Let’s just admit it – Helen Mirren can play anything she wants! She’s portrayed Queen Elizabeth in The Queen, Sofya, the wife of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, the madam of the first legalized brothel in Nevada in The Ranch and a female Prospero, named Prospera in Julie Taymor’s The Tempest.
In her newest movie, RED, she plays Victoria, a retired CIA agent who along with retirees Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman) and Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) must use their collective cunning and teamwork to stay one step ahead of the assassins who want to kill them.
What attracted you to this project?
There were a lot of reasons I was attracted to the project, first and foremost, the chance to get to work with Bruce.
It sounds like such a cliché when people like me sit here and say, ‘Oh God he’s just a great guy,’ but he is such a great guy, and an incredibly talented and generous actor. Those are attributes that many times are not reflected in the image or personality of someone of Bruce’s height of stardom and success.
Bruce has an incredible quality of wanting to be with other people, wanting to participate and not to hold himself apart. I think that is especially apparent for him in this role… he was the leader of our team.
This movie is a lot of fun for people, how did you approach playing this woman?
I approached it very seriously like I do everything really. It’s not a comedy really, it’s a comedic action picture. It’s always great to find someone you can pin your character on. Obviously in The Queen it was very easy to find the person to pin the character on, she’s called Queen Elizabeth.
But here I was kind of looking for who this woman might be and then I had this flash of inspiration, Martha Stewart came into my mind. I thought, ‘That’s who it is, it’s Martha Stewart.’ And so from that point on I based everything on Martha Stewart, the hair was Martha Stewart’s hair, the color even and the cut, the clothes were Martha Stewart’s.
I thought Martha Stewart combines this perfect combination of sweetness and kindness and gentleness and unbelievable efficiency with this laser like ability to concentrate and get the job done. And I thought that was a perfect thing for Victoria.
So I had a picture of Martha up on my trailer and in the make up room, so every day I could look at her and be inspired. Obviously, I didn’t try and imitate her or impersonate her, that wasn’t the point. It was getting inside of Martha.
She’s obviously not a retired assassin, but whatever Martha Stewart does, she does it really, really well. I hope she won’t be insulted by this characterization because I am a big, big fan of hers.
How do you decide to make a movie like this having come from The Tempest and The Ranch and The Queen?
The whole idea is to do something different from what you’ve just done and The Queen was an incredible experience for me in terms of the attention the film got, but that sort of attention kind of sticks and I was getting a bit sick of people saying, ‘Oh you’re so regal. You play all these queens.’ And I’d say, ‘Actually, I don’t play queens, I play lots of different things.’
For a long time before that I was a police detective. You just always try and push the last thing out of people’s minds so they can look at you with an open mind basically.
What was it like doing the action scenes?
Oh, fun, it’s always great to do action scenes. They’re called action scenes because they do the ‘act’ing for you. And I was very lucky because a lot of my action scenes were with John Malkovich and he was just brilliant at that gun stuff. I know, you wouldn’t believe it, would you? But he was great.
The difficult thing I found was not sticking my tongue out when I was shooting my gun. They’d say, ‘Helen, that doesn’t look very professional.’
What was your thought when you looked through the script and saw all these different weapons that you would get a chance to use, and in the end which gun was the most fun?
I don’t like to ever say a gun is fun, but guns can be fun in the sense of target practice which is interesting. And on that level I liked the sniper gun the best. I hate to hear myself even saying that, but it’s true.
The gun I found the most horrifying was the small machine guns. They’re terrible because you can cause such havoc. They are awful. And as far as I understand you can buy them here in gun shows. Dreadful.
How do you envision yourself when you retire? Would you be able to let go of the work?
You don’t know until it happens I guess. As night follows day, inevitably it will happen, but I have no idea. I think we all have a dream of what it would be like not to work and grew tomatoes, and I do have that dream, it would be lovely, I do love gardening.
I do love my work, but mostly I love the people that I get to work with, and all the jobs related to my job, including your job. You get to constantly meet and be involved with clever, imaginative people who constantly surprise you and push you forward and inspire you.
I think I would miss that a lot if I didn’t work anymore.