If you’ve seen an ad for the action flick “Red,” then chances are that the image you remember the most is of Oscar winner Helen Mirren handling a gun like a badass pro. In “Red,” Mirren plays the tough and glamorous Victoria, one in a group of former CIA operatives who come out of retirement when they find out government assassins are after them because of the classified secrets that they know.
Based on the comic book “Red,” the movie also stars Bruce Willis as Frank Moses, the leader of the former spies on the run. At a New York City press conference for “Red,” Mirren opened up about what it was like to do her first machine-gun toting, action-hero role; which celebrity inspired her in her portrayal of Victoria; and why she has a crush on “Red” co-star Willis.
How did you approach playing Victoria in “Red”? Was it with a sense of comedy behind her furs and her wonderful hairdo and her glamour?
No, I approached it very seriously like I do everything really. No, it’s not a comedy really, is it? It’s comedic action. I rarely quite have something like that. It’s always great to find someone that you can pin your character on. Obviously, in “The Queen,” it was very easy to find the person to pin the character on. She is called Queen Elizabeth.
But here, I was kind of looking for who this woman might be and then I had this flash of inspiration and Martha Stewart came into my mind. I thought that’s who it is, it’s Martha Stewart and that was before the hair.
And so from that point on, I based everything on Martha Stewart. The hair was Martha Stewart’s hair, the color, even in the cut. The clothes were Martha Stewart because I thought Martha Stewart combines this perfect combination of sweetness and kindness and gentleness and unbelievable efficiency with this kind of laser-like ability to concentrate and get the job done.
And I thought that was a perfect sort of thing for Victoria. So I had a picture of Martha up in my trailer and in the makeup room so every day I could look at her and be inspired. I mean, that was just my secret story. That’s who I’ve got inspiration from. Obviously, I didn’t try and sort of imitate her or impersonate her. That wasn’t the point. It was getting inside of Martha.
How do you make the decision to do a movie like “Red,” coming having done “The Tempest” and “Love Ranch,” which are very different films?
I’m trying to remember. I did [“Red”] before I did “The Tempest,” I think. I can’t remember now. That’s terrible. The whole idea is to do something different from what you’ve just done and “The Queen” was an incredible experience for me in terms of the attention the film got, but that sort of attention kind of sticks. And I was getting a bit sick of people saying, “Oh, you’re so regal and you play all these queens.”
And I go, “I don’t play queens. I play lots of different things.” For a long time before that, I was a police detective [in “Prime Suspect”], and then I had to transmogrify into a queen. And you just want to always try and push the last thing out of people’s minds so they can look at you with an open mind, basically.
How long ago was it since you saw your 1972 film “Savage Messiah”?
I don’t think I’ve ever seen “Savage Messiah,” actually. The day I had to do that nude scene I had this nude scene, I have to walk completely “bollock naked,” as we say in England, down a flight of stairs and it was early days and all of that sort of thing. I was mortified and embarrassed. I remember that morning looking out of my trailer (a funky little caravan thing), and wondering if I threw myself off the top step of the trailer, I could manage to break my leg and not have to shoot the scene. I was just so mortified and unhappy about it. So I don’t think I ever saw it, actually.
Who’d you play in “Savage Messiah”?
I can’t remember the name of the character now. I was a bra-burning suffragette, in the turn of the century. It’s about an artist. It was [from director] Ken Russell. So it was pretty well out-there. You’re flapping your arms around. Did you want to say something?
Do you think there are any similarities between Victoria in “Red” and Mrs. Tingle in “Teaching Mrs. Tingle”?
No, no, no. Mrs. Tingle was an unhappy person. Victoria is not an unhappy person. I wanted her to be charming and nice and Martha Stewart-ish, a charming character. Mrs. Tingle was absolutely not charming at all.
It’s funny, there’s a segment of the population who usually seem to be working in the Gap — they’ve moved on now — but who only knew me for Mrs. Tingle. They’ve never seen any of my other work. But they had seen Mrs. Tingle and they were usually about 17 or 16 years old.
And I’d go into Gap and I’d be buying my T-shirt and they’d be taking the thing and they’d look at me and go, “Oh my God! It’s Mrs. Tingle!” I was so horrified. “It’s all right. I’m not really Mrs. Tingle. I’m a nice person, really.” It was funny. Luckily, they’ve moved on. They’re a little bit older now.
What were some of your favorite costumes that you wore in “Red”?
Oh, I loved my white dress. My white dress was great. That was made for me and the costume designer made that and designed it. And I thought she did a beautiful job. It was a brilliant dress, because it was so comfortable, and yet it looked so sort of chic and lovely. And it worked for the scenes and everything. It was like the perfect dress. I loved that dress.
I did actually rather like my snow camouflage thing as well. That was kind of cool. I didn’t realize such a thing existed in the world — snow camouflage — but apparently it does.
And how was it doing the action scenes?
