There is no doubt about it. Helen Mirren has a simmering sexual presence. Hot and cold, withdrawn and flirty, disciplined and out of control. She tells me when we meet in her hotel suite she’s just eaten eight croissants. She says it as if she’s rather impressed with herself. She says it without guilt, but kind of licking her lips.
I’d just seen her in the children’s adventure movie Inkheart. It’s about what happens when you have the ability to make characters from books come to life. She plays an eccentric aunt who rides a motorcycle very fast. Lady Godiva hair swirling in the breeze. She says she took the part for that bike ride.
Was it hard to learn to ride it? She looked extremely comfortable on it. “Well I didn’t have to learn because I already had a motorbike when I was in my early twenties. So I thought I don’t care what else happens, I want to be on that motorbike again.” What happened to your own motorbike? “Mm, it was a bit of a disaster. I got it when I was in Stratford because I needed transport and I thought it would be cool, and also cheap, because I couldn’t afford a car. But it wasn’t cheap because you have to buy all the clothes.”
You imagine Mirren in her leathers. Striking. “The major problem was when you stop at a light you can’t balance, so you have to put one foot down and hold the bike up.” She stands up and straddles as if riding a bike to demonstrate. She’s wearing a cotton suit in milky beige and a white T-shirt. As she bends down the skirt stretches over her bottom and thigh. Extremely tight.
“I wasn’t strong enough, so every traffic light I would absolutely topple over. I had it for three or four months and thought, this is not working out. But on the movie set I could just go and stop and someone would hold up the bike. It was lovely.”
Since her Oscar she has worked steadily and variably, thus avoiding the Halle Berry curse of Oscar – everything you take on flops and your career backtracks. She was twice Tony nominated for plays on Broadway; for Turgenev’s A Month In The Country in 1995 and with Sir Ian McKellen in Strindberg’s Dance Of Death in 2002. Is now about to start filming The Tempest. Reconnected with her Russian roots doing Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station about Tolstoy’s last days with Christopher Plummer. And she’s been working with her husband, director Taylor Hackford (Officer And A Gentleman, and Oscar nominated Ray). Lots of zig-zagging the planet. I tell her I’ve just arrived from Los Angeles. She wants me to have a croissant. “Because when you’re jet lagged you feel entitled to absolutely anything, don’t you.”
She wants to know why I live in Los Angeles and London. She wants to ask me many questions. Not as an aversion technique as some interviewees enjoy rather than talking about themselves, but because she seems curious. engaged, alert, curious. “My husband’s film is called Love Ranch. It’s a brothel in Nevada in the Seventies,” she says with a glint, an ever so tiny glint, but nonetheless a perceptible glint of naughtiness in her eye.
Are you a madam? “Yes, of course. I’m not one of the old girls,” she laughs. Well you might be, I say, knowing very many people who would definitely pay to have sex with her. “Although they do it for a long time and funny enough the older prostitutes are the most popular.” Because they are experienced? “No, it’s because the guys think they are user friendly. They are comfortable with them so they don’t feel intimidated. And guys who go to brothels are obviously not the most successful guys in the world sexually, so that’s what they need. It’s all about not being intimidated,” she says managing to seem intimidating and inviting all at once.
I don’t think she was born this much of a sexual being. I think she earned it with confidence, with wit, with intelligence. You look at her face. It’s so animated. You see her feeling everything. Sure there are lines, but it’s not the lines you notice. It’s not the age, which is 63. You just think she’s hot and not hot for her age.
Was it fun to work with your husband? “It was lovely to go home at night and be with my husband,” she corrects. “Working with him I have to say was not easy. My husband in work mode is not the easiest of people, although a lot of people absolutely adore working with him. But because I have the emotional connection with him I would get upset if he was shouting, not at me, but at someone else demanding something. I would be seeing it from their point of view. I would find myself rushing around trying to mop up after him.” Then she backtracks and contradicts herself as she is prone to do. “But it was great. I love the fact that he got the film together and he created a wonderful role for me. But you know, husbands and wives don’t need to work together. We are professional people in our own worlds. There’s nothing I love more than going to my husband’s set and being his wife. But this, it mixes the roles up. It either gets too cosy, which is not a good thing, because it’s not very creative. Or it gets the opposite…” Which sounds like it was with you. “Yes. He didn’t make me cry, but he made me very cross.”
