Why I love being a BADASS
Only Helen Mirren could manage to be a gun-toting secret agent, the Queen and a 67-year-old pin-up all at the same time. Just don’t mention sexist men... By Elaine Lipworth
The Queen is not amused. She has just learned she is going to lose her beloved yacht, Britannia. Neither is Helen Mirren — who is on stage as Queen Elizabeth II reliving the scene in The Audience, directed by Stephen Daldry. It’s a pivotal and emotional moment in the play — but the audience at London’s Gielgud Theatre earlier this year can’t hear a word because the dialogue is being drowned out by an almighty racket in the street from a group of enthusiastic drummers promoting a gay festival.
The drummers get the shock of their lives when, at 8.30pm, the 67-year- old Oscarwinning star of The Queen emerges in person at the stage door to give them a personal dressing-down. ‘I was onstage trying to make myself heard to an audience of 900 people with my fellow actors,’ says Helen, who is discussing the bizarre incident in detail for the first time. ‘It was impossible; we couldn’t hear each other speak.’ The cast had already performed a matinee, she explains. ‘After doing one-and-a-half shows — and I speak non- stop on stage for two hours — I just thought I couldn’t carry on like this. Soho on Saturday night is absolutely heaving. It’s incredible fun; people are out drinking and partying, having a grand old time. Lovely, nothing wrong with that. But these drummers had been hired to, literally, drum up people for this festival and they were drumming outside a nearby gay bar, not realising that we were probably 10 feet, if not less, away.’
A video of the actress outside the theatre that went viral showed her in full costume with a grey wig, bellowing at the drummers, who seemed oblivious. ‘The drumming was so loud, I realised the only way to communicate with them was to try and be louder than they were,’ says Helen. Her colourful language has been widely reported but Mirren, who won the Olivier Best Actress award for her role in the play, says it was not directed at the drummers. ‘I didn’t swear at them ever. I said: “Do you realise what you’re doing? You’re f****** up our performance; we can’t hear ourselves speak. Please stop.’”
She pauses for thought. ‘It must have been very funny, actually. I think people must have thought I was a mad, drunken old woman staggering around Soho.’ It is a measure of the high regard in which she is held that her outburst had the desired effect. ‘Sweetly, they stopped, almost immediately.’ And it is a testament to her good-natured sense of humour that she was seen the following day sporting a T-shirt promoting the ‘As One In The Park’ event. There were no hard feelings. ‘I love drummers and I love drumming,’ she says
I’ve met Helen several times and she is great company — opinionated, entertaining and disarmingly warm but also self- effacing to a fault. We are talking today in LA, where the actress lives with her husband, director Taylor Hackford (An Officer And A Gentleman, The Devil’s Advocate) and where her ‘Royal Rant’ was a topic of interest for days. Americans have developed their own relationship with ‘Dame Helen’, which borders on reverence. ‘Americans are very flattering, aren’t they? I mean, it’s lovely but I always take it with a pinch of salt because I think they want you to feel good. They don’t want to hurt your feelings, so they always say very nice things
about you .’ Throughout her career she has always avoided typecasting. Her role as the retired, gun-toting MI6 agent Victoria, in the 2010 action comedy RED, was her most surprising so far. Helen joined a star-heavy cast led by Bruce Willis, as former black-ops CIA agent Frank Moses, and John Malkovich as his eccentric partner, Marvin. ( RED is an acronym for Retired, Extremely Dangerous). Now she returns for the sequel, RED 2.
‘Apart from my moralistic feelings about guns, it just looked like a lot of fun,’ she says. ‘They trained me on small handguns, normal handguns, Berettas and all the way up to the Gatling gun, through the sniper rifles and so forth. I had an experience of shooting with real live ammunition, which was fantastic, a real education. That’s the good thing about doing a film like RED: it’s good just to shake it up a bit.’
She also revels in her newfound action heroine status. ‘Mama Matrix,’ she exclaims gleefully when I mention a RED 2 shot in which, swathed in fur, she is in the passenger seat of a blue Lotus Exige, shooting out of both windows simultaneously. ‘ I love being a badass; it’s just the best,’ she smiles. ‘But the more I handle guns, the less I like them. It’s so easy to cause such incredible damage. There’s no sport involved. That’s why I like Victoria — she’s a sniper. Target shooting, that sort of very precise clay-pigeon shooting, is fine, but the idea of using a gun to hurt any living creature is pretty horrendous. I want to make it very clear: I’m not killing anyone. I’m just debilitating them with non-life-threatening injuries that they will fully recover from, just because... I have to get from A to B.’
There’s a good dose of satire in RED 2 and the action is stylised; nonetheless the body count is high. Does she think there is any correlation between film violence and the reallife shootings that have plagued America? ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘Buddhists can be very violent when their buttons are pushed, as we are seeing right now in Indonesia [referring to the sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Belawan], and maybe they’ve never seen an action movie in their lives. I can’t sort my head out around that particular issue. Audiences all around the world, from five years up to 85, love action movies. It’s very expensive to make a movie and you have to take the desires of the audience on board to a certain extent.’ The conversation moves on from film violence to sexism in showbusiness and the fallout from the Jimmy Savile affair. ‘Oh, he could get away with anything, of course,’ Helen says. ‘I think the impact of all that has been massive and, you know, when certain people at the BBC, women, came out and said: “Well, actually it was perfectly normal”. I remember that. You didn’t complain — you just had to have a sense of humour about it; it was your job. Well, you know what? I don’t want to have a sense of humour about that. I didn’t then, but you just had to carry on.’
Along with Meryl Streep, Mirren consistently lands some of the best roles for women of