He­len Mir­ren ex­clu­sive:

In a frank and re­veal­ing in­ter­view, Dame He­len Mir­ren talks to Juliet Rieden about Har­vey We­in­stein’s ag­gres­sive bul­ly­ing, her “won­der­ful” time shoot­ing a ghost film in Melbourne, the sheer joy of clothes that make you feel “cool”, and how she copes with

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

on anx­i­ety, fight­ing bul­lies and lov­ing Oz!

It’s the day after the Golden Globe Awards and Dame He­len Mir­ren is on a high. “It was a great night. I don’t think it will ever be quite re­peated in that way, ever again. It was a mo­ment in time,” she says, adrenalin still cours­ing from an evening when, even though the beloved Brit didn’t win the Best Ac­tress award she was nom­i­nated for, his­tory was be­ing made. “The Golden Globes is a heady ex­pe­ri­ence,” He­len tells The Weekly. “The room is so small and even the stars’ top agents can’t get in. It’s re­ally only those who are nom­i­nated and their very close as­so­ciates who are there.

It’s like a con­cen­trated Hol­ly­wood. So for that to hap­pen that night in that con­text, it was quite a pow­er­ful thing.”

The Os­car-win­ning star is talk­ing of the agenda-set­ting ex­plo­sion of woman power that erupted on stage to univer­sal cheers and tears. The dress code was a uni­form black and there were rous­ing, an­gry, heart­felt speeches from stars in­clud­ing Ni­cole Kid­man, Elis­a­beth Moss and Laura Dern, topped off with a defin­ing ora­tion from Oprah Win­frey declar­ing, “their time is up” and re­sult­ing in calls for Oprah to run for Pres­i­dent dom­i­nat­ing the next morn­ing’s news cy­cle.

This was the first awards cer­e­mony to take place in Hol­ly­wood in the wake of the Har­vey We­in­stein rev­e­la­tions, which ex­posed decades of bul­ly­ing, sex­ual abuse and Machi­avel­lian ca­reer as­sas­si­na­tion suf­fered by some of Hol­ly­wood’s finest ac­tresses. The sub­se­quent #MeToo so­cial me­dia tem­pest that rained down be­trayed an in­dus­try des­per­ately in need of re­form – and not just in Hol­ly­wood, but here in Aus­tralia also.

I ask He­len if she felt proud hear­ing her col­leagues speak with such con­vic­tion and courage about what had been Hol­ly­wood’s dirty se­cret for so long. “Yes, I did,” she says. “The film in­dus­try gets con­stant at­tack and crit­i­cism and flak and in­sults and ha­tred thrown at it, but at least, un­like other in­dus­tries, they came to­gether and spoke as one and said, ‘enough, it’s over, this is a new day dawn­ing’. I haven’t seen that hap­pen in the world of univer­si­ties or me­dia or busi­ness or politics.”

Har­vey We­in­stein had dis­trib­uted films He­len had worked on and she says, “the irony and the con­tra­dic­tion and the pain of the whole thing, if you like the loss of Har­vey, is that he did the kind of movies that an aw­ful lot of film­mak­ers want to do, the in­de­pen­dent films, the in­ter­est­ing films.

“The very first time I met and worked with Har­vey was on The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover which he dis­trib­uted in America. He’s very coura­geous and he took that lit­tle,

“There will al­ways be that el­e­ment of ex­treme pas­sion and peo­ple los­ing it and shout­ing ... that’s not go­ing to go away. But there has been a ma­jor cul­tural shift,” says He­len.

Men are weird! It’s noth­ing to do with sex, it’s more to do with power.”

low bud­get, high art movie and he made sure that it was seen in America.” The 1989 film shocked, de­lighted and hor­ri­fied crit­ics and au­di­ences with its graphic vi­o­lence, bondage cos­tumes by French cou­turier Jean-Paul Gaultier and nu­dity.

