Even in her eighth decade, Dame Helen Mirren shows no signs of slowing down, as Karen Anne Overton discovers
With an incredible screen career behind her, at 70 Dame Helen Mirren is as outspoken and glamorous as the young woman who sat on Michael Parkinson’s sofa back in 1975 and reduced him to a quivering wreck for daring to suggest that her looks would detract from critics taking her seriously as an actress.
Not only would she go on to be taken very seriously as an actress, she would become the crown jewel of British national treasures after winning an Academy Award and a Tony for her portrayal of Her Majesty in The Queen and The Audience respectively.
“I enjoy being older – I think it’s pretty cool, in fact”
“Age has a way of making you think less about yourself. I’ve long ago stopped worrying about selfish things, how I look, and what others think of me,” she says.
“When you’re younger, you tend to think that you’re the centre of the universe. Eventually you learn to enjoy how others help make your world a more interesting place. I enjoy being older – I think it’s pretty cool, in fact.”
Helen is a strong woman; the kind who has worked hard for what she has, someone who has put her ambitions ahead of people’s expectations (such as starting a family, a subject on which she is resolute: “I have no maternal instincts whatsoever”) and someone for whom getting older isn’t about to get in the way.
It’s difficult then to imagine a naïve Helen, but she found her own path. “I was very insecure in my twenties and only gradually did I learn how the world works and how to find my way around it,” she admits. “I had to go through some tough experiences before I really understood myself and how to play the game you need to play to get ahead, but once you figure it all out then life is much easier and the world becomes your playground.”
“Women have come a long way since I first arrived in Hollywood”
Her stellar rise has been rather extraordinary. Born to working class parents and brought up in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, she was originally set to be a teacher but aged 18 she auditioned for The National Youth Theatre and by 20 was playing a title role in Antony and Cleopatra at London’s Old Vic Theatre.
Over the years she has successfully conquered all possible dramatic mediums, dazzled the theatre world on both sides of the Atlantic, worked consistently in Hollywood and starred in long-running television drama Prime Suspect, yet she admits that it wasn’t always easy in an industry with such preconceived notions about women.
“When I first arrived in Hollywood it was totally dominated by men. Women have come a very long way since then in this business,” she says. “There are more good parts being written for women now and although we still have some way to go, it’s remarkable to see how much things have progressed and I’m happy to have witnessed that change.”
“People should have the freedom to do what makes them happy”
That she is at least partially responsible for the changes in the way women – and older women in particular – are perceived is humbly brushed off, but as a role model her appeal refuses to wane. Currently enjoying a different kind of role, as the face for L’Oréal Paris’ Age Perfect moisturiser, Helen is as glamorous as ever. “Age is just a number, and maths was never my thing,” she says on the advertisement.
While the ideal of eternal beauty often sees people reaching for a more permanent cosmetic alteration than moisturiser can provide alone, Helen says she has not succumbed to the temptation. At least, not yet: “It’s something I’ve thought about from time to time but then I think about all those women you see with duck or fish lips and you don’t ever want to look like that! But I wouldn’t rule it out. People should have the freedom to do what makes them happy.”
In her private life, Helen has been with American director Taylor Hackford for almost 30 years. The pair married in 1997. “I’ve been incredibly, incredibly fortunate. I've been able to stay healthy, find good work, and enjoy the company of a wonderful man,” gushes Helen.
“Even though sometimes it’s so easy to be able to relax in Italy where we found this place, or travel together, I can never find the willpower to say ‘no’ to a very good part when one comes along. I often tell my husband, ‘I’ve done enough and I’m not going to keep pushing myself.’ But he’s so used to hearing me say that, he doesn’t even pay attention to me anymore when I make that kind of a declaration! The terrible truth is that I simply cannot resist a good role.”
“Gardening is one of the most relaxing things you can do in life”
That downtime between projects is still important, though. When Hollywood isn’t calling, Helen likes to relax with one of the great British pastimes: “I love to garden,” she smiles. “There are many people who will tell you how gardening is one of the most purely relaxing things you can do in life. Of course, there are times when it can also become very emotional. I get angry when aphids start infesting the soil. That can ruin your day in the garden!”
So how does Dame Helen really feel about reaching the glorious age of 70? “When I think about it, it seems impossible!” she laughs. “How can that be? Fortunately I’m someone whose nature it is to live very much in the present and not get depressed about my age or appearance.”
That’s the magic of Helen Mirren; that combination of graciousness and fearlessness. Steadfastly committed and passionate about her work, but never giving rise to the media or what people expect her to be, she confidently concludes: “I would rather get on with my life. One good thing about getting older is that even though you might not look as good as you once did, you don’t give a toss!”
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Retiresavvy is brought to you by Skipton Building Society. The interview in this article was supplied by InterviewHub. This article has been commissioned by retiresavvy and any opinions voiced are the author's own.