By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
NEW YORK—In a summer of superheroes, even the queen is getting in on the action. Dame Helen Mirren, who won an Oscar (and just about every other acting award) for her humanizing depiction of Queen Elizabeth II few years ago reprises her comic book character role of Victoria, a former MI6 spy, in “RED 2.”
In this action-packed sequel, the acclaimed actress puts down the scepter in favor of a gun to hunt down Bruce Willis’ character when she is called back into service to track down her friend and kill him. Why? You’ll have to see the movie to find out.
The workhorse actress just recently completed a 17-week run of the Peter Morgan play “The Audience,” reprising her QEII role on the London stage. Though exhausted from the demands of performing the play eight shows a week, she is contemplating a holiday but is in no way ready to retire from show business. (She also provides the voice of Dean Hardscrabble in the animated comedy hit “Monsters University.”)
Q: What did audiences tap into with your role in the first “RED,” and what do you think people will be saying about this one?
Mirren: Well, the word “badass” does occur quite frequently. (She laughs.) I love being a badass! It’s just the best. To lurch from being a queen to a badass is really cool. People really enjoyed the first one and I’m glad we got to do a second one. It’s lovely to reprise a character as well. The character takes on a different kind of life when you come back to it. It’s like when I did “Prime Suspect,” and I kept coming back to Jane Tennison. It’s funny. They become more a part of your personal life. I feel that about (trained assassin) Victoria. She’s just a great, funny, surprising sort of character to see on screen that hasn’t really been done before. It’s always sort of a miracle when you can do something that hasn’t been seen before. She’s a very refined character who has this other life.
Q: What do you think fans of the first “RED” will like most about your character in this one?
Mirren: I think just more of the same really. There are sequences that they’ll really enjoy. I love the fact that her first job in the movie is to assassinate Bruce Willis. You never quite know what side of the fence she’s on.
Q: Do you think Victoria prefers killing in formal wear or does it just work out like that?
Mirren: I think she absolutely prefers killing in formal wear, quite right, as long as she’s got the right shoes on. (She chuckles.) The shoes are very important. In the first one, there’s a sequence where she has a purse and out of it comes these combat boots—that was completely my idea. I said, “You can’t do this sort of job in high heel shoes. If you’re going to be serious about it, I want her to get the right shoes on.”
Q: When you do this kind of action-comedy, how much preparation do you need? Does it require the same discipline as something dramatic or is it more fun and refreshing?
Mirren: Mostly the prep is learning how to use the guns and look like you know what you’re doing. I’d never handled guns so I had to learn that. Every role brings different challenges, really. The challenge in doing something like “RED 2,” and it’s why Bruce is so brilliant in these movies, is there’s a sense of self-discipline there. The same goes for (co-star) Mary Louise Parker, who is brilliant at this. At the same time, there is an ease, a relaxation and an ability to improvise, and that’s where the real work is in a movie like this.
Q: Do you see “RED 2” as a workplace comedy with a body count?
Mirren: Oh yes, absolutely! These are old professionals. The idea of having these retired and extremely dangerous people is they have a depth of knowledge and professionalism and world-weariness that makes them very phlegmatic and down-to-earth. It’s lovely to play that. At the same time, it’s like resentfulness that one gets as one gets older that people are sidelining you and not paying sufficient respect to the amount of work you’ve done and knowledge that you have. It’s very annoying to be sort of condescended to by younger people and that’s what these people are all about: proving themselves. The wonderful thing about Victoria is that she’s so sort of lady-like and together and, of course, in reality, that’s what these people are like. You would never actually expect that these people are who they actually are. That’s the whole point. They don’t walk around looking like a spy. They walk around looking like ordinary people. It’s unexpected.
Q: Of all the roles you’ve played in your life, which was the most challenging to shake off afterwards?
Mirren: I never take it home with me. I’m not that sort of actor. Playing Queen Elizabeth II was very demanding physically and mentally but I’m not that sort of Method-y type actor. I’m just not. I can’t think of any role really that I’ve ever taken home with me in that way.
Q: If you had to escape the glitz of movies, what kind of life would you imagine for yourself? Would you be shopping at Costco?
Mirren: I love Costco but The Home Depot is my place. They know me by name at The Home Depot. I do love the homey, house-y stuff. You have to dream of what it’s going be like to be retired and my husband (American director Taylor Hackford) and I have been building this house in Italy that’s sort of our retirement dream. Whether we’re ever actually going to do that, I don’t know. It’s hard to let go of our business. It’s hard to let go of the creativity involved. It’s also hard to let go of the attention that you get. You don’t think that you’re addicted or in love with that attention. You think that that doesn’t mean anything to you until suddenly you don’t get it. Why isn’t everyone asking me questions and taking photos of me? What’s going on? Maybe in the end, it’ll be lovely to (retire). It’s funny how people in your business think that if someone isn’t in the public eye, they must be dead. Not physically dead but it’s like “whatever happened to them?” where, actually, they’re really happy, living in a house with their family living life. There is a slight feeling in the media that if one isn’t in the media, that you don’t exist. It’s no wonder that people are so obsessed with putting themselves on Facebook and all that. To say, “I exist” and be in some kind of media. I don’t particularly agree with that. I think that existing as a human being outside of the attention of other people is the greatest type of human existence one can have.
Q: You are so lucky to be such a great actress and yet have this enduring, great love affair (with Hackford) that so many women don’t seem to be able to manage the two.
Mirren: Only because they didn’t meet Taylor. (She chuckles.)
Q: Can you talk about why your relationship works so well?
Mirren: I think it works well because we had the advantage of coming onto each other quite late in life. I’d say to him, “I can’t believe we didn’t get together when we were in our twenties. We’ve missed that time,” and he say, “If we got together when we were in our twenties, we wouldn’t be together now,” and he was absolutely right. When we were in our twenties, both of us were pursuing our goals and dreams and professions and there wasn’t room in either of our lives at that point for a relationship. We were very lucky that we met when we did. I think that’s part of the success. By then, we’d learned what both of us needed in a relationship was the ability to continue working and we recognized that need in the other person so to give the other person the freedom, liberty and encouragement to do what our professions demanded of us. We’ve always given each other complete support and freedom in that and that’s incredibly important. Also, we give each other unconditional praise. There’s no criticism. We get enough of that, professionally speaking, in the world. We get brick bats thrown at us all the time so to each other we are both fantastic. In terms of work, we say it was “darling” or “brilliant.” That’s all I want to hear from Taylor and vice versa.
Q: Is that hard to do?
Mirren: No, I believe it. You watch the process and when you know the process and the struggle and the effort that went into this, it’s easy I think.
Q: You turn 68 on July 26. Would you say age is just a number?
Mirren: Yes, but not a meaningless one. You can’t ignore it. You have to accept it and go with it and understand that it’s inevitable.
Q: Will you do ”The Audience” again?
Mirren: They would love to do it in New York. They wanted to do it later in New York but it was too soon for me. I may possibly do it next year. I need a break. I did 17 weeks (and) eight shows a week. It was exhausting!