Oh fun. It’s fun. It’s always great to do action scenes. They’re called action scenes because they do the acting for you. You don’t have to act in action scenes. The action does it all for you. It’s great.
And I was very lucky because a lot of my action scenes were with John Malkovich, and he was just so good at all of that gun stuff. He was just brilliant. Yeah, I mean, John, you wouldn’t believe it, would you, that he was great?
The difficult thing I found was not sticking my tongue out when I was shooting my gun. Because you tend to go [she sticks her tongue out] and ugh! “Cut, Helen. That doesn’t look very professional.”
What were your thoughts when you read through the script and you saw all these different weapons that you would get a chance to use? Which gun was the most fun?
Oh, well you know, I don’t, I guess, if I was to say I don’t like to ever say “gun is fun,” but guns can be fun in the sense of target practice, targeting kind of trying to hit a target carefully is interesting. And I guess on that level, I like the sniper gun the best. I hate to hear myself even saying that, but it’s true.
It was sort of more the gun I found the most horrifying is all these small machine guns. They’re not funny. They’re terrible because you can cause such havoc. I mean, I could literally wipe almost all of you out. [She says jokingly and laughs.] If I had one here and I happen to have one here! That would be a headline, wouldn’t it?
But anyway, they’re awful, little hand machine guns. You could do terrible things and you can, as far as I understand, you can buy them here in gun shows. It’s dreadful, dreadful. But anyway, the whole idea of targeting, careful target practice, that is interesting to me.
Since “Red” is about people who’ve been in retirement, is there a vision that you have of yourself in case you retire? Have you envisioned yourself at which age you’d let go of your work?
I don’t know. You don’t know that until it happens, I guess. I mean, as night follows day, inevitably it will happen but I have no idea. I think we all have a dream of what it would be like not to work and grow heirloom tomatoes and I do have that dream. It would be lovely. I do love gardening and all of that, but I do love my work.
I do love my work, but mostly I love the people that I get to work with. And in my job and all the jobs related to my job, including your jobs, you get to constantly meet and work with and be involved with clever imaginative people who constantly surprise you and push you forward and inspire you. So I think I would miss that a lot if I didn’t work anymore. I’d miss the people that I get to meet and work with, including the press and all the elements of it, really.
In an interview, you said that men like to play with guns. What’s the appeal for you as a woman?
Probably the same thing: probably penis envy.
You said were mortified walking naked on a film set, but you seem to be one of these people who can overcome your fears. What scares you today?
Oh yes, I wouldn’t like to do that today. I think it’s worse when you’re young, funnily enough, because you more of as kind of a sex object. And then you become an object of horror probably or something. But no, it’s never comfortable. It’s never comfortable.
The best thing would be if all the crew took their clothes off during it and you’d feel fine, but it’s never comfortable to begin without clothes on — for men or women. It’s awkward and embarrassing and all the rest of it. And what was the other part of your question?
What scares you?
I’ll tell you what me scares me is plastic. Plastic bags and plastic bottles and these things. [She points to a plastic water bottle on the table.] Why does my water have to be in a bloody plastic bottle? The landfill and the ocean. And I don’t know, I’m just terrified with the proliferation of plastic.
Your ethnic background is Russian, right?
Yes, well half-Russian. My dad’s Russian. My mother’s English. I would say my bottom half is Russian.
How do you feel about so many Russians being portrayed as villains in movies?
And Brits. Usually Brits more than Russians, actually. Exactly, from those days onwards, it’s still the Brits are the baddies in American movies mostly. It’s very nice that I’m not playing a baddie in this one.
But yes, I mean, it’s very interesting the way film culture, it doesn’t lead the way the world thinks. It tends to follow the way the world thinks. I did a film called “2010” — funnily enough, here we are in 2010 — in which I played the Russian. Actually, I wasn’t the baddie. I was a goodie.
But in those days, I remember having an argument with the costume designer because she was an American woman. She said, “Oh, she’s Russian. She would have horrible, big ugly clothes.” No, she wouldn’t. She’s a Russian astronaut. She’d have the best possible [clothes]. Russian astronauts have incredibly high level of [fashion]. “Oh, but we can’t show that.”
The Russians have to be shown to be sort of funkier and behind the times and in particular, usually fat and ugly. That was the other thing. All Russians were fat and ugly. There were no beautiful Russians in the time of communism as far as the Americans were concerned.And of course, suddenly all these unbelievably gorgeous Russian models are coming out of Russia. Where were they?
But it’s interesting how, without really realizing it, we are constantly being fed imagery. And I think the Brits are a nice convenient target to make the baddies, because you can’t be accused of racism or religious bigotry by making the Brits the baddies. America has a strange love/hate relationship with the Brits in general.
When “Red” comes out, people are going to see you sort of master of all this weaponry and rocking the machine guns. Is there an action franchise or action film star or action director that you’d like to possibly be a part of or work with in the future?
