By Hollywood standards, Helen Mirren is a rarity. Now 72 years old, the award-winning actor has managed to navigate the industry without succumbing to its usual pitfalls.
And within the first five minutes of chatting with Mirren, we're officially charmed. She's smart, warm, funny, sexy and a little irreverent in the most delightful ways. That's probably why she's in a league of her own in Hollywood — a celebrity with universal appeal who lives her own truth and, notably, continues to land (and nail) roles of true substance.
The latest such role is Ella Spencer in The Leisure Seeker. On the surface, it's the classic American road trip. But the film digs deeper into the reality of life (and life together) as time begins its slow wind.
"I certainly think it's great they are being made," Mirren told us of movies that aren't age-reductive. "In the last 10 years, it's been such a huge shift toward the Marvel movies, and Marvel basically took over the film industry with the fun on one level but very destructive on another level. So all I can say is I'm happy [these movies] are being made now."
In this film, Ella and her husband, John (played by Donald Sutherland), demonstrate both the light and darkness inherent in loving someone through, well, everything.
Mirren understands the nuances of enduring love. Once a woman who insisted she'd never wed, she met director Taylor Hackford in 1985 on the film White Nights and has been married to him since 1997. For as much as young love is romanticized, there's so much to be said for two people showing up for each other every single day — after the frenzied pace of youth, after the kids and the careers. "When love does go on," as Mirren said.
"It's what we all do; we dreamily look into each other's eyes at the bar on a Friday night at the age of 23 and say, 'I just want to grow old with you.' It's a romantic image," she adds, countering, "The reality of growing old with someone is romantic! It's beautiful. But it's very different from what you imagine when you're young. If you've been through all these upheavals of life and challenges and arguments... There's something extraordinary about long love."
Where The Leisure Seeker and other films like it further the narrative is in treating the end of life as just that — life. "We deal with what happens when they lived happily ever after. The fact is it's not ever after. It's finite. They lived... what happened when they lived happily for a very long time." Mirren said with a laugh.
In treating aging with that refreshing frankness, the film also ventures into territory treaded too infrequently: intimacy after a certain age. Not lights-off, eyes-closed, implied intimacy, but authentic intimacy.
"Oh, we talked about it a lot," Mirren revealed of how she and Sutherland approached their sex scene. "Donald was fabulous with that. The scene was written differently, and Donald and I — mostly Donald, I have to say — said, ‘You know what? This is not going to work. Let’s really think about this.’ And it was really he who came up with the scene as it is, and I was very grateful to him."
In the end, Mirren felt they captured something special. "I thought it was true. It was delicate. But you know, this is a couple who’s had a long sexual relationship with each other, as married couples do, and they go through all different kinds of phases of sexuality with each other. So it had a great truthfulness to it, and I thought it was beautiful," she said. "I was happy to do it."
The scene is arguably indicative of the dawning of a new age in film and TV: one in which women aren't viewed solely as sexual objects yet are viewed as vibrant and sexy over 40. Perhaps we'll finally see reflected that joy and sex and flirting and, you know, fun doesn't just fade to black.
Considering this in the context of sweeping movements like Time's Up and #MeToo, we wonder aloud what areas in Hollywood still most need to be improved upon for women. Mirren's been asked this question many times over the years, she said, and her answer has changed as the times have changed. There is a constant, though.
"I’ve always said, and I think it’s transpired to be true, worry about roles for women in real life. ‘Cause if night follows day, the roles for women in film will follow," Mirren elaborated. "Role models in real life are what’s needed. So encourage girls to go into technology, into science, obviously into other professions."
She also noted that progress has been made, citing the rise of women in historically male-dominated work cultures such as law and academia. "The change in attitude is so substantial, obviously, now at this particular moment, but this has been coming a long time," said Mirren.
Of course, this means that the fabric of film and TV — and society as a whole — is changing right before our eyes. So, what advice would Mirren give to young women trying to break into the industry now? (Spoiler alert: It's sound advice for everyone.)
"Do your work diligently. Be honest. Be true. Be on time. Don’t be an asshole," she told us, laughing as she bit off those last words. "It’s the same advice I would have given 30 years ago, quite honestly."
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