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Helen Mirren in Light and Shadow

Make Your Own Rules: Helen Mirren says that she has learned over the years to make her own rules and then to break them on a regular basis

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.

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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.

spinner image Helen Mirren cover story
"The best thing about being over 70 is being over 70."
You only have two options in life: Die young or get old. There is nothing else.

Helen Mirren

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."

Rules? "It's good to break your own rules on a regular basis."

Diets? "I carry and let go of the same 10 pounds."

The word "slut"? "I love the way young women are claiming it."

Muhammad Ali? "We've sanctified him, but he had a mean streak."

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What I really want to know, though, is how she feels about us Americans. She's married to a Californian and has been living mostly here since 1983, part of a club of Brit artists and notables who have been adopted by the United States: Sting, Rod Stewart, Patrick Stewart, Angela Lansbury and even David Hockney, a painter known best for his languid SoCal swimming pool series. These talented invaders arrived, stole our hearts and stayed. Why?

spinner image Helen Mirren cover story
"It's good to break your own rules on a regular basis."

"I've always loved America," Mirren says. "I find it exciting. I find it liberating. I find it fascinating." Suddenly, she's off, extolling the virtues of road trips to Joshua Tree National Park in the Southern California desert and up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco. "America is so varied and so beautiful!" she adds, her voice lifting—"from Louisiana to New Mexico, Georgia, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Dakotas, oh my God! It's spectacular."

Mirren first visited the States in the 1960s, when she was on tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company. With a few days to spare between shows in San Francisco and Detroit, "a few of us took the train across the Salt Lake flats of Utah, stopping in places like Cheyenne, where the train would stop literally in the middle of the town," she recalls. "You had 20 minutes, so you could pop out to a cowboy bar and come back. It was a great education, to see the landscape that those early pioneers crossed on foot or horse. That gave me a little inkling of what it means to be an American, to be able to contemplate that journey, let alone make it."

Me: And they came here with virtually nothing.

Mirren: Only their dreams.

I ask if, after all this time, she feels like an American, and she shakes her head no.

"The people who made America are the ones who came without return tickets. They came, just launched into this world — Irish, Jewish and, obviously, Africans. I always have a return ticket."

Better With Age: Helen Mirren: Take a look as Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren evolves through the years

Part III: It's Good to Be Queen

"ACTRESSES CAN'T BE ORDINARY PEOPLE," she once told a reporter, and indeed Mirren cannot be accused of being ordinary. The middle of three children born to an aristo-Russo refugee father and his pretty East Ender wife, Helen Lydia Mironoff grew up in post-World War II London. The Mironoffs were poor in the actual sense of the word — no car, no fridge, no TV, no central heat — ice on the inside of the bathroom windows in winter.

Mirren's talent and ambition took her from Britain's National Youth Theatre to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she played to packed houses in her early 20s. In 1969, she acted in her first substantial film, Age of Consent, with James Mason; then, in 1973, O Lucky Man! with Malcolm McDowell. She next shocked her friends and family by going off for a solid year with an experimental theater group to tour Africa and the Southwest U.S., camping in the wild, improvising pop-up plays for puzzled locals — no stage, no script, no words! On the U.S. leg of that tour, she picked up a Native American tattoo on her left hand and found herself marching on the picket lines with Cesar Chavez. The memory makes her voice rise: "¡Viva la Huelga! ¡Viva! ¡Viva!"

Back in London, she recommitted to the stage. "I didn't want to be famous, but I wanted to be a really good actress," she says. "I wanted to be recognized as a great theater actress." Her risk-taking nature, though, led her to side jobs such as the sex-and-violence-laden Caligula in 1979, which may have had something to do with the theater establishment's withholding the honors she so craved, despite her critically acclaimed Shakespeare performances. In 1991, she was cast as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, in what Esquire called "the most sustained example of great acting in the history of television." If we're looking for pivot points in her career, here's one.

Prime Suspect went on until 2006, which marked the close of the Reign of Jane Tennison and the start of Mirren's Elizabethan Age. That year, she won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for her performance as England's Virgin Queen in the two-part HBO movie Elizabeth I. The same year, she gave a bravura performance in The Queen, portraying — with infinite grace and sensitivity — the current queen of England, and emerged a major film star, complete with her first Oscar. Mirren returned to Elizabeth II onstage in London and on Broadway in The Audience, a tour de force, in which she transformed herself into Elizabeth from the ages of 25 to 88, something she "accomplished with sleights of hand worthy of a master magician," wrote the New York Times. I ask if she's done with queens, and she says, "No, queens are good; it's good to be queen. I'm preparing to do a piece about Catherine the Great of Russia, an amazing monarch. I mean, the reason certain queens are great to play is because they're powerful." Speaking of Russia …

spinner image Helen Mirren cover story
"The theatre became my religion, and I wanted to serve it."

