Once again Academy Award winning actress Helen Mirren proves she’s both a hot woman in her 60s and a trailblazer. Last week she was seen bathing nude in a Juergen Teller pictorial that appeared in New York Magazine. This week her new movie Love Ranch, an explosive bittersweet love story set in the mid-1970s, opens nationwide. The bold and sexy 64-year-old turns in another commanding performance — this time as a successful Madam and tough businesswoman who rules with an iron hand until she falls for a man half her age and crosses the line from professional to personal. Directed by her husband Taylor Hackford, Mirren stars opposite Joe Pesci as Grace and Charlie Bontempo, a husband/wife team who own and run one of Nevada’s first legalized brothel ranches.
We sat down recently with Mirren in Los Angeles to discuss her new film. She talked to us about what attracted her to the role, how she enjoyed being part of a strong ensemble cast, what it was like working with her husband again and why the image of a woman being sexualized past a certain age still makes heads turn. She also updated us on her latest projects and reacted to the brouhaha surrounding her recent topless photo shoot. Read what she had to say after the jump:
Q: What made you want to do this movie?
HM: I thought it was a great story. When my husband told me the story and told me that it was true that this had actually happened, I was blown away. I thought why have I never heard this. This is an amazing, wonderful, dramatic story. This is incredible. So really, the story brought me in plus the fact – because in the end I’m self-interested – I thought it was a great role. There are not that many great roles for women, full stop. There are certainly not a lot of great roles for women of my age and so, who would say no. I loved the fact that my husband wanted to do it and he drove it. He was the driving force from beginning to end with this movie. In the development of the script, in the financing of the film and the making of the film, he was absolutely the driving force, and without Taylor, it would have never gotten made.
Q: Is your character still alive?
HM: No. She died of cancer quite a long time ago.
Q: Did you talk to her relatives or do any research for your character?
HM: No, no. I’m not playing Sally. We’ve taken that story but this isn’t a docudrama about the Confortes. I didn’t try to look like Sally. I didn’t research Sally in the way that I had researched The Queen, for example. There you have to fulfill those functions. But we say this is inspired by that story. I took the character that was on the page basically.
Q: How was it working with Sergio Peris-Mencheta?
HM: I do think Sergio and I come from similar backgrounds. Sergio has done a lot of theater and I have too and we’re both European at heart and so we come at it from a similar point of view if you like. The reality was that Sergio had much more to do than I did really. I had to do my little American accent and play my character, but Sergio was acting in English which I know, it’s incredibly difficult to act in a foreign language which is not your natural language. It’s like acting in a suit of armor. He was in the process of learning that English as he was making the film. He could speak English when he arrived, but he also had to train as a boxer and he had to put on weight as a boxer and learn how to box. So his task was absolutely mammoth. This is not a big budget film where you have a training truck on the set like a lot of big stars have and their own trainers are there all the time. We couldn’t afford any of this. This was a low budget, independent film which are becoming rarer and rarer. And so, Sergio had a huge amount of work to do. It was spectacular what he did. On top of all that, we were blessed with a brilliant actor. It was great working together, but what we both did was we put our heads down and we did the work that we had to do on a daily basis. I have to say that Joe (Pesci) absolutely was there with us as well. We all behaved like proper professional actors and did what we had to do.
Q: When Sergio auditioned for the part, what was it about him that told you right away he was the right person for the role?
HM: It’s called good acting. Actually it’s called great acting. The way he kisses, this is true, but that’s a part of the acting thing. It’s someone who has courage just to do that (snaps her fingers) and does what’s needed when it’s needed. But it was much more than that. It was looking at a face who’s here and seeing everything and more that the scene is requiring, the situation, the emotion is requiring, and you can see it all on the face. That’s right here in the eyes. There was no question in my mind. It was just to do with acting. I didn’t know that we would also find a treasure in the way we did in the sense that we found ourselves working with someone who is incredibly…just constantly positive and fun and funny to be with but is also capable of withstanding a huge amount of stress without allowing it to influence his work or influence the way his attitude is with people and do that monumental amount of work. It was fantastic. We all look at Robert De Niro in Raging Bull and what he did and it was wonderful. But Sergio did that on a fraction of the budget, with a fraction of the back-up kind of help. His work was really extraordinary. Of course, you don’t see it on the screen because you accept him for who he is and so you should, but I know what went into that.
Q: How about the chemistry between the two of you on screen? There’s only so much you can do to make it work. Do you work hard at that as an actor or is it a natural thing that just happens?
HM: Oh, you can’t work at that. That either happens or it doesn’t happen. It’s a mystery that thing about chemistry because often people who hate each other in real life and hate each other on the set have great chemistry on the screen. And people who love each other in real life and love each other on the set have absolutely no chemistry whatsoever. So it’s very, very mysterious. No one can compute. If they could, it is the ultimate magic in a bottle, a lightening in the bottle kind of thing. And if they could work that one out, you’d be a very, very wealthy filmmaker. They can’t work it out. They keep trying to, don’t they? Cameron Diaz, Tom Cruise. Katherine Heigl, Ashton Kutcher. They keep trying. Jennifer Aniston and everybody in the world. Please! It must work with someone because we know how brilliant she is, and if we can just find that lightening, we’ve got a franchise for the next 20 years. But it’s very difficult. It doesn’t happen easily.