Perhaps the secret of their longevity was the fact they hadn’t worked together since 1986 when they met on the set of White Knights. Mirren once told me it was because they came together late, as fully formed people. They eventually married in the Scottish Highlands in December 1997. “We came to each other grown-up, professionally formed. I was in my late thirties and I just so aligned to him. We were generous to each other and loyal in terms of each other’s work.”
Before that she had intoxicating love affairs with photographer James Wedge, who liked to experiment with sexuality in his images, and actors Nicol Williamson and Liam Neeson. The latter told me how much he adored her because she taught him sophistication and how to eat prawns. There’s only a hint that she wasn’t always as well put together as she seems today.
She says she cries easily when it’s with pleasure. We both cried at the Inkheart movie’s happy ending. “I always cry at peculiar times. For example, I weep openly if I see a parade, or people marching down the middle of the road, especially if they’re dressed up in their best. I think it’s because they’re trying so hard. Spelling Bees make me cry. Marching bands with drums, I’m in bits. The Olympics made me cry.” She puzzles, “Isn’t that strange?”
What is also strange is the fact after the year that she collected her Emmy for playing Det.Supt. Jane Tennison in stripper shoes and a Marilyn dress, her Golden Globe and Oscar for her emotionally hemmed in performance of The Queen, is that she should want to follow it with a children’s movie and play an aunt who doesn’t really like children. Is that like her? Does she like children?
“I’ve never been hugely maternal, but I’ve always loved children as an aunt, a naughty aunt. I’m very happy to be able to give children back to their parents… Not that I’ve actually ever been alone with them.” She’s never wanted to have children of her own. She decided that when she saw a movie at convent school when she was about 13 of a woman giving birth. “Out of our whole class there must have been more than me who was traumatised by it. To this day it was horrific and it gave me an absolute horror of childbirth. We had no mention of sex in my school, even in biology. They just avoided that subject. So they herded us all together into a room with other girls the same age, and boys, and this dykey woman in tweeds and short grey hair said, ‘What you are about to see is a miracle’. And this film starts and it’s a midwives instructional film. There was no sound, just the camera going whirrrr, and words would come up at the bottom: Now prepare the rubber sheet. The lights came up at the end and every kid was white and sick and silent. The boys couldn’t look at the girls and the girls couldn’t look at the boys.”
So there it was, a pivotal moment in the young Helen’s life. She was destined never to be a mother and never to mind about it. I wonder if this adds to her particular kind of sexual omniverousness. I tell her that my boxing trainer, who used to be in the Army, used to have her picture as a pin up, as did several of his soldier mates. He said, ‘Everybody in the army fancied her. We all had posters up because the thing about her, even though she was older, she was never going to be your mum.’ She laughs fulsomely and then says, “But this must have been years ago?” Yes, but he still fancies you. “Oh, fabulous. And he’s absolutely right. I was never going to be anyone’s mum or grandmother. But you know I can dig that beautiful earth mother thing, feeding the masses. I’m thinking of Nigella Lawson. Does she have children?” She does. “Do you know what I mean. She’s sort of gorgeously fertile. I think that’s sexy.”
Mirren is looking at me in an intriguing and intrigued way. And I ask her, have you ever done girl on girl, had a lesbian thing? “I actually won my first Emmy for something called Losing Chase. Kyra Sedgwick and me fell in love with each other, and it was a lovely piece about women loving women.” Was it a stretch? “What, for me to love a woman? No, because I do love women. In my heart of hearts I love women more than I love men. I mean, sexuality aside, I am heterosexual.” Then she pauses to rewind. “I guess I’m heterosexual. I loved my friend that I had at college because there was a sense of camaraderie and physical closeness that doesn’t have to be sexual.”
I wonder, Mirren is quite a tease. In her last interview she talked about how much she liked to take cocaine at parties. Only stopped when she realised that Klaus Barbie was living off the proceeds of others who made their money from cocaine in South America. Then she told Piers Morgan in GQ that she’d been raped and never bothered to report it. I wonder why she’s now telling me she loves women, but telling me in such a naughty way. I tell her that I’m glad she loves women. “In general more than men.” But I was reading one of her interviews where she had requested that the interview be with a man because she gets on better with men. Was that true then? Did she change her mind?
