It’s the tail end of a sun-sparkled afternoon in Butte, Montana, and here I am in a windowless basement bar with — if you’ll excuse the expression — this dame I met a few minutes before. I was standing on the street outside the Miner’s Hotel, minding my own, when she pulled up in her car, looking a bit tiny behind the wheel. Then she whipped into this swift, effortless U-turn, settling without a hitch, nice and tight to the sidewalk. Oddly impressive.
She pretty much jumped out of the car, and she seemed just a shade invigorated.
“It’s extraordinary!” she told me later. “There’s no traffic! You can do a U-turn here in the middle of the road.”
This dame, her name is Helen. Dame Helen Mirren. We shook hands right there on the street.
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The Dame walks into a speakeasy
Next, we were in a lobby in the hotel basement. Dame Helen dialed 5 on the rotary phone on the wall and — presto — a hidden door slid back, allowing us entrance to the bar. It’s set up like a speakeasy, in what used to be the city’s fur vault, where the women of Butte once stored their minks. “Back when furs were worth something,” Dame Helen says.
This is the hour before evening gathers; the joint is predictably dead empty, and the music a dim country riff. We sit by the fire, which is really this sort of newfangled electronic deal. Not a fire at all. Not even all that warm. I give her my coat, and she puts it over her knees. She orders a Bloody Mary, then Helen Mirren, 77, famous actor, London-born daughter of Russian and Scottish parents, tells how she ended up in the American West. Well, it starts with a trip as a young actor in 1968.
“I was in San Francisco with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and our next gig was in Detroit four days later. So a handful of us took the train. The train went through slowly. It didn’t whiz through. That gave me a view and a vision of America which I had never seen. The train would stop in the middle of a town with no train station or anything. I remember stopping in Cheyenne, getting off the train, going into a bar and having a drink with a couple of cowboys, then getting back on the train again.”
So at least a couple of cowboys can back me up when I say she is fun to have a drink with. Jolly and engaged. Brassy at times, but ever gentle. She looks you dead in the eye and really listens. She laughs when she feels like it, louder than you’d expect. You feel like you know her, and learn mostly that you want to know her better.
No surprise there, I suppose. Classic dame.
In fact, she’s The Dame. Helen Mirren, DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire), a title bestowed upon her by the late Queen Elizabeth II, whom Mirren has portrayed on stage and screen.
The Dame as an action figure
These days, despite her established status as a serious dramatic actor, she has a Hollywood superhero movie in the can, playing the villain Hespera in the upcoming film Shazam! Fury of the Gods, a role that comes with an action figure to be sold in stores. “Have you seen it?” she exclaims when I mention the Hespera doll. Sadly not, and neither has she, not yet.
She’s in Butte for work, a streaming TV series called 1923 (premiering in December on Paramount+) in which she costars with Harrison Ford. It’s a second prequel to the popular hit Yellowstone, which stars Kevin Costner as Montana ranch owner John Dutton. Dame Helen, who plays Cara Dutton, his ancestor, gladly joined the endeavor.
“I grew up watching Wagon Train on my neighbor’s television. But one thing that has always annoyed me about Westerns is that the people were all simply American. There were no immigrants.” She raises a finger and spins it in the air in front of us. She’s done her research. “Here in Butte, people came from Cornwall, from Wales, many came from Ireland, from Montenegro, from all sorts of European mining areas. You can imagine the cacophony of accents that you must have had.
“So I thought it would be good if Cara were an immigrant. I’m playing her with an Irish accent, working on the theory that Cara never really lost that accent when she got here, which feels a bit like me. I had an accent coming to America, and I’ve never lost it.”