Q: You don’t really see those legendary couples anymore like Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn or Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Do you think it’s just something about the way the industry works now that it doesn’t produce those anymore?
HM: I don’t know. I don’t know why. I think critics are hyper-critical and they’re just ready to say “Oh that doesn’t work!” when actually it does kind of work. It is kind of sweet. I think there’s a readiness to pull things down maybe too much. I don’t know whether that’s internet related or not and maybe it’s a fashion thing where all filmmaking goes through big fashions. This film is very unfashionable. It’s about real people. That’s incredibly unfashionable at the moment.
Q: Can you talk about the directing process and what it was like working with and being directed by your husband? How did that work?
HM: Well Taylor was under a lot of stress also making this film because the financial situation was very difficult as it is nowadays with independent film. He was the producer as well as the director. It was very, very stressful for him. We didn’t have enough time to shoot it. We were very much under pressure. My husband is also a very ambitious filmmaker. He always wants more than he can have. He was tough on this shoot. He was not a pussycat. He’s strict. He wants more, more, more. Absolutely. He’s tough, my husband, I have to say, and there were days when I was planning how we were going to divide the property. (Laughs) But also, it was so fabulous for me to go home with him at night. For a lot of my professional career, ever since we’ve been together since 1984, I’m in Hungary, he’s in Columbia. I’m in London, he’s in Nova Scotia. So much of our life has been forced to be spent apart and we have to deal with that. It was just so brilliant to actually work on a project together and go home together and have the weekends off together. That was fabulous. But having said that, when I was on the set, I was not his wife. I was an actor in his film. I never hung with him. I didn’t have lunch with him. I would never discuss the shot afterwards. We didn’t at home either. We didn’t deconstruct everything at home. It’s his movie. He’s the director. That’s his job. My job was to be an actor on the set and that means my loyalty is to the cast and the crew basically and those were the people I identified with and I spent my time with. That wasn’t theoretical. I just fell into that role. Somehow that seemed to be the best way for me for it to work.
Q: But you did work together 26 years ago, how has the vocabulary – whether it’s spoken or unspoken – changed between the two of you in that time?
HM: Well obviously I know him a lot better – a lot better – and he knows me a lot better. And in the interim, I’ve done an awful lot of work. He’s done quite a lot of work, but in terms of actual numbers of projects, I’ve probably done more than he has because a film takes two years for a director, while an actor in two years can do six or seven projects. You look up a list of work I’ve done. So I came to it a very different person than I was all those years ago. I knew more. I knew him better. So, of course, it was different, but the essence still…I think it is something that being with Taylor has taught me. I was pretty arrogant and self-absorbed as one is when one is younger and I didn’t really grasp what a director does. I didn’t grasp it until I lived with one. Living with one has given me enormous respect for directors, and since living with Taylor, every time I’ve worked on a film, now I absolutely try very hard to give the director what they want.
Q: You recently did a photo shoot for New York Magazine that showed some serious skin and the images have received a lot of attention. In Love Ranch, you play the madam of a brothel, an older woman who’s making a living off of sex and sexiness. Why do you think the image of a women being sexualized past a certain age makes heads turn?
HM: Those photographs were taken by a very great art photographer, one of the best in Europe. I always feel when you work with an artist – and I love photography and photographers – and whenever I work with a really good photographer, I try to give him or her their own artistic freedom because that’s the way you get the best work or at least the most interesting work. So, I gave Juergen (Teller) his artistic freedom to do what he wanted to do and that was the result. I like photos because I thought they were naked in the proper sense of the word naked. I’ve got very little make-up on. There’s no elaborate lighting. He just used a flash. And it’s simple and it’s real. I think that was the intention of the photographs. They weren’t intended remotely to be sexy. I think sex and nudity are really two different things, you see, but then I’m a bit weird like that. Sometimes nudity is sexy. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes being clothed is more sexy than being nude. I think people tend to get the two mixed up.
HM: Too bad. (Laughs)
Q: You worked with Zack Snyder on his children’s film, Legend of the Guardians, and the trailer is out. Is there a lot of cool stuff for that that we haven’t seen yet?
HM: I don’t know. I’m sure there is. When you do a voice in an animated film, you don’t see the finished product at all. You’re not animating. You’re not doing the voice on the finished product. You’re doing the voice long before. In fact, they animate to your voice so you don’t see it at all. I have no idea. That’s going to be a surprise for me.
Q: How challenging was it to do animated voiceover work as opposed to a live action film?
HM: It’s hard. I really admire the people who are very good at it. Americans are very good at animating voices. I don’t know why. They have a freedom with them that we British actors find more difficult to get to. I try to do it as best I can. I’m playing the wicked, evil one. Of course, I’m British, what else? (Laughs)
Q: What do you have coming up next?
HM: The next film I’m shooting is a comedy with Russell Brand. It’s a remake of Arthur, the film with Dudley Moore. I’m playing John Gielgud. Russell Brand is playing Arthur.
Love Ranch opens in theaters on June 30th.