Judy Murray on regrets and why she’d never use a dating app
Given she’s one of the world’s most recognisable leading ladies, it’s hard to imagine Dame Helen Mirren being rendered awestruck by anyone. Yet there is one person who gets the award-garlanded actor to channel what she calls her ‘fangirl thing’, and he happens to be one of her recent co-stars.
Last year, Helen, who is 78 this month, spent time in an old mining town in Montana filming American western TV drama series 1923 alongside Hollywood veteran Harrison Ford, a man she confides with a smile that she had loved ‘from a distance’ after last working alongside him nearly 40 years ago.
When reunited with him on 1923’s set as husband and wife duo Jacob and Cara Dutton, she says that she was “slightly intimidated” by him.
“He’d be mortified to hear me say this because he’s such an unintimidating person. He is the kindest, most generous, warmest person to be around,’ she smiles. ‘But still, my fangirl thing is something I can’t quite get over, you know, ‘Oh my God, it’s Harrison Ford!’”
“I loved the idea of the character – a roman goddess. I mean, who wouldn’t want to play a roman goddess?”
The duo last appeared on screen together – again as husband and wife – in the 1986 drama Mosquito Coast at a time when Harrison was already firmly embedded in A-list heartthrob territory courtesy of his role as Han Solo in the Star Wars franchise.
“He was a massive, popular, movie star, which he’s been ever since,” recalls Helen. “It’s an amazing journey that Harrison has taken through our profession. And to be still up there, where he has been for the past 40 or 50 years, is amazing.”
Of course, the same could be said about Helen herself.
Veteran of a half century-long career spanning theatre, television and film, she has amassed so many awards – among them an Oscar and countless Baftas – that her mantelpiece must be groaning under their weight.
At just two years shy of her 80th birthday, she doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, taking on a myriad of astonishingly varied roles to add to an acting CV that’s bursting with diversity.
This year she’s already appeared in two Hollywood blockbusters, reprising her roles as the crime matriarch Queenie in the big-budget hit Fast X – a franchise she was so keen to be part of that she admits to begging its star, Vin Diesel, for a part – and the villainous goddess Hespera in Shazam! Fury of the Gods.
She’s narrated this month’s much-anticipated release Barbie, and will soon be seen tackling the role of late Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in biopic Golda. So it’s safe to say the actor remains robustly resistant to being typecast, not to mention enjoying some late life experimentation both on and off screen (in May, she hit the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival with electric blue hair to match her dress).
“I just love to find projects that are very different from each other,” she says when asked about these varied roles.
“This year is an absolute case in point, to go from Barbie to Golda to Shazam! to 1923. And some are just for the pure fun of it. Like Shazam! Fury of the Gods, I loved the first Shazam! movie. I thought it was very funny and I loved the idea of the character that I’m playing – a Roman goddess. I mean, who doesn’t want to play a Roman goddess?
“And then other projects, such as Golda, are a much more serious undertaking. You’re putting your head above the parapet. But mostly, it’s whatever is different from the last thing I’ve done.”
Taking on the role of Golda was certainly not without risk: Helen’s casting led to criticism from some people, including Dame Maureen Lipman, who was displeased that a non-Jewish actor had been chosen to play a Jewish woman with such a prominent place in the history of Israel. In response, Helen has said that it’s ‘utterly legitimate’ to raise the discussion about casting for the film, adding that she’d love to meet Maureen for a cup of tea to discuss it ‘dame to dame’.
“My fangirl thing is something I can’t quite get over, you know, ‘Oh my god, it’s Harrison Ford!’”
Despite the controversy, Helen says Golda is a character she found ‘incredible’ to take on.
“I came away from it with the deepest of admiration for her and indeed a kind of a love for her,” she enthuses. “She was extraordinarily brave and with a commitment to Israel that was total. In a weird way, it was a bit like playing Elizabeth I in the sense of her utter commitment to her country and to her nation. The absolute total dedication of her life to that. And she achieved it without being a power-mad, dictator-type character at all. She was very maternal and – this is something I have in common with her – she absolutely loved kitchen equipment! I’m always buying the latest kitchen equipment.”
Shared domestic idiosyncrasies aside, Helen, who still oozes red-carpet glamour, is almost unrecognisable in the part.
“I did have a lot of make-up, obviously, and costume is incredibly important,” she says. “It always rather surprised me at the end of the day when I took it all off and I was me again because I got so used to looking in the mirror and being that person.”
Certainly no one can accuse Helen of taking half measures when it comes to her performances: earlier this year, she revealed to chat-show host Graham Norton that she had broken one of her fingers while performing her own stunts in Shazam! (it’s now known as her ‘Shazam finger’). Yet it seems there are some things even this redoubtable dame won’t try: Helen admits to telling 1923 creator Taylor Sheridan that, western or no western, she drew the line at riding a horse.
“I said right at the beginning, ‘I don’t ride horses’,” she laughs. “I mean, I have ridden horses, I’ve fallen off a horse many times. But I’m not a rider. I usually find it impossible to get them started. I’m like, ‘Go!’ And they look at me like, ‘No!’ So I thought I’d better put that out there in case Taylor was expecting some wonderful horse woman. And he said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll put you in a [horse-drawn] buggy.’ So I learned how to drive a buggy, which was great. I loved my buggy. And certainly I came to appreciate horses very much and kind of understand them, which I didn’t before.”
“I usually find it impossible to get horses started. I’m like, ‘Go!’ and they look at me like, ‘No!’”
1923, which was recently commissioned for a second series, focuses on the challenges facing the Duttons as ranchers in prohibition era America. Helen is matriarch Cara – the latest in a line of strong women she’s played over the years – a character who, at her request, was given Irish origins as a nod to the impact immigrants had on the shaping of America.
It’s a theme that clearly resonates with Helen, whose father was a Russian émigré to the UK.
“To this day, that sense of recent immigration is what gives America its incredible vibrancy and creativity,” she says. “It’s what I’ve always loved about America. I’m married to an American, I’ve lived in America, I’ve got my American passport, I drive with an American driving licence. But real Americans don’t have a return ticket. They came with no return ticket, and they still come with no return ticket. They give up everything to make a life there and that’s America’s enormous strength and power, I think.”
The symbolism of two older actors being the centrepiece of a drama also attracted her – “it’s great to see two people of our age up on a poster,” as she puts it – alongside the portrayal of long-lasting partnerships.
“It’s about how you live happily ever after,” says Helen. “I know this because of my relationship with my husband. What happens is you become an absolute partnership and you have an equal voice in that partnership. It doesn’t mean you don’t have discussions about how to move forward, but it becomes a respectful partnership. And I think that’s absolutely the relationship that Taylor has written for Harrison and me.”
The other Taylor in her life, of course, is Taylor Hackford, Helen’s director husband of 25 years. The two met in 1985 when Taylor directed her in musical drama White Nights, prior to which Helen had been in a relationship with actor Liam Neeson. They married in December 1997 and have since enjoyed one of showbusiness’s most durable and happy marriages, today dividing their time between properties in Lake Tahoe, Nevada (where Helen has to chase the odd black bear out of the garden), New Orleans and London.
The duo’s partnership is clearly one of mutual respect, and Helen admits that they keep their professional lives largely separate.
“I don’t in general ask him to read the scripts that I’m going to be involved in,” she says. “Only if he really, really wants to. We allow each other to go and do their thing and do it however they want to do it. We don’t interfere in each other’s lives in that way.”
It’s a formula that clearly works, as does Helen’s professional mantra. “What I love,” she smiles, “is just constantly mixing it up”.
1923 is on Paramount+ now