s an underground control centre, where Mirren’s colonel stalks her targets remotely, desperate not to waste a rare chance to take them out; there’s a Westminster meeting room where a British Lieutenant General – played by the late Alan Rickman in his last screen role – tries to secure political authorisation for the attack; and there’s a USAF command centre in Nevada where a conscience-stricken drone pilot (Aaron Paul) is charged with “prosecuting” the action 10,000 miles away.

As the decision-makers discuss the morality and legality of the strike in sinister euphemisms, we see operatives take far more personal risks; there’s another movie-stealing turn from Barkhad Abdi of Captain Phillips as a Somali Special Forces agent.

Meanwhile, audience sympathies shift. “There’s the character of the female politician who is arguing that it’s unacceptable to kill innocent civilians; but then she comes out with the most unbelievably cynical reasoning, which is all about winning the propaganda war. But then again, it’s true: you do have to win the propaganda war. But that’s the beauty of the film. You see the issue from all sides.”

Mirren says that one of things that attracted her to it was the fact that female protagonists are at the heart of the action rather than reduced to the “long-suffering wife” or “victim” roles she has spent a career avoiding. Does she feel that having more women in power would create a more peaceful world? “Oh, I don’t know about that. I think that the process that women have to go through to get to that point means you have to have a certain mentality and have made certain pacts with the devil. Our political world is masculine. It means that women can only gain power by becoming masculinised themselves.”

She comes out as a Hillary Clinton admirer: “You can criticise her, but whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, she’s so unbelievably resilient and courageous.”

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However, she feels that real change will only come when women across the world are empowered. “Women need to be economically and sexually empowered, in the sense of choosing when they have children. Then those women, as they travel through levels of society, might make a change.”

Has the film changed her own views on the way we conduct warfare? She falters, uncharacteristically. “I don’t like the idea of drones. There’s something horrible about them. My mother was in London during the Blitz. She said that of course it was terrifying when the German planes came over but by far the most terrifying thing was the doodlebugs… early drones, really. She said that just to see this unmanned object in the sky made you feel so helpless.”

Though she was born two months after VE Day, Mirren says the war still haunts her. “I was in my mother’s womb during the last few months of the war. At night, I have this unreasoned terror of hearing aeroplanes. I have nightmares about things coming out of the sky. I know this sounds ridiculous but I think my mother must have somehow communicated her fear to me. So I can only imagine the psychological damage that drones are doing to the local populations.”

She feels that the film’s themes were close to Alan Rickman, too. He and Mirren were about the same age and both entered the theatre from relatively humble backgrounds (Mirren’s father was a Russian émigré who worked as a viola player, a taxi driver and a civil servant; Rickman grew up in a council house but got a scholarship to Rada.) She describes him as a “great friend” and recalls the salutary experience of a rare critical drubbing in 1998: “We did Antony and Cleopatra together at the National Theatre, rather disastrously actually, but with great love for each other”.

In Eye in the Sky, she loved watching his exasperated Lt General. “It was the Alan that I know: the witty, thoughtful Alan rather than the villain that he played so brilliantly. I hope I don’t speak out of place, but I think that if Alan had the choice, he would have been proud of this as his last movie. The subject matter is absolutely where his intelligence was. He was very politically aware, conscientious and thoughtful. I’m sure that’s why he would have chosen it in the first place.”

I ask whether she feels any different since turning 70 last year – and she expresses a sort of airy bafflement. So I rephrase the question. What’s the best thing about turning 70? She brightens. “Oh, there are lots of great things. Not the least of which is the last 70 years of experience. I always feel as if I will be a few steps behind, but I’m very grateful to have witnessed the world without modern technology and then to have seen it arrive. I feel sorry for people who have never known the world without computers and social media.”

Does she think it would have been fun to date in the age of Tinder? “Oh yes, more fun than going to bars. It’s very difficult to go to a bar to find a date.”

But her status as a pensionable pin-up makes her a little more uneasy. In 2008, a photographer snuck up on her and Hackford sunbathing in Italy; photos of Mirren in a red bikini inspired orgiastic coverage in newspapers across the world. “I’ve always been tired of being called ‘sexy’. It’s annoying and irritating – I just have to put up with it,” she says.

She recalls an infamous 1975 interview with Michael Parkinson, in which he dismissed her RSC career with a stunningly lecherous line of questioning (“Do you ever feel your equipment gets in the way of your performances, heh heh?”). “He always denied he was being sexist. How could he deny it?! But this is what we were up against.”

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She is glad that female actors now feel able to speak out and cites Patricia Arquette’s Oscar acceptance speech last year calling for wage equality and equal rights for women. “You can argue that an awards show is not the right forum, but you can bang on about it, as I have, and nobody listens and nobody reports it, and then the moment comes when people are ready. The great thing is that she wasn’t just talking about Hollywood, she was talking about women in all industries. In my lifetime I’ve seen things go from utterly iniquitous to fairly iniquitous to slightly iniquitous – but at least we’re moving in the right direction.”

As we say goodbye I notice the tattoo on her left hand – interlocking Vs, inked on a native American reservation in the 1970s. She told Parkinson she would never regret it. Has she? “Oh, no, I’ve never regretted it. I want to get another one, actually. I’d like a whole sleeve. As you get older, I think it’s a better and better idea.”

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What would she get? “Oh I don’t know, some sort of curving pattern running up my arm, perhaps? Maybe a snake – I quite like snakes.” A national treasure she may be, but she hasn’t lost her desire to subvert.