June 17, 2022

If Helen Mirren were to steal a painting from the National Gallery in London, it would be a Wassily Kandinsky. “I love Kandinsky,” she says of the Russian painter, known as the father of 20th-century abstraction, although if you strolled through a gallery of his work, you might never know it’s all from the same man’s brush. Among his oeuvre, you’ll find art that incorporates impressionism, expressionism, surrealism, Art Nouveau and Bauhaus.
Similarly, the many, many facets of Dame Helen were showcased in the spliced compilation reel shown at the 2022 Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards before she collected her Lifetime Achievement Award in February: Shakespearean thespian in Antony and Cleopatra and Hamlet; drunk and gruff Detective Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect; regal as Queen Elizabeth I and II; a fully naked Caesonia in the 1979 Penthouse-funded erotic film Caligula; campy criminal mastermind Magdalene Shaw in the even campier Fast & Furious franchise, movies seven through nine; and, in The Duke, her new film that opens this spring, a frumpy and sour-faced wife who discovers her husband is hiding a stolen painting by Mirren’s second choice of artist to loot, Francisco de Goya.

The Duke is based on the true story about a disabled British pensioner, Kempton Bunton, who is incensed to learn his government paid millions to keep de Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, a Tory prime minister and war hero, from being sold to an American collector. Nineteen days after its display at the National Gallery in 1961, the masterpiece disappeared. Was it the cunning work of an heist expert? Or the accidental misadventures of a good-hearted, working-class retiree on a crusade for free TV licences for seniors?

“You couldn’t sell this story if it were a work of fiction,” says actor Jim Broadbent, who plays Bunton in The Duke. Portions of Bunton’s sensational trial — no spoilers! — were used verbatim, delivered in perfect Newcastle accents. Since Mirren’s ever faithful to her real-life characters, she required a serious make-under for her turn as Bunton’s wife, Dorothy. “When I first saw her in her wig and costume, it made me laugh,” he admits during a Zoom press conference from London, where they’re promoting The Duke. “She’s always been a glorious and glamorous actress. You see past the cardigan and her inner beauty comes shining through.”
Okay, okay, we get it: At 76, Mirren is beautiful, inside and out. She’s aging like a badass, no eternal youth serum required, and she looks better in a red swimsuit than all of us. So I’m not sure what — or who — to expect when Mirren appears on screen, but, obviously, she looks way better than I do on today’s video call, where I’m regretting wearing my sartorial choice of glasses and ponytail (in my defence, it’s 8 a.m. in Toronto, and the glasses are Chloé, a small saving grace). Mirren, meanwhile, may as well have walked directly off a red carpet in a parakeet-green pleated silk dress from ME+EM with a Jane Taylor headband that sparkles like an actual crown. I’m certain she’s long sick of questions of the “how do you possibly look so good?” variety, though truthfully it’s the first thing that pops to mind.

That said, it could be worse, and not too long ago, it really was. In 1975, during Mirren’s very first talk show appearance, U.K. journalist Michael Parkinson introduced Mirren as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “sex queen,” known for “projecting sluttish eroticism.” Parkinson then asked if her “equipment” hinders her pursuits as a “serious actress” (he indeed uses air quotes). “You mean my fingers?” she asks, though she’d surely rather have shown him the middle one. Mirren kept her impressive composure for 36 long years, when, in a 2011 interview with The Telegraph, she publicly called him a “sexist old fart.”

Vowing to be nothing like Parkinson, I toss the Dame a curveball in a follow-up email: “What question does nobody ever ask that you really wish they would?” In an audio file she sent in reply, Mirren mulls a minute and then answers, kind of. “My favourite interview would be one with no questions at all, quite honestly,” she says. “One where you just sit down and have a conversation about gardening or sewing. I love sewing.”

Sewing? It’s suddenly very clear to me that I don’t actually know anything about Helen Mirren. This feels deliberate. “It’s a mistake to confuse the actress with the person on the red carpet,” she cautions, with no mention at all of the real person behind the actress. I think of how much I know, with nary a Google search, about the actresses of my generation, like Jennifer Lawrence (new baby!), Lena Dunham (endometriosis) and Drew Barrymore (thrice divorced and too nervous to date). Each of them is a friendly open book, bless their hearts, but they are forever fated to play slightly different versions of themselves.

For details on Mirren, you have to dig into her 2008 biography, In the Frame. Descended from Russian aristocrats exiled to England during the Bolshevik Revolution, the formerly rich Mironov family started over in London’s East End and soon Anglicized their last name to Mirren. Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov entered this world with top honours — the middle child of three was born in just 20 minutes, the fastest birth on record at Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea Hospital. When she turned three, the family moved to the more affordable Essex County, although they still couldn’t afford a car, central heating, a washing machine or a refrigerator. Needless to say, there was no TV, so the family visited art galleries for a free dose of art and culture.