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Nothing like a dame

It takes us a good 30 seconds to get on to sex. Helen Mirren’s wearing a plaster on her toe. I’ve got a thing about plasters, I say. “That’s a strange fetish,” she answers, po-faced as the queen of England, whom she plays quite brilliantly in the new Stephen Frears film of the same name.

I didn’t mean it like that. It came out wrong. What I meant was, I use lots of plasters and they never seem to stick, but it’s too late. We are heading down double-entendre alley. We are in a London penthouse suite, very stylish, very cool. Mirren opens a trap door and is peering through a hole in the floor leading to a room below.

“This would be a great place for a romantic weekend, wouldn’t it?” she purrs approvingly. When we set up this interview, Dame Helen made one request — that the interviewer be a man. She enjoys the company of men. I have a feeling that she enjoys toying with men.

Years ago, she said in one of those A Day in the Life-style columns that she always puts her alarm on early so she can make love to her man first thing in the morning. It’s a story people love to repeat — and one that has come to define Mirren. (What people tend to forget in telling the story is one of the reasons she gave for the early start — that they were so often separated from each other for work reasons.)

Perhaps it’s inevitable that we dispense with the small talk and move on to sex and emotional truths so quickly. Mirren has rarely played characters who do small talk. Take her two latest roles. She is magnificent both in her reprisal of Superintendent Jane Tennison after a three-year absence, in the final Prime Suspect, and as Queen Elizabeth, normally a master of the pleasantry, no doubt, but here with her back to the wall, doing battle with Tony Blair just after Diana’s death in The Queen. He is all for flags at half-mast and visible emotion, she for decent reticence and seclusion at Balmoral.

The physical transformation is astonishing — it’s a wonderful impersonation — but what makes it all the more impressive is that she seems to add a new dimension to what we know about the queen. She suggests so much while saying so little — anger, desperation, snobbery, loneliness, humour — all through the tiniest movements of a tight-lipped mouth.

Mirren has often portrayed women of rare strength — manly strength, despite her very womanly glamour. Early on, this power was often expressed through her sexuality — Mirren was not made for soppiness or simpering or obeisance.

In recent years, the power has tended to express itself through her characters’ work, whether as Queen Elizabeth I in the TV series (for which she won a best-actress Emmy), as Queen Elizabeth II or as Tennison.

Tennison is one of the great characters in TV drama, a whisky-drinking, chain-smoking leader of men. The only way she can succeed in a police force and a society that doesn’t trust women coppers is by out-machoing the men. But, like all great characters, she is awash with ambiguities. In the new Prime Suspect, Tennison is facing up to retirement. Her bob is now silver-blonde, she is drinking on the job, and she’s still paranoid about being undermined.

Why does she think directors so often have her play women who can destroy men with a single superior sniff? “I’ve always felt more the person being destroyed than the destroyer,” she says, quietly — and there’s a silence. “I think you’re really looking at it from a male point of view,” she says, in a severe voice. “You see it as sexual — pissing and shitting and doing whatever you have to do, but you guys looking go, ‘Oh God, that’s sexy.’ We don’t see that or even feel it or even really think about it …”

She appears to change her mind even as she’s talking. “… I mean, some of us do, and some of us use it, because it is a weapon of enormous power that you have for a fairly brief period in your life. You are aware of sexuality as a young creature from everyone else looking at you …” She trails off.

Mirren, now 61, was born Ilynea Lydia Mironoff and comes from an unusual background. Her paternal grandfather, a Russian noble and diplomat, was negotiating an arms deal in England and found himself stranded there, along with his family, after the Russian Revolution. Mirren’s parents worked together in a fabric shop in Ilford, Essex. Her mother came from a family of butchers. Her father, a cabbie-turned-chief traffic examiner, fought Mosley’s Black Shirts in the East End, and defined himself as a socialist. She describes her family as poor middle class — working-class money, middle-class attitudes.

