PHOTOGRAPHY BY JASON BELL
Itu2019s a gloriously sunny October afternoon, and Helen Mirren is soaking in a hot tub perched on a cliff in the Hollywood Hills, shaded by an orange tree heavy with ripe fruit. She pulls down the straps on her navy swimsuit, exposing her creamy, chiseled shoulders, and then runs her hand through her short white-blond hair, slicking it back. Water drips down her forehead into her eyes, but she gazes ahead, chin high. u201cOne, two, three, go,u201d she says softly and splashes water onto her face like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit modelu2014and then promptly breaks out coughing and laughing. u201cOnly 23 more takes to go!u201d jokes the photographer, Jason Bell. u201cWhen you stop breathing, we got it.u201d She laughs, shakes her head, slicks back her hair again, and cocks her chin high before splashing herself one more time.
It seems right to first spy Dame Mirren like this: barely clothed and 100 percent confident at 72 years old. In 2008, a photo of her in a red bikiniu2014abs blaring, taunting women a quarter her ageu2014practically broke the internet. Sheu2019s peerless in Hollywood. Itu2019s impossible to lump her with other actresses, British or American, young or old. No one is as talented as Mirren, as glamorous, as outspoken. And because of this, she hasu2014without tryingu2014become a role model for women of all professions: someone who does what she wants, says what she wants, and enjoys it. Really enjoys it.
u201cI have no idea how that happened,u201d she says of her newfound role-model status. Her hair is still wet from the hot tub, but sheu2019s changed into jeans and a sheer white blouse (black bra peeking out), and weu2019re sitting on bright-orange-cushioned deck chairs on the porch of the home Rhapsody rented for this photo shoot, sipping English breakfast tea. u201cMaybe itu2019s just to do with the fact that Iu2019m still working, if you know what I mean.u201d She raises a perfectly groomed brow conspiratorially. u201cItu2019s inevitable as life rolls on and youu2019re still standing that you become some sort of a role model.u201d (For the record, her best advice is: u201cBe on time and donu2019t be an a******.u201d) u201cI mean, I do get myself into hot water sometimes by opening my big mouth a little too much, but on the other hand, Iu2019ve always felt that a certain amount of honesty is probably good. You canu2019t be too guarded and too careful and too u2026 curated.u201d She lets out a low chuckle. u201cQuite early in my career, I made a decision to be as open and as forthright as I could be. Itu2019s dangerous to be too forthright, but I never wanted that carefully constructed public image.u201d
Probably because of that, sheu2019s never been pigeonholed during her 50-year career. Sheu2019s played the ingenue and the sexpot (Age of Consent, Caligula), the worried mom and the badass detective (Mosquito Coast, Prime Suspect), the dutiful housekeeper and the secret agent (Gosford Park, Red), and the queen, and the queen, and the queen.
This month she takes on yet another new role: a Southern housewife dying of cancer whou2019s tasked with taking care of her Alzheimeru2019s-stricken husband in The Leisure Seeker. Mirren received a Golden Globe nomination for her performanceu2014and for good reason. Itu2019s a beautiful film, about love and forgiveness, about truly living, about death. Mirrenu2019s character, Ella, realizes that just because she and her husband, John (Donald Sutherland), are dying, that doesnu2019t mean they have to live like they are, so they set off in their old Winnebago to the Florida Keys to finally see Ernest Hemingwayu2019s house, a bucket-list trip of theirs that they somehow never got around to when they were healthy. Though they drive each other crazy, their relationship is enviable, that kind of one-true-love story everyone dreams about. But maybe not Mirren. u201cI think Iu2019ve had more than one love in my life, actually,u201d she says matter of factly. u201cBut the reality is who you finish up with and how you form that relationship. So of course itu2019s to do with love, but itu2019s also very much to do with friendship and partnership and lots of other things. You know, as you pile on memories, and maybe families, and maybe tragedies, experiences together, experiences apart from each other, arguments, fightsu2014it all piles up and up and up and up to become a whole lifetime together. And then at that point youu2019ve gone way beyond your generationu2019s idea of love. Youu2019re so far beyond what you know. Itu2019s much more to do with life experience with someone.u201d She pauses. u201cThe other thing I do know is, there are no rules. Nothing is the same for any two people.u201d
