Helen Mirren in Red 2
If you can imagine being scolded by the Queen of England, being told off by actress Helen Mirren is not that far off: a dressing-down delivered in a soft, genteel voice that makes it all the more devastating.
A reporter at a recent press conference in Manhattan discovers this when she asks the 68-year-old a question about Turkish politics.
It annoys the Oscar winner, who is there to promote her new film Red 2, an action comedy about a group of ageing spies that co-stars Bruce Willis and John Malkovich.
To say that Mirren loses her cool would imply a lack of control – her response to the inappropriate query is nothing if not deliberate.
It also displays the same combination of silk and steel that the actress has brought to some of her best-known roles. These include several television, stage and film productions in which she has played various English monarchs, notably the 2006 movie The Queen, which won her a Best Actress Oscar.
In Red 2, she plays an elegant MI6 assassin named Victoria, and she is talking about how much she enjoyed the role when the question about an anti- government demonstration in Turkey comes flying in from left field, the reporter clearly desperate for the stars to say something about her country.
Sitting next to her, Mirren’s co-star Willis obviously has no clue what the woman is talking about and is struggling to put together a response when Mirren swoops in.
Demonstrating an impressive grasp of current affairs, she summarises the issue for him – and, frankly, for everyone else in the room – before fixing a perfectly mascaraed eye on the reporter.
“I think it’s a little unfair for you to ask us to comment on things like this. We don’t know what’s happening on the ground, we’re not politicians and don’t know the intricacies of the situation.
“If we make a comment, it can easily go viral and be misunderstood. So all we can say is: We can watch, we can sympathise and we can hope that Turkey can resolve its problems.”
“Well said,” mutters a relieved Willis as the rest of the room silently cheers.
Red 2 Cast members (L-R) Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker and Helen Mirren, with producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura
It is a masterful performance that, for a minute, distracts everyone from the movie – and from the question of whether it is an odd choice of project for Mirren, a Golden Globe, Emmy, Bafta and Olivier award-winning actress.
The unapologetically crowd-pleasing action flick directed by Dean Parisot, a follow-up to the 2010 box-office hit Red, is hardly the sort of thing you would expect a Royal Shakespeare Company-trained actress to be doing, although Red 2 also stars another Oscar winner, Anthony Hopkins (The Silence Of The Lambs, 1991).
Mirren, however, defends this late-career transition into the action genre. There are certain action movies that “only young bodies can do – certain physical feats that you just can’t do in your 50s or 60s”, says the actress, who in the flesh looks younger than her years.
“But action isn’t just about that. When you can’t do all the physical stuff anymore, you have to think and use your brain… and find other ways of getting out of a physical situation.
“So in a way, that’s the fun of it – it’s not just about muscle. It’s not remotely intellectual but, at the same time, it’s about people who have to think on their feet, and that’s where the comedy comes from.”
The actress, who has won accolades for her role as a police detective on the British TV show Prime Suspect (1991-2006), says she also enjoyed the comedic aspects of the Red movies.
Here and elsewhere, the actress is often the first to get to the punchline.
In one scene in Red 2, producers took her suggestion to have her character dress up as the queen – a dig at all the times she has played a British monarch.
During the press event, she also freely pokes fun at her age – despite being regularly voted onto “Hollywood’s sexiest actress”-type lists – and her boring domestic routine with husband Taylor Hackford, the American film director (Ray, 2004) she married in 1997. She volunteers, for example, that she was once “papped”, or photographed by the paparazzi, outside the British equivalent of the American warehouse-style supermarket Costco.
“I got papped with my husband when we had a trolley with a microwave that we’d just bought cheap,” she says, laughing.
“Paris Hilton gets papped outside nightclubs, I get papped outside Costco.”
With her upcoming role in the Lasse Hallstrom drama The Hundred-Foot Journey – a film about an Indian family that opens a restaurant in France – Mirren looks set to continue to mix it up in terms of the genre and tone of her projects.
She is happiest, she says, when she is doing a variety of different roles rather than being stuck in one groove. Referring to her role as the Queen in London’s West End, she says: “I’ve just done six months of theatre so I’ve had enough of that. Doing a play for six months is a bit like being in prison, so I feel liberated at the moment and can’t wait to get back on a film set.”
Red 2 is now in Singapore cinemas.
This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on July 31, 2013. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.