Helen Mirren: Not Quite a Dame

A year after her triumph as Elizabeth II, Dame Helen Mirren, 62, has a raft of new movie projects, a revealing autobiography, and sex appeal that won’t quit.

By Amy Wilentz
Helen Mirren in MORE’s April 2008 issue
Photograph: Photo by: Lorenzo Agius

Despite her misgivings about the uses of sexuality, Mirren hasn’t been reluctant to do nude scenes. Starting with 1969’s Age of Consent and continuing through 1999’s The Passion of Ayn Rand and 2003’s The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, she has had some very explicit moments onscreen. And in 1996 she did a nude cover for England’s Radio Times magazine. "Well," she says of that photograph, smiling demurely, "it’s not really naked. I was naked in that sort of covered-up way. Like this." And she shows me, legs crossed, leaning over, her arms coming down in a modest V over her chest.

In fulfilling her girlhood vow to be adventurous, Mirren explored the world, living in London, Stratford, Paris, Los Angeles and (briefly, with a boyfriend) on a kibbutz in Israel. In the early 1970s, she traveled with a troupe of actors assembled by visionary British director Peter Brook through Africa and the United States; on an Indian reservation in Minnesota, after drinking several brandies, she got a small tattoo — two interlocking V’s — below her left thumb, of which she’s very proud. Her wanderlust, she says, came from her British mother, who "always wanted to travel."

But she sees another side to her parents’ generation, one that helped her understand the strong women she has consistently chosen to play. "They had a real sense of discipline and a willingness to sacrifice to create a better world," she says. "That was my delight and my pleasure in playing the queen. Elizabeth was the iconic figure for that generation and embraced those values — duty, selflessness — very deeply. That’s why she could never understand Diana." What Mirren captures best in her acting is the terrible space between duty and personal impulse, the tension experienced by a powerful woman of whom superhuman strength and uprightness are required.

"The weird thing with Helen playing all these aristocratic, proper women is that she is the most anarchic person I’ve met," George says. "There’s a wildness in there that’s challenging and intimidating, and she relishes it. She has a razor-sharp intelligence that treats it all with a healthy disdain."

Mirren trains that intelligence on a wide variety of topics. She is a news junkie who knows what people are talking about, whether it’s Pakistan’s upheaval or the American primaries. And she’s not shy about expressing her opinions. In accepting her Emmy award for Prime Suspect last September, she glancingly criticized the United States: "You Americans are wonderfully generous people; you are a lot of other things as well, some good, some bad…." Today, she explains what she meant. "I think Americans are a little parochial, a little naive," she says. "Naivete can be a good thing as well, all that innocence and idealism, not like those cynical Europeans: ‘Oh, it’ll never work!’ But sometimes Americans show a terrible cruelty toward their own people, like what happened post-Katrina, you know, in the wealthiest country in the world. Which is extraordinary to me."

Mirren — who once said she likes to set her alarm for an hour before she has to get up, in order to spend some quality time in bed with Hackford — confesses she has her "Russian moments" of darkness and depression. "I don’t mean super-depressed," she says, "but when the world looks horrible or it’s boring, it doesn’t grab you. We all go through that. I’m not permanently positive; I’m not some ghastly cheerful person.

"But you’re still going to get pleasure out of a sunset and a tree and the light on a wall and a dog…and shopping."

There is one more thing Mirren wants to do before leaving the photo shoot. Well, two. She’d like to try on a dress she didn’t wear during the session but has been thinking about the whole time, she tells me. It’s a sleeveless, broad-collared, apple-green fitted gown, and she and the seamstress run upstairs with it. Ten minutes later, they return.

"I’m buying it," she says, holding it up. "Isn’t it fabulous?"

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