Part IV: The Russian Questions

I ASK IF WE CAN PLAY A GAME: "Helen Mirren, International Woman of Mystery." She looks up, startled, and instantly I feel I have gone too far. "You can always say no," I offer, but I can see that I've disturbed her composure. So maybe she's not all that — all the time? Maybe she's human after all.

OK, I begin, here are two deep questions for your Russian side.

Me: Your family used to discuss this question at dinner: Is there a soul?

Mirren: I'm not religious. So if I say yes, there is a soul, it's nothing to do with religion or God. But yes, I would say there is a spirituality in being a human being that is connected to the imagination in some way.

Me: A palm reader told you at about age 23 that you would not be really successful until you were twice that age. Did he see the future?

Mirren: He was right — that's all I know.

Mirren points out that she "wasn't exactly struggling" in the 1980s, but things undoubtedly did take off for her after Prime Suspect and the queens. She had her pick of fine roles. She chose to play a French chef in The 100-Foot Journey, the owner of Nazi-confiscated art in Woman in Gold, a CIA assassin who comes out of retirement in Red. In 2017, she will have a part in Fast and Furious 8; appearing in the franchise has been her goal for a while.

In her current project, Collateral Beauty, she has a supporting role, though it is "my favorite kind of movie, an ensemble movie," she says. "It's a very strange movie, almost in the genre of magical realism, for lack of a better term. It's not so sort of obvious, which is what I rather liked about it — the concept that out of incredible tragedy and heartache and difficulty can come beauty."

She plays a part "exactly who I would have been, actually, if my career hadn't been successful, working in a little art theater, an artist driven by her need to make art." Also in the cast are fellow Brits Keira Knightley, 31, and Kate Winslet, 41, the latter apparently a major Mirren fangirl. "You could sit and talk about anything with Helen, for hours," Winslet tells me. "Anything from boobs to boys, work to what we were going to drink at cocktail hour. And we would all sit and run our lines together. Which is all you ever hope for on set. She is everyone's friend. And she is out-of-control sexy and beautiful! We all wanted to make out with her."

Part V: The Personal Questions

We have no right to know this stuff, but for certain women of great achievement, the questions arise, sooner or later: Why did you delay marriage and forgo having children? "It's very hard to unpick your choices," she says, "and a lot of it was luck. But a lot of it was choice, absolutely. So yes, I did very consciously choose my work over my relationships right up to the time that I met Taylor. I was 38 when I met Taylor, pretty late in life." She has described Hackford as the greatest love of her life, along with "all the dogs I have ever known."

"We got married in the end because we realized that we were going to be together forever," she says. "We got married, ultimately, for legal reasons more than anything else. Estate planning and other complicated things like that. And our families, we sensed, wanted us to be married. I always said I have nothing against marriage; it just wasn't to my taste, like turnips. It took me a very long time to come round to acquiring the taste. I just had to meet the right turnip."

Then there's the question of why she does it — what about the work of being an actor is so satisfying? In all her interviews, this is the issue that somehow robs her of her loquaciousness. "That is a hard question for an artist to answer," she says. "All I can say is that I find the engagement in the imagination very appealing." In fact, it's more than that. Mirren says she considers her profession to be a sacred calling, one that's required all of her body and soul, even as a young woman. As she wrote in her autobiography, "The theatre became my religion, and I wanted to serve it."

Part VI: The Surprise

The next morning, we meet in a stifling 19th-century warehouse/studio in Brooklyn. Mirren arrives on time, no entourage and no fuss. Soon, she's dressed head to toe in black leather, staring down the photographer, running through her tough-lady poses. She had told us that she has always liked dressing up, so we built a boudoir set in the studio to show her sexy side, too. Then we led her out into the streets, backed her up against fences and crumbling walls, and she never flagged or complained. But there was one more twist to come.

After five hours or so, we ushered her to another studio to record a video interview. Then, when she had every expectation that she was at last done for the day, we let loose a dozen puppies of different breeds, yipping and rushing at her, gamboling through her legs and all around the room, creating world-class cute chaos. And we trained our cameras on her.

Puppies meet Helen Mirren: Helen Mirren once said the greatest love of her life was her husband and all the dogs she has ever known

There is an unspoken rule, in Hollywood, New York and anywhere that temperamental artists and entitled entertainers interact with journalists: Never surprise the talent. So, yes, it might have been five hours into the shoot, and Mirren might have been hot and tired and entitled to a rest, but when we saw her laugh and heard her explosion of joy — "Look at my little doggies! What an unbelievable treat!" — we had to say, for all her regal bearing, her magisterial talent, she's a trouper, our Helen.

Case closed. She's exactly all that.

Robert Love is editor-in-chief of AARP The Magazine.

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