Meeting any famous actress can be pretty daunting, particularly if they’re a dame and have won an Oscar for playing the Queen. But Dame Helen Mirren is delightfully down-to-earth.
We’re both wearing black lace tops and shoe-boots, hers a wonderful opened-toed leopard skin pair, and she comments on the similarity of our outfits to break the ice.
The truth is I’m a good 30 years younger, but she looks way more glamorous, and far more trim, than me. Plus, she looks better in a swimsuit.
Known as much for stripping off in Calendar Girls and those candid red bikini pictures from 2008 as she is for her screen credits, the 67-year-old has bared almost all again in her latest film, Hitchcock, in which she plays Alma Reville, the wife of the great Hollywood director.
There’s a scene where Alma, in defiance of their economic situation, buys a new red swimming costume and plunges into the couple’s pool, which they might lose if Alfred’s next film, Psycho, doesn’t sell.
At the start of the film she’s also in her underwear so, as tacky as it sounds, I simply can’t stop myself from marvelling at her figure. How does she do it?
“Oh God, don’t ask!” she says, laughing, raising her eyes to heaven in mock (I hope) exasperation. “I don’t know. Judicious cutting and editing, it’s a very good thing.”
Careful editing or not, Hitchcock, in which Anthony Hopkins plays the director, is a fascinating insight into Alma Reville – how incredible a woman she was, and how much she was responsible for making Psycho the success it would become.
As a script and film editor, Alma was the strong woman behind the powerful man and made clever choices that would shape the film, including insisting on the screechy soundtrack in the iconic shower scene.
“I didn’t know anything about their relationship before,” admits Mirren, revealing that it was Alma’s “strong character” that drew her to the script.
Hitchcock was obsessed with his leading ladies, almost to the point of cheating on Alma, and Psycho was no different when he cast Janet Leigh (played by Scarlett Johansson) as the tragic heroine, just the latest in his string of ‘Hitchcock blondes’.
But Alma overlooked these dalliances, and spent 54 years as his wife and collaborator. “It is a love story,” says Mirren. “And I think that Alma and Hitch were, in their own funny, unglamorous way, a great kind of Romeo and Juliet partnership. They were amazing partners in life and I think they could teach us all something about how to make a successful marriage.”
Mirren herself knows a thing or two about making a marriage work, having been in a relationship with American director husband Taylor Hackford since 1986 (they tied the knot in 1997).
She says her own experience helped her identify with Alma. “When I first went to Hollywood, I was with my husband who is – was at that time – a very successful film director. He’d Made An Officer And A Gentleman and was very recognised in Hollywood.
“I did experience people walking through you to get to the great and glorious Taylor Hackford,” she admitted at a recent Bafta event held in her honour.
As was the case in Alma and Hitch’s marriage, Mirren thinks a sense of humour is crucial to staying together.
“You don’t necessarily have to work together but certainly allowing the other person the freedom to work, if they want to. And a sense of humour, definitely.”
Hitchcock is the latest in a string of films featuring older relationships, following the recent Quartet with Dame Maggie Smith, and last year’s Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with Dame Judi Dench.
“I think it’s just a question of finding an audience that they’d forgotten about,” says Mirren. “And they didn’t think anyone over the age of 50, let’s say, wanted to go to the cinema. But they didn’t want to go to the cinema because there were no movies they wanted to see.”
At 18, Mirren joined the National Youth Theatre, then later the Royal Shakespeare Company. One of her first major film roles came in 1972’s O Lucky Man!, which took her to the Cannes Film Festival.
“I was living an extremely Bohemian life, so I arrived as this almost barefoot, not quite penniless artist and the Warner Bros executives looked at me with absolute horror. They gave me money and sent me out to buy clothes because they wanted me to fulfil a sort of film starlet persona.”
Bizarrely, she once auditioned for Hitchcock’s London film Frenzy, but didn’t get on with the director.
“Back then I didn’t understand, I was an idiot, I thought he was just an old-fashioned director,” she explains. “I wanted to be in Easy Rider, I didn’t want to be in a Hitchcock movie. I was a fool.”