Over the years We­in­stein proved to be the cham­pion of brave and bril­liant movies but as we now know it came at a cost. Did He­len have any sense of the abuse at the heart of Har­vey’s seem­ingly cre­ative world? “Ab­so­lutely not at all. No, not at all,” she says firmly. “When I first ar­rived in Hol­ly­wood I was al­ready in my mid-30s, so I was just not a can­di­date for that kind of thing. No, I didn’t know any­thing about it at all. I knew that Har­vey could be very, very ag­gres­sive, very bul­ly­ing, very de­mean­ing to peo­ple he worked with. And a lot of peo­ple in Hol­ly­wood can be like that, in­ci­den­tally. They’re very pas­sion­ate and it’s a dog-eat-dog world where peo­ple can be ab­so­lutely fe­ro­cious. I knew film­mak­ers who had been sub­jected to very vi­o­lent bul­ly­ing – but I guess I put that down to that sort of pas­sion that I saw in the early days.”

He­len says she was shocked and in­creas­ingly per­plexed when the scan­dal broke. “The shift has been com­ing, the vol­cano has been bub­bling away there,” she muses. “It was weird, all of them – not just We­in­stein; Bill O’Reilly [for­mer Fox News host], Roger Ailes [for­mer Fox News Chair­man]. Weird. Eww! Men are weird! Ob­vi­ously it’s ab­so­lutely noth­ing to do with sex, it’s more to do with power, and what is it in men that needs that?”

He­len’s film di­rec­tor hus­band Tay­lor Hack­ford was equally stunned. “He was like me, I don’t think he had any con­cept of that. He had a con­cept of the na­ture of peo­ple los­ing it and shout­ing at peo­ple and de­mean­ing peo­ple in front of other peo­ple, that sort of thing. It’s part and par­cel of ex­is­tence in Hol­ly­wood, re­ally, and peo­ple know that and they toughen up and they deal with it and they get on with it ... But yes, a ma­jor shift has hap­pened.”

Ghostly en­coun­ters

Mean­while at 72, He­len’s ca­reer is soar­ing, prov­ing that the We­in­stein scan­dal isn’t the only force chang­ing the land­scape of Hol­ly­wood. At last, films with roles for women over 40, 50, 60, 70 and 80, cov­er­ing a kalei­do­scope of gen­res are fill­ing our the­atres, and I’m here to­day to talk to He­len about Winch­ester, the ac­tress’s first haunted house movie (in cin­e­mas from Fe­bru­ary 22) filmed last year in Melbourne and di­rected by Aussie broth­ers Michael and Peter Spierig.

This scary ghost story is ac­tu­ally based on real events and He­len de­liv­ers another ar­rest­ing and

deeply thought-pro­vok­ing per­for­mance as lead­ing lady Sarah Winch­ester. The real Mrs Winch­ester is a fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter and some­thing of a leg­end in America, where her bizarre and ex­tra­or­di­nary house is a fix­ture on the spooks’ tourism trail.

Sarah’s hus­band in­vented “the gun that won the West”, the dead­li­est sin­gle-handed weapon of its day, and when Wil­liam died in 1881 from a bout of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, Sarah be­came heiress to a stag­ger­ing for­tune and 50 per cent share­holder in the Winch­ester Re­peat­ing Arms Com­pany. But that legacy preyed heav­ily on the griev­ing widow who – in the film at least – be­lieved that the venge­ful souls of those killed by her hus­band’s ri­fles were com­ing back to haunt her and seek ret­ri­bu­tion. To that end she built a house on an iso­lated stretch of land out­side San Fran­cisco – still in situ – which re­mained a con­stant work in progress through­out her life as she end­lessly con­structed hun­dreds of rooms to house the spir­its.

“There’s a lot of mythol­ogy around Sarah Winch­ester,” says He­len. “I re­searched the truth of her but it was very hard to get to that truth. Many dif­fer­ent peo­ple had dif­fer­ent ideas about her. I be­lieve she was a woman with great em­pa­thy, deep feel­ings [for oth­ers]. But at the same time the for­tune that she’s spend­ing on build­ing this house came from the Winch­ester ri­fle for­tune. An in­stru­ment of death and war and so there is an in­cred­i­ble con­tra­dic­tion.