Mirren has been married to the director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Ray) for 20 years. They met while working on the film White Nights in 1985 but havenu2019t collaborated on anything since. When asked whether they would do another movie together, Mirren demurs: u201cHmm, I donu2019t knowu2026u201d before shaking her head and quickly correcting herself: u201cI mean, yes, absolutely! I would love to work with him again.u201d In general, they keep their work u201cvery separateu201d and are most concerned with scheduling shoots so they can be together at their house in Puglia, Italy, as much as possible. u201cWe absolutely support each other and encourage each other, but we donu2019t have heavy, deep discussions about each otheru2019s projects,u201d she says. u201cIu2019ll say, u2018I might be doing this film, Taylor, in September. I think Iu2019m going to say yes.u2019 And so he says, u2018Oh, OK, fine. Where is it?u2019u201d She laughs. u201cItu2019s more that kind of conversation. Not, u2018Oh, I must read it and give my thoughts on it!u2019 And likewise when his projects come up.u201d
Mirrenu2019s next project is Februaryu2019s Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built, a supernatural horror film (another first for her) inspired by the story of Sarah Winchester, the heiress of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. As legend goes, Sarah, who lost her daughter and husband unexpectedly, believed the family was cursed and haunted by all those who died by the Winchester rifle, and she spent the rest of her life in California constructing a gigantic mansionu2014with 160 rooms, staircases to nowhere, and 2,000 doors, trapdoors, and spy holesu2014to appease the spirits. The film, no doubt, takes on heavier implications now, just following the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas. u201cAnd that implication, with or without the horrors of Las Vegas or Orlando and the horrors to comeu2014because it will definitely happen againu2014is simply saying guns cause death, and what about those people?u201d Mirren says. u201cI liked the idea of a film that was about the victims of gun violence as opposed to about the perpetrators of gun violence. Itu2019s very much about the victims.u201d In the U.K., Mirren stresses, u201cnobody has guns. Police donu2019t carry guns.u201d (No, Prime Suspectu2019s Detective Jane Tennison didnu2019t either.) u201cAs I say, if Americans are prepared to sacrifice a huge number of Americans to gun violence every year, then what can you say? Itu2019s like the Mayans, sacrificing people to their gods. Youu2019re literally sacrificing people to your god, which is the gun.u201d
Though she says she needs to watch her tongue, Mirren is actually quite careful with her words. She pauses a lot, squinting her pale blue eyes and pursing her lips, often emitting soft u201chmmsu201d (most definitely not u201cummsu201d) as sheu2019s thinking so you know not to interrupt her; you can almost see the words spinning about in her head, falling into place before she speaks aloud. Sure, she has said plenty of things that people deem controversial (too many things to list, really), but she knew what she was saying, and sheu2019s fine with it.u00a0
Another prime piece of advice from Mirren? u201cDonu2019t be too up your own bum.u201d Sheu2019s always trying to remind herself of this and to u201cput myself in the universe and not as absolutely the center point around which the whole of the universe rotates.u201d This, she says, was one of the most important lessons she learned when she first started traveling in her 20s, with a touring theater troupe, observing other cultures and communities. u201cItu2019s kind of what my tattoo was aboutu201du2014she rubs her thumb, which is marked with two interlocking Vu2019s, a symbol for the Mayan phrase in lau2019kech, which roughly translates to u201cwe are oneu201du2014u201cto try to recognize that you are only a small part of the whole universe.u201d
u201cI love the way the world is changing; I love the way culture is changing for women, especially,u201d she continues, taking a sip of her tea. u201cIu2019m hoping against hope that women have gone far enough now that there is no pulling them backu2014in Western society, I might add. But that does seem to be spreading. Thinking of Saudi Arabian women triumphant that they are u2018allowedu2019 to drive is like arrrgh! That word, allowed, drives me crazy.u201d
She puts her feet up on the table and admires the wind chimes hanging above her, playing a delicate melody. u201cI do wish I was 30 now,u201d she says. u201cNot because I wish I was 30! Not that. But I want to have more of my life in the world weu2019re going to have for the next 40 or 50 years, for women. I just want to experience this world as a younger person. I had to go through the u201960s and u201970s, which was hideous. It was a hideous time for women, really, because the impact of birth control and the so-called sexual explosion, which was actually dreadful for girls and women. It was the Hugh Hefner attitudeu2014girls and women became sexual objects. I hated Hugh Hefner and everything he represented.u201d
Mirren says she first felt beautiful in her late 30s. In her 20s, she felt too curvy, too much; she didnu2019t have the Twiggy body she was supposed to have, that everyone was supposed to have. But finally, u201cI just relaxed into who I was,u201d she says. u201cIt was never going to change; I wasnu2019t suddenly, overnight, going to become something else. And everything worked, if you know what I mean.u201d She throws her head back and laughs loudly.
