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Helen Mirren: A Wise and Witty Dame

At 68, the acclaimed actress holds forth on sex, love, solitude — and her passion for pomegranates

mirren helen british actress entertainment movies grownups interview

You'd be smiling too, if you were Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren. — Sam Jones/Trunk Archive

En español | Helen Mirren is alone. Tucked into her 500-year-old villa in the south of Italy, she's contentedly resting, by herself, before returning to work in a month. The classically trained English stage actress — whose nearly 50-year television and film career has landed her dozens of awards, including an Oscar (for 2006's The Queen), and qualified her for the title of dame — would seem the unlikeliest of solitary persons. Yet, Mirren is the first to point out that acting in front of a camera "is a very lonesome operation, actually," and that's just fine with her. "I'm perfectly happy being on my own. It doesn't make me crazy."

Until her filmmaker husband, Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Ray), joins her on the vacation property the couple bought seven years ago, Mirren is amusing herself by doing what she does in Italy, which is gardening.

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She's pruning her plumbagos, sticking geraniums and succulents into the crevices of her rock garden and tending to her 400 pomegranate trees, including four 100-year-old specimens that are thriving in the home's courtyard. "I love, love pomegranate trees," exclaims Mirren, who, far from the remote characters she's best known for — such as Elizabeth I, Elizabeth II and the unsmiling police detective in the TV drama Prime Suspect — exudes the charming openness of someone completely comfortable in her own skin.

In conversation with AARP The Magazine, the actress comes off as down-to-earth, sassy, self-deprecating and devilishly opinionated. Asked, for instance, about the time-sucking quagmire that is social media, Mirren lets out with, "It reminds me of a stinky old pub. In the corner would be this slightly disgusting old man who sits there all day, every day. If you went up and talked to him, you'd get the kind of grumpy, horrible, moldy, old meaningless crap that you read on Twitter."

Yes, at 68, with crinkles at the eyes that lend an air of mature refinement, Mirren can fool you into thinking she's the picture of British reserve. But the actress, who's keen on the low-budget carrier Ryanair and prefers her little Nokia to a highbrow smartphone, can't hide her irrepressible chutzpah, nor does she try. So you'll notice the "stripper heels" she insists she needs, standing without them at a mere 5 foot 4. And don't miss her YouTube performance in which, as she was honored this past January at Harvard University with the Hasty Pudding Woman of the Year award, the venerable thespian promptly let loose an expletive, spun around and thrilled the Ivy League crowd by twerking. "Oh, God, I thought that was going to be the end of me," she says.

But of course it wasn't.

Next page: Mirren achieves stardom. »

mirren helen british actress entertainment movies grownups interview

A youthful Helen Mirren strikes a pose. — Getty Images

Her latest film, The Hundred-Foot Journey, which comes out in August, is a heartwarming drama about a finicky gourmand who can't stomach the idea of an Indian family eatery opening across from her Michelin-starred French restaurant. Even though Mirren is not a cook herself ("I make the odd soup," she says), she was a no-brainer for the role. "When you have Helen Mirren in your movie, you are already saying, 'Pay attention,' " notes Steven Spielberg, who coproduced the film with Oprah Winfrey.

"With Helen," adds the movie's director, Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog, Chocolat), "there's no posturing or pretension, but she knows exactly what she wants and isn't afraid to make a scene her own. She's very English, but she also has a touch of that spicy Russian blood."

She was born Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironoff in London on July 26, 1945. But "Helen Mirren" had the vaguely Scottish ring that her Russian-born father, Vasily, knew would help his daughter fit in. The family's White Russian military past was so distinguished that Tolstoy made reference to the Mironoffs in War and Peace. The Russian Revolution wasn't kind, however, and Mirren's dad, when he wasn't playing viola with the London Philharmonic, toiled as a London cabbie. Her mother, Kathleen Rogers, was the 13th of 14 children born to an East London butcher's daughter whose grandfather had procured meats for Queen Victoria.

Mirren's parents wanted nothing more than for their three children — the actress has an older sister and had a younger brother, now deceased — to seek wider horizons and not struggle later in life. Though her father left no debts, the sum total of Vasily's estate when he died at 67 was around $450. Seeing her parents scrimp is one reason Mirren now devotes herself to charities such as Meals on Wheels and Age UK. "I am very concerned with our aging population," she explains, and with the "sacrifices they made for my generation. It seems very unfair that they shouldn't be looked after."