Our film ex­plores that.”

The tim­ing of a movie tack­ling gun cul­ture was not lost on He­len – in­deed, it was part of the rea­son she was at­tracted to the role. “For me, it was some­thing I feel very deeply about,” she ex­plains. “I was a part of an [Ox­fam] ini­tia­tive a few years back to try and stop the pro­lif­er­a­tion of small arms, the il­le­gal sale of small arms in the world, be­cause the big NGOs like Ox­fam were re­al­is­ing all their ef­forts to feed peo­ple, to give peo­ple wa­ter, all their big ef­forts, were go­ing for noth­ing be­cause of the ac­cess to ar­ma­ments, and the way small com­mu­ni­ties were get­ting ac­cess to arms which was cre­at­ing un­be­liev­able havoc.

“It’s some­thing I do feel very, very strongly about and this story ties into that in the sense that our char­ac­ter, Sarah Winch­ester, whether this is true or not, was very, very con­scious of the de­struc­tive na­ture of the way her fam­ily had made its for­tune, the ul­ti­mate price that so many hu­mans have paid for the money that she was sit­ting on. I was feel­ing the weight of that when I was Sarah Winch­ester.”

He­len now spends much of her life liv­ing in the US and says that the con­stant shoot­ings there and the lack of reg­u­la­tion fu­elled by the Con­sti­tu­tion’s Sec­ond Amend­ment, “the right of the peo­ple to keep and to bear arms”, is

“one of the many things I find ut­terly mys­ti­fy­ing. But the re­al­ity of that is the cul­ture,” she says. “I think much as one can look at it with horror, a bit like the weird sex­ual thing that’s been go­ing on; you look at it with horror and mys­ti­fi­ca­tion and jaw-drop­ping kind of ‘what the f*** – why, why?’. But also you can’t turn away, you can’t deny it, and

I don’t think this coun­try will ever, ever get over it. I think it’s too em­bed­ded in the cul­ture

... But then you know what, one said that about sex­ism not so long ago, that it was em­bed­ded in the cul­ture, and look what’s hap­pened! So maybe I should be more op­ti­mistic,” she quips.

He­len says mak­ing Winch­ester was “won­der­ful”. She first came to Aus­tralia in 1968, to film Age of Con­sent, a movie based on fa­mous painter and au­thor Nor­man Lind­say’s banned novel and also starring James Ma­son. “I remember that so vividly be­cause it was al­most my first trip in an aero­plane and I flew from Lon­don to Syd­ney. Of course it was a very dif­fer­ent Aus­tralia from the Aus­tralia of to­day. We were shoot­ing a lot of the film on the Great Bar­rier Reef and women weren’t al­lowed in the pubs!”

Film­ing Winch­ester in cos­mopoli­tan Melbourne was a whole dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. “It’s the first time I’ve spent a sub­stan­tial amount of time in Melbourne. It was won­der­ful to get to know and love and ad­mire it as much as I did. It’s one of the great cities.”

He­len’s out­fits for the movie are very struc­tured and but­toned up, re­flect­ing the pe­riod. “My cos­tume was re­peat­ing the pho­to­graphs of Sarah and, like the set of the house, they were re­pro­duced as ac­cu­rately as pos­si­ble, But it’s never fun to wear a corset all day long!” she laughs.

“I love fash­ion!”

Fash­ion is one of He­len’s great pas­sions and for this photo shoot she donned a wardrobe of fab­u­lously chic sculp­tured dresses and up-to-theminute sil­ver jew­ellery. “I’ve never had the body for fash­ion un­for­tu­nately; it’s one of the banes of my life, the fact that my hips have al­ways been too big, my legs too short, my bum’s too big, but all my life I’ve loved fash­ion.

