Helen Mirren: “There’s always that feeling: I’m going to be found out”

From driving fast cars to finding bears on her Nevada ranch, there’s very little that fazes HELEN MIRREN at 76. But, as she prepares to receive one of acting’s highest accolades, she confesses to Cole Moreton the one thing that still makes her nervous… PHOTOGRAPHS: BÈLA ADLER

Nobody messes with Dame Helen Mirren, not even wild beasts. She’s played queens from Cleopatra to Elizabeth II, drives muscle cars with Vin Diesel in the macho movie series Fast & Furious and is about to get one of the biggest acting awards of her career, to go with the Oscar, the Emmys, the Tony and the Baftas. So when a big black bear dared to invade her garden last year, Helen just told it where to go.

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‘She was being very naughty,’ says the 76-year-old acting legend, who was apparently unfazed when the dangerous animal came lumbering up to the door of the Nevada ranch she shares with her husband, the American film director Taylor Hackford. ‘The bear did as it was told, absolutely,’ says Helen, as if this is the most natural thing in the world. The encounter can be seen on her Instagram account with Taylor sounding panicky, warning his wife as he films her: ‘You’d better watch out.’ But Helen just bangs on the window and yells: ‘No, you can’t do that. Oi! You can’t come on here!’ Then she slides open the door and orders, in clear, decisive tones: ‘Go on there! Naughty bear!’ The animal looks stunned, then scarpers.

She and Taylor have been married for 24 years and spent most of the lockdowns at the remote ranch near Lake Tahoe. They also have houses in London and Los Angeles and it’s at the latter that we are speaking today – on the garden terrace at her nine-bedroom hillside mansion, amid lush vegetation. ‘A lot of my family life is in America– my husband is from here, my two grown-up stepsons and my nephew live here– but my heart’s home is in London.’

The capital is one of the settings for her very British new film The Duke, which also stars Jim Broadbent and is a comic retelling of the true story of a working-class man from Newcastle who, in 1961, apparently stole a Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery. ‘The Duke has the feeling of those wonderful Ealing comedies. It’s very much in that tradition,’ she says.

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Helen and co-star Jim Broadbent in The Duke

Elegantly dressed, her long white hair swept back in a bandana, she leans in and, with a mischievous look in her eye, tells me, ‘This is just for you. I glammed up for our meeting. Any excuse to put my make-up on.’ Helen was a model for beauty giant L’Oréal at the age of 70 and remains an ambassador for the brand. ‘That makes a huge point– one that wasn’t made for far too long. It used to really annoy me, looking at ads showing 16-year-old girls saying: “If you buy our product you can look like this.” By the time you’re 40, you realise that is not true. So to use a face that looks its age is great.’ Is she saying the face-cream industry is nonsense? ‘Moisturisers work, undoubtedly,’ she says quickly. ‘They make your skin better… but you’re not going to drop 30 years by using one. Come on!’

There has been another concession to age in recent years. ‘I often look at a lovely piece of clothing in a shop and regretfully put it back on the rail, thinking: “You’re too old for that, Helen. Those days are over.’’’ Surely not? What sort of thing? ‘Oh, well, for god’s sake, I’m talking about sequined miniskirts.’

I remember her once saying she wanted to grow old disgracefully. How’s that going? ‘Not very well, actually. Because as you do get older you don’t really want to be disgraceful. You want to be graceful,’ she says with a wry smile. ‘That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun…’

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One of the wonderful things about The Duke is that, despite starring two veteran lead actors, it’s not about ageing at all. ‘I would say that is quite unusual,’ agrees Helen. Jim Broadbent plays Kempton Bunton, the retired bus driver who allegedly stole the artwork after being outraged that the government was paying £140,000 to keep it in the country rather than helping struggling pensioners. ‘It’s important that people know this is based on a true story,’ says Helen, who plays his wife Dorothy, a cleaner who has become obsessive in her work after the death of the couple’s teenage daughter. ‘Dorothy is lovely; very funny, very endearing, but at the same time she is quite a moving character.’

The Duke is a charming last movie from the director Roger Michell, otherwise known for Notting Hill, Blackbird and The Buddha of Suburbia, who died in September at the age of 65. There’s a warmth about The Duke. Does that reflect the director’s character? ‘Absolutely. That very gentle sense of humour. A particularly British rhythm and pace and the love of the idiosyncratic and the eccentric.’

Most of the movie is set in Newcastle, but it was shot in Leeds and Bradford just before the pandemic. Helen’s Instagram showed her beaming backstage at the Bradford Alhambra with Paul, the surviving half of the Chuckle Brothers, after she’d seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. ‘A fabulous pantomime in a fabulous theatre. It was lovely to be in the North again. Leeds is so elegant and I was blown away by Bradford. I thought it was really visually extraordinary, kind of magical.’

Not on the roads, though. ‘The weirdest thing about Bradford is that people drive incredibly fast. They should shoot Fast & Furious there because they all drive like Vin Diesel.’ Which brings us to one of the most surprising recent turns of her remarkable career: appearing in that high-octane movie franchise. How on earth did that happen?

