THE HOUSE OF HELEN
Helen Mirren has always avoided ghost stories. Until now...
IN A NEAR 50-year career, Dame
Helen Mirren has never made a horror movie. There’s the vaguely sinister teen thriller Teaching Mrs. Tingle, and she was a bit of a beast in Monsters University, but there’s nothing on her CV too spooky. Winchester is a first for the Oscar-winning actor, with all the trappings of a good, old-fashioned chiller: a haunted house, lavish gothic costumes, jump scares — and ghosts.
Mirren, however, disagrees.
“I wouldn’t call this a horror movie,” she tells Empire. “It’s a psychological drama.” A beat. “With ghosts,” she laughs.
Whatever genre it falls into, Winchester is based on a mysterious real-life figure. Mirren plays Sarah Winchester, the widow and heir of gun tycoon William Wirt Winchester.
She spent her fortune building a vast
San Jose mansion, continuously under construction for over 40 years. Legends soon sprung up that the house was haunted by those killed by Winchester rifles — and seeing as it was known as “the gun that won the West”, that’s a heck of a lot of ghosts.
“I don’t really believe in ghosts,” says Mirren, when Empire joins her in one of
the Winchester House’s 161 rooms.
“But I believe in the power of belief. If you believe strongly enough, who am I to say it’s not there?” Sarah Winchester certainly believed: according to legend, she would hold nightly séances, with the spirits acting as paranormal architects. The house — now a popular tourist attraction — is a bewildering rabbit-warren mess. Empire gets lost almost immediately.
“It has that wonderful Alice In Wonderland-ish feeling,” says Mirren.
Jason Clarke, who plays psychiatrist Eric Price, sent to assess Sarah, affirms that “it’s not a cheap spooky movie, it has weight and meaning”, and marvels at acting opposite Mirren. “On something like this, you’ve got to go big or go home — and still make it real,” he says. “I mean, she’s played Cleopatra three times! She knows how to go big.” She may not (quite) be breaking the habit of a career, but this promises to be a Helen Mirren performance unlike any other.
WINCHESTER IS IN CINEMAS FROM 22 FEBRUARY
We spoke with Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke in the US on 5 May 2017.
Top: Helen Mirren as grieving widow Sarah Winchester. Above: With Dr Price (Jason Clarke).