“Well, it was a man who did the interview.” Perhaps he just wanted to believe that? “No, I think it’s more that I prefer male journalists because there’s a streak of female journalism – the bitches – I have no idea whether you are part of this particular movement. This bitchy mean-spirited and nasty because you are another woman and want to make you feel crap. It’s very upsetting. I must say I’m more careful when I’m being interviewed by a woman because I know from experience as well as reading articles with other women I know there is a little stiletto knife hidden behind the back.” She’s laughing as she’s sizing me up. But I think she’s right. On the whole women don’t like other women because women are more competitive with each other than men. It’s all about having the best shoes, the best boy, the smallest size of jeans.
She says, “If there was a rape case the courts in defence of a man would select as many women as they can for the jury because women go against women. Whether in a deep-seated animalistic way, coming back billions of years, that sense of tribal jealousy or just antagonism, I don’t know. But other women on a rape case would say she was asking for it. The only reason I would think of is that they were sexually jealous.”
We’ve gone from loving women to hating women in just a few seconds. But that only makes me like her more. And I reveal to her that I used to have a recurring dream that I was in a court explaining that I’d been raped and dykey woman of the jury were saying it was my fault. “Yes. That is terribly unfair. And that used to happen, didn’t it, in those days.” She says this with concern and perhaps even empathy. She’s said in the past that when she was forced to have sex against her will it was the lethal result of a combination of feminism, not wanting to be victim, and innocence of not knowing how not to be a victim. She has said that it wasn’t about just saying no because the man wouldn’t take no for an answer. When you see Mirren as vulnerable, it skews your judgement of her and you understand all those layers of confidence that have appeared over the years and how they could be torn away very quickly.
Did she learn to be more confrontational and direct with people? “No, I am not confrontational at all. I think I met a great guy and then I met another great guy, and had a series of fantastic relationships with nice men.” And that cured you from the bad boys who disrespected you? “Yes. Up until that point I was thinking that men were horrible, all horrible; they were boring, boorish, vulgar, they were unplesant, they were selfish and arrogant and prices. And then I met a guy who was funny and lovely to me and I loved him. That was Ken, my first boyfriend. I learnt from wonderful men, wonderful relationships. They gave me support and made me feel good and they made me laugh. And now I think men are absolutely great.”
Do you think your early experience of feeling so antipathetic towards men is that you didn’t know very many because you went to an all girls school? “Yes, absolutely. And the generation I grew up in. But I don’t blame it. But I was 18 years old, suddenly in London, and I’d never been out past 11 o’clock at night before. I never thought I will never have sex till I get married because I never wanted to get married. So sex was on the cards but I wanted it to be incredibly romantic. I decided it had to be snowing.” And was it? “No, of course not. It was probably a disgusting rainy night, but I can’t remember.”
Was it with some random boy? “Yes.” Did you ever see him again? “I don’t want to talk about that. Sorry.” Suddenly the air is thick with imaginary needles of pain. What did you learn from that experience? “I didn’t learn anything. I learn from the positive not from the negative, but I do believe in getting on with it, taking responsibility for yourself and not blaming other people is an incredibly important thing.” This is key to Mirren’s mystical sexuality. She can be vulnerable, but she’s never going to be the victim. That is extremely attractive.
“But I’m not particularly competent actually in terms of answering phone calls, getting things done. I put on a good game. So to people like you I look incredibly self-confident and on top of everything.” You mean you are acting? “Yes, kind of.” You are acting in this interview? “Kind of. Sometimes I blow it. I’m certainly incredibly vulnerable as far as my career is concerned. I’m full of self doubt.” But you’ve got an Oscar now. Surely that says don’t doubt it. “It doesn’t stop you getting up and having to do it again.”
Suddenly I notice her tattoo, a little naive star on her hand. She did it on impulse in an Indian reservation in Minnesota. “Many years ago. I just wanted the tattoo and I was a bit of a bohemian. I got it at a time when women did not have tattoos. Now girls are covered in them, like Amy Winehouse.”
