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Helen Mirren Is Speaking Up for Endangered Animals

Celebrated English actress talks about her new nature documentary and returning to acting during a pandemic

Actress Helen Mirren

Rachel Murray/Getty Images for L'Oréal Paris

Why would a British Tony/Oscar/Emmy/Golden Globe winner agree to narrate a documentary about species extinction, produced by an animal rights organization in the U.S. (American Humane)? When the superstar is Dame Helen Mirren, the reasoning goes like this: “American Humane? That sounds good,” she says. “Preservation of wild species? That sounds good.” As Escape From Extinction arrives in theaters this week, Helen Mirren talks with AARP about not baking bread during quarantine, why planes feel safer than supermarkets, and her passion for rhinos.

The childhood trauma of traditional zoos

I don't tend to go to zoos because I find it uncomfortable. My memory of the London Zoo as a child, actually, is quite traumatic. I found it so upsetting to see a beautiful tiger pacing up and down in a small iron cage with a concrete floor.

An education in the new zoo

I was really in a state of ignorance about how radically certain zoos have changed, and how many species have become extinct in my lifetime. I became aware of what the really good zoos are doing in science, development and taking care that certain species don't disappear off the face of the planet. I learned the incredible difference between the good zoo and the bad zoo.

To zoo or not to zoo

Do your homework and find out what kind of a zoo it is you are visiting. Is it accredited? See if the zoo is doing the kind of work and the animals are living in a way you feel is righteous. Never go to the kind of zoo where you're there to have your photo taken with a wild animal. That is unconscionable.

Animal crush confession

I was always a giraffe person and a rhinoceros person. I love the animals with that prehistoric feel about them. I took an extraordinary trip across Africa with a theater group — which now you can't do because of the political dangers — and we did see giraffes in the wild. You love the animals because they're wild, that's why they're called wild animals, because they don't live in the middle of Chicago. But on other hand, we will lose so many species if a concerted effort is not made by the people with the resources and the inclination and the science to do that work — and those people [work] in zoos.

Her childhood life with animals, Part 1

I grew up in a suburban environment. So honestly nature and I were strangers. It wasn't really until I left college that I started seeing a world that I hadn't been aware of before, quite honestly.

Her childhood life with animals, Part 2

We had a slobbery old bulldog [Brutus] who was always slobbering everywhere and then a series of cats. We weren't sort of a big pet pet-ty family, we had the normal sort of household pets.


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The revelations of being “stuck” at home during the pandemic

Because so much of my life has been packing and unpacking in hotels, it was good to actually be in one spot with my husband. At the end of three months [during the pandemic], we realized it was the first time in 30 years that we had done what most normal couples do, which is sit down for dinner every night. Cooking and eating, exercising and just having mental space. Not to have the sort of constant pressure and grate of having to work. Obviously we were in a very, extremely privileged situation, in that we could afford to just take three months off.

Quarantine cooking

We did cook. The trouble with making bread is that you then have to eat it — it's very dangerous. So we avoided making bread. We got very into the New York Times' “What to Cook This Week."

Mirren Fast Facts

Actress Helen Mirren

Britta Pedersen/picture alliance via Getty Images

Age:  75

Hometown: Hammersmith, London

All in the family: Mirren (The Queen) and husband Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Ray) are both Oscar winners, with seven nominations between them.

Current project: Documentary Escape from Extinction

Greatest hits: Prime Suspect, The Queen, Trumbo, Calendar Girls, Gosford Park, The Madness of King George

Next movies: The Duke, British heist movie by Notting Hill’s director, plus Fast & Furious sequel F9.

A new theatrical tragedy

My great heartache is the theater being so devastated. That's for me where all the drama and storytelling in the dramatic form begins. There's probably no likelihood for the theater opening for another year or until there's a viable and realistic vaccine. You can't do a play to socially distanced people. It's just not what the theater is about, so that's my great heartache.

Her careful return to film acting

It's one step at a time. Production is just beginning. Everyone is finding their feet, trying to find out how to make this work. They're finding protocols to make it possible. Next week I'm filming Solos, a monologue for Amazon, so an easier thing to control. Our whole business is fracturing but finding its new forms.

A bit about that viral little July 5 Instagram selfie in mask and goggles

It was my first trip on an airplane. It was great. I feel safer on a plane than I do at the supermarket, because I know the air is changed every four minutes, completely new air. The planes are incredibly disinfected and clean, and on certain flights, socially distanced, and also the airports are kind of empty. But nonetheless the first flight out, it's better to be safe than sorry.

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