Mirren has wanted to be an actress since age 6. Against her parents' wishes (they had hoped she would be a teacher or doctor), she joined the National Youth Theatre, where she drew attention as Cleopatra. Soon she was performing the classics alongside future giants Patrick Stewart and Ben Kingsley at the vaunted Royal Shakespeare Company.

From the beginning, she chose her own path with refreshingly little drama. "I pursued the kind of career that I wanted to pursue," she says, "which was not to do with fame and fortune. I was a pretty successful actress, actually, right from the beginning but didn't become a household name because the kind of material I did was quite esoteric."

That material included, through the 1980s, a number of audacious, sometimes bawdy roles in European art house films, including Caligula, Excalibur and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Mirren had, and has, a penchant for baring all (most recently in 2003's Calendar Girls) — though she has admitted to being "vaguely embarrassed" by all that.

Her breakthrough came when, at 46, she took on the role of dour Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, a part beloved by fans and critics alike during its 1991-2006 run and for which she earned six Emmy nominations and two wins.

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Like Tennison, Mirren spurned marriage and children for much of her career. "I never felt the need for a child and never felt the loss of it," she says today. "I'd always put my work before anything." She'd had several extended relationships, including a live-in stint in the early '80s with Liam Neeson, but Mirren insisted then that she had no desire for marriage, or as she called it, "voluntary imprisonment."

Next page: Mirren's Hollywood Hills romance. »

mirren helen british actress and husband taylor hackford entertainment movies grownups

Mirren and her husband, Taylor Hackford, happily ever after.

That began changing in 1984, when she met Hackford at an audition in Los Angeles for White Nights, which he was directing. He was 20 minutes late, and Mirren was miffed. Soon enough, though, they were living together in the Hollywood Hills. "Both of us already had successes, we were well-traveled and experienced at life, and neither of us put up with much bullshit," Hackford says. The couple married 12 years later in a rented castle near Inverness, Scotland. (Hackford, 69, is American but has Scottish roots.) He wore a kilt, and Mirren dressed in an outfit plucked from a sales rack, 70 percent off.

Castles would become a theme: When Mirren and Hackford bought the medieval Italian property known as Masseria Matine, complete with turrets, the house had no roof, no electricity and no running water. Restoring it "has been a shared nightmare," Hackford says. "It was Helen who saw us through. When I started to think, 'Oh, we should sell it and just get out,' Helen said, 'Are you kidding? I love this place.' It's the greatest thing, sharing this experience with her."

Clearly, Mirren and Hackford, who has two grown children from previous marriages, have a solid, loving relationship, a study in checks and balances. "I'll get a crazy idea, and Helen will rein me in," Hackford says, "or Helen will immerse herself in work, and I'll say, 'Come on, baby, let's go out to dinner.' "

Mirren says she is lucky to have found love later in life. "I used to say to Taylor, 'Oh, why didn't we meet earlier?' But it's a really good thing, because we probably wouldn't be together now. I couldn't have dealt with him earlier on. He would have been much too difficult. He was quite difficult as it was, but I got through that."

Still considered a sex symbol as she approaches 70, Mirren is quick to brush off the label. "Oh, they're not thinking straight," she says, adding that one's sex appeal "becomes less relevant with age, which is a good thing. Everything changes as we get older, and we have to applaud that fact, don't we?"

But her husband doesn't mind explaining her broad appeal. "It's a function of her mind-set," says Hackford. "Helen has an innate sense of who she is, and a confidence and directness. She doesn't play it safe. What's sexy is how she is in the world even more than how she looks, though she certainly looks beautiful."

Mirren isn't prone to navel-gazing; even seeing her wax likeness at Madame Tussauds failed to spark rumination. "I looked fabulous, actually," she mentions. "I looked so real. They did an incredible job. If you sit for them and give them the time, which I did, they're geniuses."

And though she says she tends to live in the present, she does, occasionally, think about her legacy. With quiet seriousness, she says, "I'd like to be remembered as a productive person and someone who at least did no harm. And certainly as a great artist, because that's been my primary motivating force. And also, as a nice person — though I'm sure a lot of people don't think I'm nice!"

As such talk is a bit morbid for someone in R&R mode, Mirren quickly notes that it's time for her to return to puttering beneath the pomegranate trees. She smiles, saying, "There are always a million things to do in the garden!"

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