She may’ve earned an Academy Award for her chilly portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen, but Dame Helen Mirren is no old British bore. The 64-year-old Emmy-winning Prime Suspect star is as celebrated for her nude scenes and bikini bod as she is for her royal résumé. Now being hailed as Leo Tolstoy’s drama queen of a wife in The Last Station, Mirren, who’s married to director Taylor Hackford, reigns on a parade of sunny subjects from gay servers to Kyra Sedgwick’s mouth.
By Brandon Voss
The Advocate: When a woman plays a queen as many times as you have — in The Queen, The Madness of King George and the Elizabeth I miniseries — doesn’t it make her an honorary gay man?
Helen Mirren: Of course it does! [Laughs] I’m also a dame, and in British pantomime the dame is traditionally played by a man and very often by a gay man.
How connected are you to your gay fans?
There is an organization called HMAS, which stands for the Helen Mirren Appreciation Society, and a lot of them are gay — mostly women but also men. It’s a group who got together on the Internet, and they often organize trips and get together from all different countries to come see me in the theater and then see me afterwards. So I appreciate the HMAS.
Jane Tennison, the tough detective you played in Prime Suspect, has become a lesbian icon. Why do you think that is?
Well, the character wasn’t a lesbian, but Jackie Malton, the person she was based on, was a lesbian. She used to say that she came out as a gay woman very early on in her police career because she didn’t want anyone to think that she’d fucked her way to the top. So she was quite a character herself, and it’s interesting that somehow people picked up on that through Jane.
Which of your roles do gay men respond to the most?
Definitely The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover. It came out in New York first, so at that point really nobody had seen it except the whole of the restaurant trade in New York, and a lot of those guys are gay. Suddenly I could get the best table in any restaurant I’d walk into, and I absolutely loved it.
I’ve always had a thing for Teaching Mrs. Tingle.
Oh, that’s funny. I’ve got a demographic of fans who know me only from that movie, and they usually work at the Gap. When I’m in Gap and I go to pay out, the boy or girl will look up at me from the till and say, with a look of absolute horror, “Oh, my God, it’s Mrs. Tingle!” But I’m not nearly as nasty as that. By the way, Kevin Williamson, who directed that, is absolutely adorable.
Kyra Sedgwick once told me that she owes her gay fan base in part to kissing you in the 1996 Showtime movie Losing Chase. What do you recall about those kisses?
Well, just look at Kyra’s mouth — I mean, my God! I wasn’t very well known in America at that point, so that film was actually an amazing start for me here.
Has Chase in Losing Chase been your only lesbian role?
Yes, I think so. But I think the most interesting actors are the ones who bring a mixed sexuality to the table — the male actors who have a lot of femininity in them and the actresses who have a lot of masculinity. That’s the nature of acting, in a sense: to fall somewhere in between the sexes in general.
If you do play a lesbian again, whom would you pick to play your love interest?
I would just want a wonderful actress, gay or straight, but I certainly wouldn’t say no to Ellen DeGeneres. I’m such a huge fan of hers and I’ve loved her from a distance for such a long time, so it was quite a moment for me this year to do her show, stand on her set, and see her right there in front of me.
Out of the many actors you’ve worked with, which one have you found the most distractingly handsome?
Well, Liam Neeson in Excalibur was a big one. He was pretty distracting, but it worked out, luckily, because I subsequently dated him for four years. And if I were to work with Leonardo DiCaprio, I think I would find him quite distracting as well.
You passed on Mariah Carey’s role in Precious, but you did work with Lee Daniels in his directorial debut, Shadowboxer. Were you drawn to his “gay sensibility,” as he calls it?
Yes, totally. He’s wildly spirited, very open, and his emotions are very close to the surface, and maybe that comes from his gay sensibility. There’s a freedom about him through his gayness, his race, and everything else. You know, I said in my acceptance speech for the Career Achievement Award at the Palm Springs Film Festival that in particular I wanted to thank the gay men and women I’ve worked with. In every single profession within my profession of filmmaking and theater — writing, directing, costumes, hair and makeup — gay people have meant so much to me and my career, and I’m extremely grateful. And when I think of the contribution gay people have made historically to our culture throughout the centuries, it’s incomprehensible to me that these people are still going through discrimination.
In her acceptance speech at the Palm Springs Film Festival, Mariah rambled on about meeting you that night. Have you ever had one too many before accepting an award?
Oh, yes, I have, and it’s a terrible mistake! [Laughs] But I thought she was so sweet and lovely — and blasted, yes, but why not? It was her night to celebrate. It wasn’t officially televised, so she should’ve been free to be whatever she wanted to be, but the trouble nowadays with YouTube is that everyone records everything. I thought she accepted her award with great charm.
Is there anyone you’re still dying to meet?
I love Lady Gaga because she’s such a great, edgy performance artist, but really I’d like to meet Michelle Obama.
When you look at today’s young actresses, are you glad you’re past all the late-night boozing and partying, or do you miss it?
I don’t miss it, but when I was enjoying my life in that way there were no iPhones or Flip Video cameras to record you, so one was much, much freer then. The constant attention that these kids get today must be horrible but also seductive, because it makes you feel more important than you really are.
You and Dame Judi Dench, with whom you’ve only appeared in 1968’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both got Oscars for playing Queen Elizabeths. When you won for The Queen, you beat Dame Judi, who was nominated for Notes on a Scandal. Forgive my gay propensity for celebrity feuds, but is there any rivalry between you two?
No, I wouldn’t say so. Like her, I work in film, television, and theater — which is a very British attitude — but she came ahead of me, so I’ve always been following in her footsteps in many ways. Certainly, I’m an incredible admirer of hers, and I aspire to work the way she works. So no, Brandon, we don’t arm-wrestle.
The Advocate, March 2010 issue; extended online version.