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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

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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. »

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