Oprah Talks to Helen Mirren: "Nobody Is Ordinary"
On the bright April morning when I pulled into Helen Mirren's driveway at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, I encountered the sweetest scene: two wrought-iron chairs, shaded by palm trees, set beside a tranquil stone fountain, and the dame herself walking toward me, arms open wide. I knew we were in for an incredible chat, because Dame Helen simply radiates warmth—in her presence, you feel an instant connection, a sense that here is a woman comfortable being exactly who she is.
Helen's sincerity, depth and uncompromising individuality have made her a Hollywood legend. She was raised by a butcher's daughter and a taxi driver (who later worked in the British Ministry of Transport) and got her start on the London stage. She was bold from the beginning: Do yourself a favor and dig up the amazing YouTube clip of young Helen in the '70s, schooling interviewer Michael Parkinson, who was asking sexist questions. And she's never shied away from gritty, provocative, demanding, or risky parts. Many of you first met her in the TV series Prime Suspect, in which she played an alcoholic detective, Jane Tennison—a woman every bit as flawed as the men around her. She was in her 40s at the time, and after that, her career really exploded. Who else could play the queen of England with such humanity? Or make an action-thriller franchise (RED) sing with humor? How about pull off pink hair and a bikini in her 60s? Helen has been nominated for four Oscars (and won one) in the last two decades. She even managed to publish a fascinating autobiography, In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures, in 2007. When I think about women who refuse to be defined by their age—or by the so-called rules of public life—Helen tops the list.
She also topped the list of actresses my friend Steven Spielberg hoped would star in the new film The Hundred-Foot Journey, which I coproduced with him. Helen plays Madame Mallory, a classically trained chef in France who is threatened by the opening of a soulful Indian restaurant across the street from her own Michelin-starred establishment. It should come as no surprise that Helen turns the snooty, stodgy Mallory into a textured, lovable character—one you'll be rooting for by the end of the film.
As we spoke about everything from her love of peasant food to her relationship with American director Taylor Hackford—whom she married in 1997, after they'd been together more than a decade—I was moved and delighted by her candor and wit. Time may pass, roles may change, but as we've learned again and again, Helen Mirren will always be exactly who she is: incredible, and utterly one of a kind.
OPRAH: I loved the book The Hundred-Foot Journey and was so excited to be involved in making the film. It was Steven—whom I hadn't worked with since The Color Purple—who said, "I think we should ask Helen." I said, "The Helen?" And then we all held our breath to see if you'd say yes. When you did, we sighed and said, "Now we have a movie!"
HELEN MIRREN: That's fantastic. I never get to hear that part of things.
OPRAH: I'm sure that's how everyone reacts, waiting for you to say yes.
HELEN: Oh, I can't see that side, Oprah. I don't know if you're still that girl you were, but...
OPRAH:Yeah, I am.
HELEN: Well, me, too.
OPRAH: But I haven't been knighted!
HELEN: I still can't get my head around that one, either. Like, oh, my God, I'm a dame!
OPRAH: You're a dame!
HELEN: It's just slightly inappropriate, as far as I'm concerned.
OPRAH: What would your parents say?
HELEN: They were actually quite anti-monarchist. But at the same time, they would have been inordinately proud. I'm sure they would have come to the palace for the ceremony, because it's a recognition by our country.
OPRAH: Your father, who emigrated from Russia as a young boy—to imagine that his daughter would be a dame! But getting back to the film for a moment: When you choose a role, what makes you say yes?
HELEN: Lots of different things. The director, the producers—my sense of what sort of people are involved.
OPRAH: Did anything about Madame Mallory speak to you?
HELEN: The French thing. I've always been a Francophile. I find the French funny and extraordinary. I'm very jealous of them, in my English sort of way. When I was 14, I wanted to be French more than anything. I got myself a French boyfriend. I even tried to become a French actress at one point.
OPRAH: How were you going to do that?
HELEN: I rented a tiny room in Paris and decided, "I'm going to live here until my French is pretty good." I did a film that was shot in France and got a French agent. I thought I belonged there. Then, of course, life says, "No, you're going to be over here. This is the path." And that's what ended up happening. I was offered work I wanted to do in England and wasn't offered any more in France, so I had to give up.
OPRAH: So Madame Mallory was the French thing. And you just saw the film.
HELEN: I did. It's very charming. It's quite moving.
OPRAH: I cried three times.
HELEN: I cried, too! And then thought, "Oh, don't be ridiculous." Stop it. I thought Manish [Dayal, who plays the chef at the Indian restaurant] was wonderful.
OPRAH: Are you a foodie?
HELEN: I'm greedy. I'm not a foodie. My favorite dish in the world—my mouth is watering just thinking about it—is from a Spanish restaurant in Madrid. It's essentially fries with a fried egg on top, and it's so good. It's called huevos estrellados.
OPRAH: That would be like crack to me.