Good question. I’m too ignorant to really answer it properly, because I’m not really sure of the great [ones]. I mean, John Woo, was he a movie star or is he a director? He’s a director, isn’t he? He’s like incredible. I guess John Woo. Yes, yes.
[Quentin] Tarantino instantly is an incredible action fellow. It’s so sad that he lost his editor [Sally Menke, who died in September 2010] just very recently, because his films are so brilliantly edited. And of course, a director is the person who edits as well as the editor, but obviously that was an incredible marriage of minds, those two people. It’s very, very, very sad that he’s lost her and the movie world has lost her. But anyway, again I would say John Woo, Quentin Tarantino.
You mentioned Martha Stewart and your love of gardening. If you could be on Martha Stewart’s show, what would you like to talk about with her?
I have been on her show actually. I was on her show.
What kind of advice would you ask from Martha Stewart?
Oh my God, it’s like where do you start? Really, I mean the woman is amazing and I watch her shows and I’m just I’m always like sitting there with a notepaper. So that’s how you clean windows. I see, that’s what you should do with your washing up gloves after you finished with them, you’ve got to dry them properly or turn them inside out or do something or rather.
I mean, she’s absolutely amazing. Amazing, fun, unbelievable, lovely domestic information that I love. When I was on her show, I think we repotted something. I do love gardening and I know quite a bit about gardening. So yes, I think we were repotting or starting, regenerating geraniums, I can’t remember.
At this point in your career, what leads you to put yourself in these situations that you describe as uncomfortable and embarrassing to prove that you’re fearless or to conquer the awkwardness of the situation? And as someone with a Russian background, how do you rate your “Red” co-star Brian Cox, you played a Russian in the movie?
Well, Brian is an incredible actor and I’ve worked with Brian on a couple of occasions actually so we’ve known each other for a long time. He’s a fantastic actor. I’m very proud of him and being British and everything.
And I think it’s funny, isn’t it? As you play different characters how suddenly your features just suddenly look. And Brian, I don’t think is Russian at all, but goodness, he looks amazingly Russian in “Red.” He just looks the part so perfectly. And yes, I would say absolutely yes to the second part on what you said. It’s to constantly conquer your own fears, isn’t it that you put yourself in these ridiculous situations. It is to challenge your own feelings of fear or inadequacy or whatever. You have to do that.
Where do you get your passion for acting?
I wonder. I don’t know. It started early in my life, very early, I was about 13 or 14. It originally came through Shakespeare, and I kind of discovered Shakespeare when I was about 13 or 14 but it wasn’t really to do it. Shakespeare was a channel but the thing that I still love about my job is to be able to find yourself in a different world, whether it’s in the theater or on film. And in each thing, it comes at you in a different way.
In film, it’s more visceral. You can literally be in Camelot. I can literally be a sniper outside of a house in the snow. I can literally be that person and it’s just so exciting to find yourself in these wonderful fantastical, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but amazing worlds. I love that side of my job. I loved it in “The Last Station.” I was suddenly in Russia, in the Russia of my grandparents’ photographs. I literally was suddenly in that world, and that’s fantastic.
And when it was Shakespeare and I discovered the world of Hamlet — so different from my little post-war life in a dormitory town in England, a little town. Yet to find, to go into this wonderful imaginary world, which was so fantastic.And that’s what I love the most still.
You said in an interview that a major reason you wanted to do “Red” was that you had a chance to work with Bruce Willis, and you actually have a bit of a crush on him. Could you elaborate a bit on that?
Well, it doesn’t really need elaborating on. It’s all true. I did have a crush on I do have a crush on Bruce. Don’t tell him, for God’s sake. Don’t let anyone know. Don’t let my husband know. Oh, my husband knows. I do have a crush on him.
I have two kinds of crushes on him. I have the classic fan type crush, and then I have a more aesthetic crush on him as an actor, as an actress looking at an actor who I think is really a wonderful, wonderful actor. There are two Bruces, and he’s brilliant in the action movies, but he’s also this fantastic character actor. And I’m hoping that we’ll see more and more of that side of him. I think he’s really, really good. So I have two kinds of admiration for him: the venal kind and then the sort of respectful kind.
Can you talk about playing Prospera in “The Tempest” movie, since that role was originally a male character named Prospero?
Yes, yes. But it could so easily be a woman’s part. It’s not a man’s part in anything except that it’s a man but everything about the play and about the part can be played by a woman without changing really anything except for a little bit of back story.
And is that same as the role you have in the 2011 remake of “Arthur,” which co-stars Russell Brand as Arthur?
No, that’s very different. That was written as a woman, as a nanny. I’m playing his nanny. Russell [Brand] gave me this safety pin, a diamond-encrusted safety pin.
Because you did his diapers in the movie?
Yeah, exactly [She laughs.] Exactly.
So you seem to be busier than ever. Are you getting back on stage again?
I hope so. I hope so next year. That’s what I’d like to do.
For more info: “Red” website
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