The tattoo is not particularly pretty, but it’s a symbol of her going against the grain and a kind of fearlessness despite the self-doubt. A psychic once told heer she wouldn’t have success till her fifties, which absolutely devastated her at the time. She was born and brought up in Southend-on-Sea. She was the daughter of a taxi driver whose father had come as an emissary from Russia to buy arms during the Russo-Japanese War in 1917. He was unable to return home because the Bolshevik revolution had started. The Bolsheviks confiscated the family’s estate and he was to be forever separated from his seven sisters who remained in drastically reduced circumstances. Her Russian name that she was born with is Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov. She made an emotional pilgramage last year to the family’s old estate in Russia and the family Gzhatsk near the city of Smolensk, 250 miles west of Moscow, and she’s always had a passion for Russian roles. Her recent Tolstoy story being particularly resonant.
In the beginning of her career she felt marginalised by being blonde and big breasted. She felt dismissed. Perhaps that’s why she could play the frumpy queen and the tired Det. Supt. Tennison so comfortably. She knew she wasn’t just about that and she was confident of her own sexiness anyway, she didn’t a role to prop up her sexuality, although she played plenty of those sirens too. She’s been Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth and naked a slew of times, notably in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, and then in Calendar Girls.
“As you get older naked stuff gets easier because it’s more to do with the role than what the men in the audience are thinking. There’s a liberation about it.
You imagine to be so confident about her body she is extremely attentive with workouts and healthy regimes. “No, I’m very lazy. I go through phases of exercising. You know, if you start getting puffy when you go upstairs I will force myself back into minimalistic exercise. I am a great believer in the Canadian Air Force exercises because they only take 15 minutes.”
How do you feel that the world loves you in your bikini? “I feel very lucky. I looked at those pictures and thought, ‘I wish I looked like that’ because I don’t look like that at all, they’d just been taken at a great angle. The next day I started exercising because I thought if I exercise maybe I’ll look like that.”
Have you ever felt the pressure to look a certain way for a part? “No, but I’ve done it to myself. I mean, actors are always on a diet. It’s lovely to get a great role. Then you think, oh, I’ve got to go on a diet. My whole life I’ve basically gone backwards and forwards the same 10lbs. I can wear clothes from 20 years ago. At my thinnest I’m a couple of pounds under nine stone, and at my fattest I’m a few pounds under ten stone. I’ve gone through many diets that are also very boring. You stop eating and that’s what makes you lose weight, not eating. But as you get older, losing weight doesn’t make your body look better, don’t you think.” I tell her I’ve never been a few pounds under weight, so I wouldn’t know. Then she tells me that I’m gorgeous. And then I say no, and then she says “Yes,” and then I’m embarrassed and change the subject to Russell Brand who is the latest younger boy to talk about how much he fancies her.
“I don’t know if I fancy him. I haven’t met him yet. I’ll decide when I do. Talent is sexy. I love that alertness. I think Frank Skinner has it, and Jonathan Ross and has it, and they are a little bit radical. I love those guys, and Russell Brand is definitely one of them.” So she concedes she might fancy him.
All the men that have been in her life have had one link. “They have all loved boxing. So through various men I have watched a lot of boxing. I do love the human drama of it.” When she’s not talking about working with Hackford she talks softly about him. She talks about building things, like their flat in New York, and like,. “The ruin we are renovating in Italy. It’s going to take up all of our spare time until we are too old and too poor to live in it… But it’s incredible fun.”
In Inkheart some of the characters who have escaped from books have the book written all over them. If she had to have a book written all over her, what would it be? “I would have verses from the Song of Solomon, which is so beautiful. I would want beautiful things written on me that people could read and go wow.” She beams mesmerisingly. As I get up to go she stops me and says, “And thank you for the view?” I blush, because I’ve just come back from LA I was jetlagged, couldn’t find any clean underwear so I didn’t wear any. I was wearing a tight skirt, I didn’t think she’d notice. But she did. “When you sat down and when you got up.” I think she’s a minx for making sure I knew she’d seen it. She laughs with a laugh that’s very naughty.