“I’m not a fash­ion­ista but l love the art of cloth­ing. I love fash­ion as an ex­pres­sion of per­son­al­ity. I was for­ever mak­ing my own clothes when I was younger be­cause I couldn’t find the kind of things I wanted to wear in the shops.”

In Oc­to­ber last year, He­len thrilled the fash­ion world when she and ac­tress Jane Fonda sen­sa­tion­ally strut­ted on the Paris run­way in a show for L’Oréal. Su­per­model Naomi Camp­bell was sit­ting front row cheer­ing on as He­len killed it in on-trend mas­cu­line shoes, wide-legged check pants and a su­per trendy trench coat. She was a role model to all women, but es­pe­cially to older women tired of be­ing pi­geon-holed into fash­ion choices dom­i­nated by elas­ti­cated waists and shape­less jumpers.

I ask He­len how she ap­proaches her fash­ion choices and ex­actly what she can wear with con­fi­dence at this time of life. “I don’t think I see it dif­fer­ently,” she muses. “I think with the in­cred­i­ble, won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity I have nowa­days to wear these beau­ti­ful clothes

– I give them back but I get to bor­row them or wear them for a photo shoot – it’s an in­cred­i­ble plea­sure. I’ve al­ways loved the cos­tume depart­ment, I like cos­tume fit­tings, I love cre­at­ing the char­ac­ter through the cloth­ing, so I’ve al­ways been very at­tracted to fab­rics.

“Prob­a­bly the clothes I can’t wear are more or less the stuff I wouldn’t have worn when I was 22, be­cause it wouldn’t have looked good on me. But yes, it is quite a dif­fi­cult line to walk and some­times I look at my­self and I’ll be wear­ing some­thing that I would have so loved when I was 22 – and I didn’t have when I was 22 and be­cause I didn’t have it then I want it now – but then I look at my­self and I go, ‘He­len, you can­not do that ... sorry, dar­ling, but you can­not wear an enor­mous pink net skirt, you just can’t!’”

The se­cret to great out­fits, says He­len, is that, “they can make you feel se­cure” and “they can make you feel cool.” In­cred­i­bly, self-doubt and in­se­cu­rity is some­thing He­len has suf­fered all her life and she says it’s still with her. “Ab­so­lutely. But you know what, what you learn is you’ve just got to grit your teeth and get through it. Pre­tend that you’re not feel­ing like that. Just pre­tend. I’ve got a deep sense of pro­fes­sion­al­ism and if you’ve said you’re go­ing to do some­thing you do it to the best of your abil­ity. The fact that you feel in­se­cure or stupid or what­ever is your busi­ness, it’s not their busi­ness. You’ve just got to get over that.”

He­len’s pro­fes­sion­al­ism cer­tainly came to the fore when she took on fre­quent nude scenes for her roles, and she con­fesses to­day that she never liked do­ing them. “Hon­estly, it was as mis­er­able to do it when I was in my 20s as it was in my 30s and 40s. Fi­nally I’m lib­er­ated from that, I hope, but it all to­tally de­pends on the ma­te­rial and the re­quire­ments of the story. Luck­ily at my age you’re not go­ing to be there for sex­ist rea­sons.” And with the wind of change shak­ing up Hol­ly­wood, hope­fully those times are fi­nally in the past.

CLOCK­WISE, FROM LEFT: He­len with hus­band Tay­lor Hack­ford; play­ing Sarah Winch­ester in her new movie, a spooky ghost story based on real events; on her first visit to Aus­tralia in 1968.

ABOVE: He­len owns the L’Oréal run­way at a fash­ion show in Paris. OP­PO­SITE: It was He­len’s idea to ask one of the pho­to­graphic as­sis­tants to be in the shoot.

“He was do­ing the lights, and I looked at this beau­ti­ful tat­too on his arm and I said, ‘Do you mind, can I bor­row your arm? Just put your arm round here, and I think that would be a funny shot’.”

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