Mirren has spent most of her career being labeled a sex symbolu2014even at 72, a time when most women are just labeled grandma. How does she feel about that? She sighs and runs her hand through her hair, which is almost dry now. u201cIu2019ve had to come to terms with it over a long period of time. Luckily itu2019s fading now.u201d She laughs. u201cFinally fading. And what does it mean really? You know, what does it mean? Does it mean that people want to f*** you? Because thatu2019s rather ghastly, isnu2019t it, the thought of all these weird strangers? Iu2019ve always found it a very tacky and unpleasant tag, but itu2019s one I had to kind of grit my teeth and bear for a long, long time.u201d With her tough-as-nails confidence and disregard for societal expectations of how a woman of a certain age is supposed to be, itu2019s easy to argue that Mirren is a different kind of sex symbolu2014more empowering Wonder Woman than passive Playboy Bunny. u201cIf it means youu2019re a symbol of a certain kind of woman, thatu2019s fine by me. Thatu2019s absolutely fine. But I donu2019t think it does somehow! I think it means the other.u201d
With this image, Helen Mirren is supporting TK Maxxu2019s Give Up Clothes For Good campaign for Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens, which encourages the public to donate unwanted clothes to TK Maxx stores across the UK. The money raised will help find treatments for children and young people with cancer. Since 2004, TK Maxx has raised over u00a332 million for Cancer Research UK.
A beauty icon, thoughu2014thatu2019s a different story. Mirren is the face of Lu2019Oru00e9alu2019s Age Perfect moisturizer (though in August she opened that u201cbig mouthu201d of hers at a panel and said that it u201cprobably does f*** all, but it just makes me feel betteru201d), and the week before our interview, she walked down her first runway in a fashion show for the beauty brand in Paris. u201cOh my god, I loved it so much!u201d she squeals. u201cI was so happy! It was a dream come true, never having remotely looked like a model girl. The amazing clothes and, aah, the music! And down the Champs-u00c9-f******-lysu00e9es! I mean, my god! In front of the Arc de f****** Triomphe. It was amazing! It was one of the best things ever. And how fun for it to happen at this end of my life?u201d
Like any woman, Mirren is tired of all the antiaging talk and our cultureu2019s obsession with turning back the clock, but she also understands it. u201cItu2019s the business of dreams and optimism, and I have no complaints about that,u201d she says. u201cI think dreams and optimism are what keep us all going, to a certain extent.u201d
Mirren has plenty more dreams of her own. She wants to travel more: to India, to Sri Lanka, to Vietnam. u201cIu2019d love to go to Pakistan, Iu2019d love to go to Uzbekistan, all the stans! So many places! Itu2019s endless, really.u201d She wants to make more movies, too, of course (she just started filming an action flick with Luc Besson), though she doesnu2019t know if sheu2019s up for more theater. (u201cItu2019s hard.u201d) She flirts with the idea of retirementu2014u201cMy husband makes fun of me when I say, u2018Oh, I think this is my last job probably, Taylor.u2019 He says, u2018Yeah, yeah, Iu2019ve heard that one before!u2019u201du2014but she knows thatu2019s not going to happen anytime soon. At the end of the day, she doesnu2019t want to be thought of as a great actress, an award winner, a sex symbol (hot tub photo be damned). So how would she define herself? u201cI think as a worker,u201d she says. She purses her lips and nods. u201cA worker.u201d
Glam Team: Hair by Richard Collins; Makeup by Jo Strettell