Dame Helen Mirren tends to play down a few of the plaudits that regularly come her way. After all, as she points out, some are more fanciful than others.
Alongside the Oscar for her brilliant portrayal of Her Majesty in The Queen, no less than four Baftas (including a trio for Prime Suspect), a brace of best actress awards from the Cannes film festival, four Emmys and three Golden Globes – a remarkable haul that few can match – there are the more unusual honours.
Recently, for instance, she was named “Body of the Year” by a California-based fitness chain. For a 66-year-old – who looks, quite frankly, a good twenty years younger – working in an image-obsessed industry, this, you presume, would be welcome news.
“Oh please,” she groans. “That’s just silly, isn’t it? I mean, I’m grateful for small mercies although I’m sure the voting must have been rigged in some way.”
Any further discussion on the topic is not encouraged. But in a profession dominated by the young and beautiful, Mirren’s career has gone from strength to strength, and she’s still grabbing headlines, even if, occasionally, she considers some of them a bit daft.
A couple of years back, for instance, one of the paparazzi snapped her looking stunning in a red bikini. The tabloids went into overdrive and from reading the reports you’d have thought she’d discovered the Fountain of Youth.
“Yes, it went into another gear with that picture,” she says. “Which I’d never experienced before. What can I say? I suppose it’s flattering but then I’d rather not have some photographer lurking in the bushes when I’m going for a swim.”
Nevertheless, it’s further evidence that she remains, well into her seventh decade, an actress who captivates both on screen and off. She seems to move effortlessly from one high-profile project to the next and shows no signs of easing up.
“I think I’ve had a huge amount of luck,” she says of her longevity. “Also I’ve worked hard and turned up on time and tried not to make anybody’s life a misery and I think that helps.
“And I’ve constantly tried to mix it up and I’ve never been snobby about the stuff that I do and I’ve always tried to go back to the theatre regularly. I think it’s a mixture of all of those things.”
It helps, too, she believes, that attitudes to older actresses have changed. “I think the roles are more interesting now, more complicated, stronger, but it’s not to say that particular battle with the way women are regarded in our profession is over. It’s not. But I would say it’s better.”
Back in 1991, she took on the role of DCI Jane Tennison and the timing was perfect, she says, and set the template for the later part of her career. “I was incredibly lucky Prime Suspect came along. When you’re no longer the young girl, the love interest, and people are used to seeing you as that, it’s hard to adjust to thinking of you as someone else. Playing Jane Tennison got me through that period beautifully.
“That role meant a huge amount to me. It taught me how to act on camera, for a start. I did hours of working in front of the camera and it really taught me a great deal about how a crew works, how a director works, the whole pocess from start to finish. It was my education really and I’ll be forever grateful.
In the immediate aftermath of the London riots earlier this year, Mayor Boris Johnson said he would like to see a DCI Jane Tennison figure leading the Metropolitan police. “It was terrifying,” Mirren says of the riots. “There was a rush of crazed adrenaline and everyone, including the media, got caught up in it. We’re a funny, complicated country, Britain, there’s a streak of savagery and this was like cannibalism, society eating itself in a way. But the Met have a Jane Tennison figure,” she says. “They’ve got Sue Akers.”
Ms Akers is Deputy Assistant Commissioner in the Met and is in charge of the News International phone tapping investigation. “I actually met Sue when I was doing research for some of the Prime Suspects. She was very generous and gave me a day of her time and guided me through the way the Force operates. So they do have a Jane Tennison already. And what they need are more of them – black Jane Tennisons and Asian Jane Tennisons.”
Mirren takes on another strong female role in the taut thriller The Debt (in cinemas from Friday 30 September). She plays Rachel Singer, a former Israeli secret agent, now a successful author, who has to confront dramatic events that took place 30 years earlier and have shaped her life.
