Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren Is No Cliché

Her steely-eyed, unforgettable lead in 2006 film The Queen won her an Oscar, and when we speak she's gearing up for a performance in West End play The Audience, in which she reprises the Elizabeth Windsor role. But despite being known as the "Best Queen Ever", possibly for good, you could never accuse Dame Helen Mirren of allowing herself to be pigeonholed.

In recent years, she's done everything from playing Russell Brand's nanny in the remake of Arthur to a voice-over in Glee. Yet none of her roles has been more surprising than that of ice-cool, gun-toting assassin Victoria in the 2010 film RED.

This superior movie caper about a group of retired secret agents reunited for one more mission also starred John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman and Bruce Willis, and became a sleeper hit. So next month, RED 2 heaves into view, with Helen once again playing the glamorous but pensionable MI6 operative—who this time is helping track down a missing nuclear bomb.

But despite the top-quality cast and Helen's credentials, she's not about to pretend that RED 2 is high culture.

The twist obviously is in the title,

"Well, you know, it's an action movie, without doubt," says the 67-year-old. "A good, old-fashioned, straight-down-the-line action movie."

But Helen's been in the business too long to take the art of the big-ticket genre flick lightly. "It's not actually that straightforward to make a successful one. You've got to get the balance right: the right amount of wit, of laughs, of action, of characters—real, interesting characters, not just clichés. You need quite a magical little concoction to make the thing fly rather than just sit there and be ignored. But I think with a bit of genius casting in the first one, and some funny lines, the piece worked...yes, the piece worked. So it was great fun to go back to it.

"The twist obviously is in the title, with RED standing for 'Retired and Extremely Dangerous'. These are people who were very active in the murky world of special operations and are still looking for a bit of action."

RED'S success signalled something of a change in Hollywood. The action movie has never gone out of fashion, but a film starring actors whose main source of action you might have thought would be picking up the remote to turn on Antiques Roadshow is a genre no one saw coming. The film's impact means that certain more recent movies—such as 65-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Last Stand, 66-year-old Sylvester Stallone's Bullet to the Head, and the trotting-out of Bruce Willis's John McClane for yet another Die Hard—owe Helen and co a debt.

"It's the funny thing about the film industry. They're constantly forgetting about certain huge audiences. They completely forgot about teenage girls for a while; then Titanic came out and made something like £3 billion—basically from teenage girls. Before that, I remember they forgot about [young] kids. In this case they forgot about the baby-boomer generation, which is an awful lot of people who are now in their 50s and 60s, grew up on the cinema. They've got money in their pockets, they're free of having to go home to look after the children, and they want to go to the movies."

But, says Helen, though these people want action films, they don't want trash. "They're a pretty discerning audience. They're not like the male 18- to 25-year-olds who'll say, 'Hey, it's got guns in it,' or a car chase. The older version of that audience want wit, character development and some kind of vague sense of reality, even if the film's fantastical. Which is why the RED films do so well. Car chases—check, guns—check, conspiracy theories —check, apocalyptic scenarios—check. But it's all grounded in a believability that comes from a series of brilliant performances from actors of the calibre of Malkovich, Freeman and Mirren.

It's a match made in heaven, if you ask me,

Indeed, RED 2 adds Anthony Hopkins to the pantheon. This is the second film in a year in which Helen and Hopkins have both appeared—she played his wife in Hitchcock—despite never having done so during the rest of their careers.

"It's a match made in heaven, if you ask me," she says. "Yet somehow we've always missed working together. And now I get to do two movies with him in one year. Completely coincidental. The incredible thing about Anthony is that he's still a real inspiration. He puts all the height of his incredible expertise, ability, talent and professionalism into anything and everything he does. Gene Hackman is someone I really, really admire and he has the same quality. No matter the material, he gives it his highest-quality performance. That's the kind of actor I want to be."

It's odd to hear Dame Helen aspiring to be like another actor, given that most would do anything to emulate her. Equally it's a bit strange to see "the Queen" doing high-octane action sequences when we're so used to her delivering stoic humanity with such aplomb. It seems that, even at 67, RED 2 offered her some screen firsts. "This is the first time I've done a big car chase. It was...very visceral and very exciting," she says with a girlish giggle.

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