In 1985, Taylor Hackford directed Helen Mirren in the movie White Nights. They have lived together since 1986, getting married in 1997. She became a Dame in 2003. And in 2010, they finally made another movie together, Love Ranch.
In the film, Mirren portrays Grace Bontempo, who along with her husband Charlie (Joe Pesci) own and run one of Nevada’s first legalized brothels. When Charlie brings in a world famous heavyweight boxer named Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) to train at the ranch for a big fight, Bruza and Grace are attracted to each other, leading to an affair with deadly consequences.
Taylor Hackford spoke with us about working with his wife again, and directing her in a steamy sex scene.
Do you think that Helen consciously was seeking a role like this?
That’s how I got her. Seriously, I’ve been looking for something for us to do together since we met. I would get passionate about a project and there were no roles for her, there was no role for her in Ray. There was a role that she could have played in Devil’s Advocate, which was just a minor role and she said, ‘No thank you.’
You have a major actress with an ego; her ego’s not inflated but (she wanted) something that (she could) really do. (We’ve been together) 26 years, I said, ‘We’ve got to work together.’ But I didn’t know what it was going to be.
I thought this could be a great role for Helen. I mentioned it to her and after her first blush of, ‘You want to make me a madam in a brothel?’ she said, ‘Yeah, it’s cool.’ It’s a great role, and that’s what attracts an actress or an actor.
Were there any special challenges working with Helen?
It was very different than it was when we first met on White Nights; then the blush was on the rose. When you are working with your spouse, especially after a long period of marriage, at this point we’re very comfortable with each other and we know each other really well.
First of all, we didn’t have this kind of conscious ‘let’s sit down and define our roles.’ She was off with the actors, I was a director.
She had to bond with (the actresses who played the hookers) and in effect be a cast member, which is, it’s us against the world. That’s what actors’ think. It’s a very simple thing, directors are result oriented, you give us a release date, we have a budget and we’ve got to get it done.
Actors are process oriented, they’ve got to find this amazing thing in the ethos that they can communicate with, they’ve got to get to the base of the character, and they don’t care how long it takes. They’re going to do it for as long (as a director lets them).
Helen said she had trouble doing the American accent, did that surprise you?
Helen is a very natural actor and she has played in Tennessee Williams in England, and affected a southern accent. I think it’s easier for English people to do a southern accent. But in this instance I was going for a very flat, American accent of the west.
She worked at it and I think she got it. I was very tough on her, because I said, ‘You have to really be this working-class woman.’ Hard thing is, you’ve got this classy broad, who played the Queen, and she’s done Shakespeare and everybody knows her as this kind of classical actress.
What was the most difficult scene to shoot?
The most difficult scene to shoot on one level was the boxing. I am a lifelong fight fan and really love the art. And when you’ve got someone like Scorsese who’s done Raging Bull, you have a large thing to live up to.
This fight is the catalyst that changes everything. Right up until that point Charlie Bontempo is a king, everything has worked for him, he has accomplished the impossible, he got prostitution legalized, there’s nothing that will stop him. But in that fight everything changes. And the fight itself and the sense that the secret that Bruza’s carrying that nobody knows except him and his trainer, has to come out in that fight.
Can you talk about shooting the sex scene between Helen and Sergio? Is it harder for you to direct your wife, for Helen to be directed by you with another man or for Sergio to be with both of you?
It was hardest for Sergio. Helen has made her reputation from the get-go by being very frank about her sexuality and nudity. I have done a lot of love scenes in films and I hope you don’t look at any of my films and say they are gratuitous. They are important for the story, and I believe that they have to be approached realistically from an acting point-of-view.
Did you ever see Savage Messiah, the Ken Russell movie? I’ve seen my wife long before I ever met her, all of her! Nudity for people in Europe is not exactly what it is for us here. That’s what this film is about.
The reality is we come from this kind of puritan ethic that the most natural thing in the world, sex, is bad, wrong, taboo, you don’t deal with it. I dealt with this in An Officer and a Gentleman. The movie is about two people who find each other sexually first, the mutual needs of two young people that have sexual drives. They fall in love later.
Now people are saying, ‘Oh it was such a commercial movie.’ Believe me at the time people were going, ‘No, you can’t do that!’