Case in point: this interview. We’re here to chat about her new film The Good Liar, in which Mirren, 74, plays a vulnerable and naive widow opposite Sir Ian McKellen’s con man. It’s a thriller in every sense of the word: suspenseful and unassuming with a stellar twist right at the end. Five minutes into our conversation, we make a pact. Mirren asks for my help to keep the ending of the film a secret and we symbolically shake hands over the phone.
With over 50 years’ experience and more than 80 films under her belt, Mirren says she is still excited by the same things: a great script, a great actor and a great director. The Good Liar ticked all of her boxes with stunning writing, co-star McKellen and powerhouse director Bill Condon. “As you get older, very often the scripts you get are about getting older. And this script was not about that, it was a thriller story that happened to be about two older people. I love a thriller, and this is exactly the kind of movie I want to see,” she says.
“When I get a role, I want it to take me by surprise. They are normally the best ones,” admits Mirren. “It felt incredibly exciting [signing on for the role], but I’m still very, very terrified and nervous when I start a new project.”
Yes, you read that right: Dame Helen Mirren, who has played a queen six times and won an Oscar for her efforts, still gets first-day jitters. How does she cope with her nerves? “You just put yourself into another you. It’s still you but it’s another you that’s not frightened or nervous, and loving the moment,” she explains. “You can revisit the other you later over a cup of tea – or a large drink if you prefer that!”
Mirren got her “Keep Calm and Carry On” attitude from her working-class upbringing in Essex. It’s served her well through her illustrious career; from playing Lady Hitchcock in Hitchcock, gun heiress Sarah Winchester in Winchester and Magdalene Shaw in the Fast and the Furious film series alongside Vin Diesel (who she begged for a role at a cocktail party). With so many blockbusters under her belt, Mirren says the biggest risk she took was leaving London to do experimental theatre in Paris, Africa and America when her career was taking off. “I was really on the rise as an actress in my late 20s when I walked away from TV and film for a year. My agent, family and friends thought I was completely mad,” she says, with a laugh. “It gave me a certain wisdom about life; everybody is different. You are yourself and you need to be as authentic as possible.”
If there’s one word to describe Mirren, it’s authentic. From sucking helium live on television with Jimmy Fallon, to twerking at Harvard University (while accepting the Hasty Pudding Woman of the Year award), and her candid Instagram account filled with selfies of her and Jason Momoa, Mirren is an open book. But there is one question she’s sick of being asked: “I would be thrilled if I was never asked about my beauty regimen again.” Noted.
As we end our chat (and the best 16 minutes of my life), Mirren calls out one last piece of advice down the line: “Go have a large drink now.” And I do. Who am I to argue with Dame Helen Mirren?
This article originally appeared in the February issue of marie claire.