HELEN: It is like crack. You've got to try it. The egg kind of cooks in the fries. So I'm not a foodie, but I love peasant food.
OPRAH: And how did you end up in Los Angeles?
HELEN: I guess it was when I fell in love with my husband. That's really the beginning and the end of the story. I had worked in L.A.—I made 2010 in an old MGM studio and loved being in the place where so many iconic movies were made—but doing White Nights with Taylor really cemented my move. Otherwise, I'm not sure I would have spent more than a couple of years here.
OPRAH: In your autobiography, which is so beautifully done, I was surprised to read that you didn't grow up wanting to get married. You were never the woman who wanted to wear the dress.
HELEN: As an actor, you don't need that because you've worn the dress. You've stood in the spotlight. You've had everyone looking at you. And on top of that, for a long time I just didn't see the point of marriage. I was lucky—as I came into adulthood, it was no longer looked down upon to live with a guy. My parents were a little shocked in the beginning, but they sort of got used to the idea that I would live with a series of men. I had four or five serious long-term relationships.
OPRAH: But you ended up falling in love at an age when you thought—
HELEN: In my late 30s, yes. Which now doesn't seem that old. I think it was the perfect time.
OPRAH: You had really stepped into yourself.
HELEN: Absolutely. I used to say to Taylor, "I wish we'd met earlier on. We've missed so much time together." And he'd say, "We'd never be together now if we'd met earlier." And I think he's actually right because we were both on a trajectory of work and ambition and, of course, to a certain extent, wanting to resolve ourselves as ourselves. Before I met Taylor, all my relationships took second place to my work. If I had to go to Africa, it was, "Bye-bye, I'm off to Africa." And then he came into my life, and I started thinking, "Maybe it's time to have a different attitude—and to say that my relationship is at least as important as my work." To give it the time.
OPRAH: Make room for it.
OPRAH: What is it about Taylor that makes your heart leap to this day?
HELEN: His loyalty. Not just to me, but to his family and friends. He's got this wonderful ability to mentor, to support, to encourage. If anything makes my heart go, "Oh, I love him," it's when I see him do that without thinking twice about it.
OPRAH: Is that what finally made you say "Yes, let's get married" in 1997?
HELEN: No. That had a lot to do with our extended family: his two children, my sister, my nephew, my nephew's children, all the people around us. Although I don't have children myself, I feel family oriented, and we knew it was going to make them happy to know that we were a solid center. It was also about finances. You get older, and you realize you're going to kick the bucket sooner or later, and you've got to think about how to sort that all out. That's tough to do if you're single! That's the inequity of not letting gay people get married.
OPRAH: Aren't we blessed that we live in a time when that is changing.
HELEN: Aren't we just. It makes me feel terribly embarrassed about the attitudes that were prevalent when I was younger. One of the reasons, incidentally, why I always loved being an actor was that you're in a fraternity of theater and film where none of that shit happened. It was open, and it was free.
OPRAH: And when did you know you were an artist? Not an actress, but an artist— someone drawn toward expressing the poetry of life?
HELEN: It was very early on, when I fell in love with Shakespeare and the thoughts and the philosophies and the amazing words and the romance. I was living in a little, mundane town in England—my parents were not small-minded, but the town had an element of that—when I was exposed to those amazing stories. But still, in a way, I don't think of myself as an artist. That's a slightly British thing. You've got to get up and do the job and get on with it. Don't be fussy about it. Just do it.
OPRAH: Even after you won an Oscar in 2006 for The Queen?
HELEN: The Oscar is just one of those amazing, magical moments that came out of the blue. Years ago, there used to be an ad in England for the lottery that featured an ordinary family going about their life and this big sparkly finger coming out of the sky and pointing in through the window as if to say, "It could be you, winning the lottery." I feel that way about the Oscar. It was a big finger that came out of the sky, and said, "It's you."
OPRAH: But you'd worked and worked and worked.
HELEN: Yes, but that's not what it's about. I guess it is to a certain extent, but you witness in your life so many incredibly talented people who deserve the greatest success but are not getting it for all kinds of reasons. So much of it is hard work, but it's a lottery, as well.
OPRAH: You won for your role as Queen Elizabeth II. I love the way that film came about.
HELEN: I was at a script meeting for Prime Suspect. I'd always get there first so I could greet people as they came in, put them at ease. I know what it's like to have a small role and be intimidated at readings, so I always made sure to say hi to everyone. The producer, Andy Harries, was watching, and he thought, "That's funny, they're treating her like the queen." But I wasn't behaving like the queen, I promise!
OPRAH: Had you already been made a dame?
HELEN: Yes, I had. And I don't actually look like the queen, but in roles where I've worn a dark wig, I look very much like Princess Margaret. So he was sitting there going, "She sort of looks like the queen," and then he goes, "Let's make a film about the queen." And he went to Peter Morgan and asked him to write it.
OPRAH: Was it scary? To play someone who is living and who is the queen?