Based on a 2007 Israeli film, Ha-Hov, with a screenplay co-written by Jane Goldman (Jonathan Ross’s wife), The Debt is a clever, compelling drama and includes a very realistic fight scene in which Mirren grapples with an elderly Nazi, played by Danish actor Jesper Christensen. That was a first, she says. “I’d never done a fight scene before and, actually, I quite enjoyed it.
“We had a fantastic fight director and he wanted it to be a realistic fight between a woman in her late 50s and an 80-year-old man – at that age when you go down it’s difficult to get up again. We rarely see the true physical effects of violence on screen. You see these huge fights and then they get up and walk away as if nothing has happened. This is realistic.”
Mirren is now in New York filming an already controversial biopic about legendary music producer Phil Spector (played by Al Pacino) and the events surrounding the shooting of former actress Lana Clarkson, who died at his California mansion in 2003. Spector was convicted of her murder in 2009 and sentenced to 19 years in prison.
A group called the Friends of Lana Clarkson fear that the movie, written by David Mamet, will claim Spector was wrongly convicted and have issued a statement saying they were “dismayed” that Mirren is playing Spector’s lawyer, Linda Kenney Baden, and called on her to pull out of the role.
“I would say wait and see it,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “It’s about the relationship between Phil and his defence lawyer. Phil is not underestimated or over- estimated. I think it tries to be truthful to the extraordinary and crazy world of Phil Spector as much as possible.
“Lana was obviously a really, really lovely woman and, quite rightly, her friends are worried that she will be dissed and she is certainly not dissed in our story at all. And I will say that, for me, it’s such an incredible thing to be working with Al Pacino opposite that kind of energy. It’s extraordinary.”
Mirren has been married to American director Taylor Hackford (Ray, Proof of Life) since 1997 (and in a relationship with him since 1986) and they divide their time between homes in the UK and California. Last year he directed her in Love Ranch, a comedy drama about a couple who run a brothel in Nevada. It was the first time the couple had worked together since the political thriller White Nights, some 25 years earlier.
“It was interesting,” she laughs. “Because I think I was a lot more rebellious than I was on White Nights. I was more obedient back then and this time I was more argumentative. But it was great, because obviously, I’ve been on a lot of his film sets and seen him work and he’s a wonderful film-maker and a wonderful man. He fills a room when he walks in with his presence. And he has so much energy.”
She’s never had children but there are no regrets on that score. “I’m not a motherly sort of person and really I never have been.” She was born Helen Lydia Mironoff, to a Russian father, Vasiliy, and English mother, Kitty. Her father adopted the surname Mirren when she was five and by then the family had moved to Southend-on-Sea. She acted at school there and won a place at the National Youth Theatre.
Her career has taken her from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the West End to British films – including The Long Good Friday, The Madness of King George, Gosford Park and Calendar Girls, television and into Hollywood (The Mosquito Coast, State of Play, Arthur).
Arthur and Russell Brand
Arthur was a rare flop. A remake of the classic Dudley Moore comedy, it starred Russell Brand as a spoilt multimillionaire’s son and Mirren as his nanny. It was the second time she’d worked with Brand; previ- ously they’d appeared together in Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest.
She clearly adores Brand and believes that the furore over his ill-advised prank tele- phone calls with Jonathan Ross to Andrew Sachs, back in 2008, was overblown. “It really made me cross because that’s what comedians are for and that’s what makes them so valuable to us. Sometimes they step over the line but if they didn’t do that they wouldn’t be of the value that they are.
“And you know, Russell is the kindest person. He’s kind, he’s got a great heart and he’s incredibly smart. His brain is fast and brilliant and I hate it when they try to pull these people down. Being naughty – and it was schoolboy kind of behaviour – is one thing but there came a point where it was ‘OK, can we please move on?’ “
That’s the key, she says – to keep moving, at least professionally speaking. Although once she’s finished the Phil Spector project, she’s not sure what she’s doing next. “It’s a mystery and that’s one of things that I like about it.” But there’s always room on her mantelpiece for another gong – as long as it’s the right sort, of course.