‘I asked them. I was with Vin at a party. I love driving cars in movies because they close the roads down for you. And I’m very vain about my driving, which is probably mediocre at best. Although I didn’t do too badly on Top Gear.’ (She appeared in 2008, finishing in mid-table on the leader board.) ‘Whizzing around the racetrack was fantastic. So when I saw Vin I said: “Do you think you could find a teeny- weeny role for me?” Luckily, he was a fan of mine as well.’ Helen joined the cast three films ago as crime queen Magdalene Shaw. ‘And, of course, I didn’t drive at all! I was in the film without being in a car. I was in the back of an ambulance, then I was in jail!’

But in the latest movie of the series, fans have been thrilled to see her behind the wheel of a purple supercar, drifting corners and taking out four police cars with a cackle, after telling Vin Diesel: ‘Get the handbrake for me would you, darlin’?’ Again, it wasn’t quite as hoped. ‘The brilliant stunt people drive, and you’re in a car in a studio doing the scene. I only did a tiny bit of driving.’

Having won this role it’s clear she likes to surprise people as well as bears. Take the famous moment when Helen stormed out of a performance in London’s West End to confront a bunch of drummers who were making a racket in the street, drowning her out. ‘Oh, yes. Well, that’s true. I did do that. I was so cross,’ she says in that familiar voice, which is slightly less posh and more playful than we often hear it on screen. ‘I was so frustrated because the last five minutes had been a very delicate moment in the play. And the audience were silent and listening, then suddenly there was this huge drumming that didn’t go away.’

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She was starring in The Audience, a play about the monarch’s weekly audiences with prime ministers over the decades, written by Peter Morgan, creator of The Crown. Did the drummers behave and stop what they were doing immediately? ‘Yes, they did. And even more so because I was dressed as the Queen.’ Ah, that will have helped. ‘I completely forgot what I was wearing. The wig and the hair and everything. It must have been very alarming.’

Where does all this authority come from? Is it natural to her? Helen laughs. ‘No. I’m very unauthoritative, actually. I never tell people what to do. Like when I started living with Taylor– he has two sons, Rio and Alexander: one was 14, the other was five or six at the time. I never told them to tidy their rooms. I never told them to eat what was on their plate. I never, ever told them what to do. I just can’t. I was also a hopeless teacher. I did three years of teacher training and was sent to a school in Bethnal Green. I was utterly useless. The other teachers kept coming in, saying: “What’s going on in here?” Total chaos in the classroom.’ This was when she was young, before the acting took off. ‘I was completely incapable of saying: “Sit down, open your books at page three.” I couldn’t do it. My sister is a teacher and she’s really good at it. And she’s very good at telling me what to do. I always do what she tells me.’

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With husband Taylor Hackford

Helen has not had children of her own but she raised Taylor’s sons from his earlier marriages. Her approach to step-parenting was a little unorthodox, including taking them to a drag club when they were old enough.

‘I thought I would show these two young Californian boys something of the real London. These poor kids were in shock but they certainly remember it as being very cool.’

Helen was born in Hammersmith in 1945, the daughter of a working-class mum from East London’s West Ham and a father who was an exiled Russian aristocrat turned viola player and cab driver. Her real surname is Mironoff. She joined the National Youth Theatre as a teenager and starred in Antony and Cleopatra at the age of 20, which got her into the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The Long Good Friday with Bob Hoskins was her breakthrough film in 1980 and Helen met Taylor a few years later, when he auditioned her for the Cold War ballet movie White Nights, alongside the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. She and Taylor married in 1997 and have both worked constantly ever since, often on separate projects around the world. Surely they’ve spent a large part of their married life apart? ‘Absolutely right. Totally. Most of it. My theory has always been that this is why we’re still together: because we’ve spent so much time apart, we’re always pleased to see each other.’

Taylor is a movie geek as well as a successful director, so he must be thrilled that a week today Helen will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from LA’s Screen Actors Guild. Previous recipients include Robert De Niro, Julie Andrews, Elizabeth Taylor and Gene Kelly. ‘Yes, it’s extraordinary. I genuinely do not feel I remotely deserve it, except that I’m still alive and working,’ she says. ‘I’ve done some wonderful films and I’ve done some pretty awful films. It took me by surprise, completely. A great honour.’

You’d expect her to say that, of course, but I sense something else, so probe a little. And it turns out that for all her success, fame, glamour and wealth, Helen still has doubts.

‘I think of myself as still being the way I was in my mind, in my body, through my 20s, 30s and 40s: struggling, ambitious, frustrated and self-critical,’ she says, clearly privately anxious despite all the garlands. ‘I still feel the same person. I wonder if that ever goes? There’s always that endless, niggling feeling: “Oh god, I’m going be found out any minute now. I got away with it that time, but the next time I’ll be found out.” Because you can never be absolutely sure that you’re that good at what you do. It’s not like being a doctor or a surgeon or an architect or a gardener where you can look at your work and go: “Oh yeah, that’s really good.” It’s a much more mutable thing, our job.’

Maybe. The rest of us can see very clearly that she will leave a huge creative legacy. We believe in her as wild, sexy, confident, regal and all the other inspiring things she has appeared to be over the years; the kind of person who orders scary bears to get lost. But I feel like we’re seeinga  glimpse of Helen Mironoff, who created all that but still doesn’t quite feel good enough sometimes. Not that she’s complaining– there’s an award party to attend.

The Duke will open in cinemas nationwide on 25 February