After leaving school, she studied speech and drama, and expected to live a sensible, modest life as a teacher. But by the age of 20 she was working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and living it up in the newly permissive world, one of the most glamorous girls on an already glamorous scene.

She seemed representative of the newly liberated woman — gorgeous, uninhibited, independent minded and independent living. She didn’t join feminist groups, didn’t even define herself as a feminist, even though looking back she knows she was and is one. Now she understands how much she owes to those whose campaigning work allowed her to embrace the newly won freedoms.

“I didn’t realise at the time that you had to be this loud, annoying, tub­thumping organisation to get anything done.” The most important thing her parents taught her was not to rely on a man for her living. “You know, the greatest gift every girl can have is economic independence.”

For her part, Mirren has appeared naked more often than any mainstream actress of her generation — for her 50th birthday she appeared tastefully naked on the cover of the Radio Times, and you could imagine her doing it again for her 70th — but perhaps she thinks she did it on established showbiz terms (from “top bird” to “game old bird”) rather than her own. Yes, she has been pretty uncompromising, but perhaps not quite as uncompromising as she would like to have been.

It was never easy being true to yourself when others were so keen to pigeonhole you, she says. “I was enraged by the sexism I encountered, exacerbated by the way I looked. If I’d looked like a dark, little intellectual person … I didn’t like how I looked at all, but you have to live with it, and you have to love it.”

How would she like to have looked? “Well, obviously, ideally I’d have long and beautiful legs. I have short, fat legs.”

As a young actor, she turned up at all the parties, but she hated them, she says, didn’t know what to do with herself. And she had some terrible experiences. I read that she had been date-raped, more than once, when she was young. She gets up off her seat to fetch some water, and answers with her back to me. “Yeah, but I don’t want to talk about that, though.”

Her unease in the early years, she thinks, explains the pattern of her subsequent life. “I was a serial monogamist, really. To be out in the world, dating, or whatever it is, was not a comfortable place to me, so I had a series of really great relationships. The men I was with were all fantastic.” Former partners include actors Liam Neeson and Nicol Williamson.

Mirren finally married filmmaker Taylor Hackford in 1997, after more than 10 years together. Yes, she says, they did wed largely for tax reasons but, yes, she also considers herself a romantic. Is her husband a romantic? “Oh, no.” If he’s not a romantic, what does she get from him? “What I get on the other side is so much better. Loyalty and truthfulness and, you know, manliness in the proper sense.”

At this point I’m remembering she’s a dame. “Can I call you Dame Hell?” I interject. She laughs. “Yes, it’s rather good, Dame Hell, I like that. Only my best friends call me Hell, though, Simon. I’m not quite sure that we can categorise you as that … Maybe one day …” She doesn’t like being called Dame, either.

The other day she was on the bus and somebody offered her a seat. “I said, thank you so much, and sat down, but I was mortified, actually. Mortified.” Did he recognise her? “No, he didn’t recognise me. He then just turned his back on me and ignored me.”

Ah well, she says, there are worse things, and it was nice to get the seat.

She takes setbacks more in her stride these days. She feels more at ease with herself. Looking at her now, I can’t help thinking of Tennison in the last Prime Suspect. They have both been through so many battles — assertive women, plagued by doubts, making their way through life. But whereas Tennison seems exhausted and beaten, Mirren is vibrant and optimistic; whereas Tennison’s powers are on the wane, Mirren’s are peaking.

She looks back to the time she appeared to have everything, and reckons she was a mess of confusions. “Your twenties are torture, really, because you don’t know what you are going to be or whether it’s all going to work out, and you are supposedly an adult but you haven’t really learnt anything. You’re always looking for your own place in the world, but you’re insecure — you think you’re wonderful one minute and you think you’re a disaster the next. I think your thirties are a wonderful time.”

And her sixties? “It’s brilliant, really, the way life organises itself, because you just slowly get used to what you are, don’t you?” — Â

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