What more is there to say about Dame Helen Mirren as she burgeons with grace and wit into her eighth decade, laden with plaudits, including an Oscar for playing the Queen in the 2006 film? Quite a lot, as it happens.
She is on Broadway in New York garnering nightly standing ovations for reprising the role in The Audience and starring in yet another film, Woman in Gold, with two more awaiting release – Trumbo in which she plays gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and Eye in the Sky, a thriller where she is a military intelligence officer.
Will she ever stop working? “Yes, it would be quite nice. I don’t think ‘dying on the job’ is such a wonderful thing. But I’m driven by competitiveness, always thinking I can do better, and the sheer pleasure of earning a living – a fabulous miracle I’ve never quite got over.”
Even as we speak, reports are circulating about her recent earnings and a net worth that would put her among the highest paid women in Hollywood. She scoffs. “Insanely and outrageously wrong. What else can you do but laugh, so long as the taxman doesn’t take it seriously.”
There’s clearly no shortage of roles for her. “I’ve been lucky, but if you look at any drama it’s still five-to-one men to women. There are a few women in main roles and although it’s changing it’s still difficult for most to earn a living. Many I grew up with are immensely talented yet can’t. It’s much easier for men.”
She generally receives admiring reviews, even if she has cornered the market in peripherally dotty older women. Last year’s The Hundred-Foot Journey in which she displayed brilliant haute froideur as a restaurateur is now followed by Woman in Gold (in cinemas from today, Friday 10th§ April), a true story in which she plays an Austrian Jewish aristocrat, Maria Altmann, who fled Vienna during the Second World War, and her long legal battle to reclaim a Gustav Klimt portrait of her aunt that was looted by the Nazis and hung in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery until she won the case in 2006.
The film debuted at the Berlin film festival and got mixed reviews. “It was a mistake rushing it to Berlin before the editing was finished,” she says. “We paid the price, which I regret. It’s an interesting story about a very powerful subject. I want it to do well because I didn’t like to let Maria down. The Viennese hoped she would die before it went to court, in which case they’d be home and dry. Now we’re losing that generation, who were eye witnesses to what happened.” Altmann died in 2011, aged 94.
“And anti-Semitism is still pertinent. People start down that particular road saying they’re nationalistic or proud of their nation, rubbish like that, and set themselves on the first step to horrors. It’s happening again, not just in Europe. It seems to be an endless human story. I hope films can address ideas and thoughts that seep into the culture and push society forward. It’s incredibly important to the way we form our thoughts and understanding of how life is and how to behave.”
In New York she’s wowing the crowds again in a tweaked version of The Audience. “We’ve brought in Tony Blair briefly because Americans know him, unlike John Major. Theatre is always nerve-racking. I’m afraid of losing my voice, having enough energy, and not getting sick. Every actor has stage fright, but there are levels, from serious psychotic breakdown, where you lock yourself in your dressing room and refuse to come out.”
“It’s happened to a few actors. Not me, but when I’m on stage I see the abyss and have to overcome it by telling myself it’s only a play. I don’t know why we should feel like this: if something goes wrong audiences are wonderfully accommodating.”
She notes, too, “They love the Queen on Broadway as much as they did in London. But it’s the Queen they’re applauding for an incredible 60-year achievement, not me.” She says she’s a “queenist” not a monarchist, and believes the institution will endure in spite of the royal family being “like aliens in a way”. “I’ve chilled a lot and respect them enormously. Obviously Prince Charles is coming to it in a very different age. He will have an impact, but on we will go, as they have in Denmark and Sweden.”