HELEN: Yes, in that everyone knew what she looks like, what she sounds like, how she moves. I knew I'd never be as good as the real thing. I wouldn't agree to do it until I'd read the script, because in England, people love to stick the knife into the monarchy. They belittle or criticize them, tease them quite cruelly sometimes, and I didn't want to be a part of any film that did that. But the script was a sensitive look at what it must be like to be in her situation.
OPRAH: I love that in all your roles, you bring a sort of vulnerability—you let us feel the essence and spirit of the character.
HELEN: We're all vulnerable, yes. We're all insecure. And the most seemingly secure people are often the most insecure.
OPRAH: Were you nervous when, a couple years after the film came out, you met the queen in person?
HELEN: Yes, I was terrified. There are certain people who can deal with meeting the queen. But the vast majority of us get queenitis. You just—you cannot think of anything to say.
OPRAH: You had queenitis.
HELEN: Complete queenitis.
OPRAH: Did she mention that she'd seen the movie?
HELEN: No. She wouldn't. Nor should she. I would never expect that.
OPRAH: You wouldn't?
HELEN: It would've been nice. But I knew that inviting me to tea was her way of...
OPRAH: Acknowledging you and saying well done.
HELEN: Absolutely. And I subsequently did a play called The Audience, reprising my role as the queen, and all the palace came to see it.
OPRAH: What roles are left for you to play? Do you like playing ordinary people?
HELEN: Well, nobody is ordinary, of course.
OPRAH: You see normal life as something extraordinary?
HELEN: Of course. There are so many acts of heroism performed by what we would call ordinary people. I'm about to do a film called Woman in Gold about Maria Altmann, who you might think was ordinary if you passed her on the street. But she worked to take back the Gustav Klimt paintings that the Nazis stole from her family. So while she may look unexceptional on the outside, on the inside she's far from it.
OPRAH: We all have amazing stories when you look closely enough.
HELEN: Human beings are so dreadful, so appalling, and yet so wonderful, so courageous, and so kind. The variety in humanity fills me with wonder and horror.
OPRAH: So let's talk about being in your 60s. You're about to turn 69, and your career has never been better: You won an Oscar at 61 and were nominated for another at 64. Do you have any idea what kind of role model you are to women in our youth-obsessed culture?
HELEN: I'm becoming aware of it because I read about it. The reality is that I'm no different. I mean, I'm very lucky that I've never had to deal with a major physical challenge. But this is what women of my age are; I'm just a more visible version. There are a million of us out there. I think that the scales are constantly falling from our eyes. The Greta Garbos of the world felt that they had to retire at 38. That's changed.
OPRAH: What you've been able to do is maintain the energy and vibrancy of youth, yet accept the age you are.
HELEN: You have to. You either die young or get old. There's no other way. I didn't want to die young. Look at Kurt Cobain—he hardly even saw a computer! The digital stuff that's going on is so exciting. I'm just so curious about what happens next.
OPRAH: What has been the lesson that took you longest to learn?
HELEN: I'm still learning it: I make the same New Year's resolution every year, and it's basically to return people's phone calls. I'm the worst. And to try to be more sociable and gregarious.
OPRAH: Maybe you're just not supposed to be.
HELEN: Maybe not. Oh, and to try not to be as lazy.
OPRAH: How can that be?
HELEN: That's why I like to work, because intrinsically, I'm lazy. If I don't have to get up and go, then I don't. You're a different person. I would like to be you, in terms of drive and energy and creating the world for yourself.
OPRAH: What do you know for sure?
HELEN: That kindness counts. Kindness matters. When I look back, the small kindnesses people showed me meant so much.
OPRAH: What else really matters to Dame Helen Mirren?
HELEN: Gosh. Stop it, Oprah! I have absolutely no idea. I could think of many funny things to say, like your underwear really matters. It needs to be a certain kind of underwear—you know what I'm talking about. Underwear is the most important thing in dressing. But in life I guess I would have to say family. That's why it's so devastating when I think of Maria Altmann and other people who've lost their whole family and their history.
OPRAH: But the most important thing is that people can come out of that and still love.
HELEN: Yes. Oh, yes.
OPRAH: So when you see yourself on-screen—as Madame Mallory, let's say—what do you think?
HELEN: I'm very self-critical. It's a nightmare for me, watching myself. Every single time I do it, I think, "I'm never doing this again."
OPRAH: You never look at your work and think, "Well done?"
HELEN: Occasionally, yes, I can watch myself and think, "Oh, that was good." But it's usually only two or three lines!
OPRAH: What about your life? Can you look at your life and say that?
HELEN: Yes. I can certainly thank my lucky stars. One's life is always full of mistakes and regrets; that's just the nature of things. I've certainly got loads of those. But I have a lot of people in my life who I love, and maybe that's the ultimate success.
OPRAH: I certainly think so. Thank you so much, Dame Helen.