Part I: Is She Really All That?
IT IS A BEASTLY MORNING in New York: thunderstorms hovering, jackhammers in the streets, the traffic snarled and the air quality foul enough to keep sane New Yorkers indoors. And there she is, right on time, gliding serenely through the chaos in a long Indian-print skirt, her 5-foot-4-inch frame propped up on espadrilles, a beautiful boho lady from the block, chatting with affection about this "funky part of town" as we walk south on Bowery, the oldest street in New York.
She's in a fine mood, famished, pleased to hear that we will take our breakfast at the nearby Bowery Hotel, the first stop in our two-day affair, during which time my colleagues and I will ask her to submit to questions and cameras, surprises, quizzes and games. It is a lot to ask of anyone you've just met, but there's reason to believe she will not bat an eye. The evidence gathered by countless interviewers over her 50 years in the public eye — from directors, critics, colleagues, friends and family — leads me to suspect that this woman just might be the kind of dame you'd want next to you in the foxhole or at the bar, knocking back a cold one, walking the dog, one of the guys and one of the girls, unafraid to speak the truth, f-bombs included, about even the grittiest details of life. My job is to see if she's really all that.
Of course, you know by now that I am talking about Helen Mirren, the legendary actress of film, stage and TV: In more than 45 movies and 30 plays, we've come to know her by her many roles. You can Google the details.
She lifts the hem of her skirt as we pick our way through the construction and mentions that she and her husband, film director Taylor Hackford, have kept an apartment hereabouts for more than a decade. They came for Manhattan's theater scene but skipped the high-toned parts of the city for the grimy charms of the East Village. And her digs came in quite handy a few months ago while filming her latest movie, Collateral Beauty, which is set in various parts of New York, with Will Smith in the lead and Mirren part of an ensemble cast of celebrated actors, Edward Norton among them. It was the first time she and Hackford, who've been partners since 1984 and spouses since 1997, were working in the same city at the same time, she tells me: "We were both going off to work like, 'Have you got a big day?' 'Yeah, I have a big day!' And then coming home, 'How was your day?' It was brilliant."
The waiters at the hotel restaurant smile in polite recognition as we enter, steering us to a quiet table.
Mirren turned 71 this year, and the longer she stays active and vibrant, the more frequently she must confront simpleminded, obvious questions about aging. It's unavoidable, and it's my turn to be a jerk and ask her.
Me: What do you think about being an actress in your 70s?
Mirren: The best thing about being over 70 is being over 70. Certainly when I was 45, the idea of being 70 was like, "Arghhh!" But you only have two options in life: Die young or get old. There is nothing else. The idea of dying young when you're 25 is kind of cool — a bit romantic, like James Dean. But then you realize that life is too much fun to do that. It's fascinating and wonderful and emotional. So you just have to find a way of negotiating getting old psychologically and physically.
Me: And your health?
Mirren: It seems to be fine. But bad health can hit you when you're 55, 45, 35. Bad health can hit you at any time in your life.
Mirren chats away, dispatching her breakfast like a surgeon, knife and fork working around a dish of baked eggs, avocado and prosciutto until there remains a single bright-yellow yolk staring up at both of us. WTF? I start to ask about other quirky eating habits, but I hesitate because in just a short while I have picked up an important clue about the real Helen Mirren: She will answer any question you ask, at length if you wish, and she has her share of strong opinions.
Part II: Ask Her Anything
Brexit? "Terrifying — tribalism, nationalism and self-protection."
Cheddar cheese? "American cheddar is so ghastly."
Viagra for women? "Yes. It's time that was addressed."
Photo retouching? "A little bit's very nice, thank you very much."
Her sexy rep? "I think it's probably going to follow me to my grave."
London's East End? "It's absolutely my sense of identity."
Edward Norton? "He's a very smart cat. Really smart."