More than two years ago, Dame Helen Mirren made a dramatic pivot from her string of roles as royals—and portrayed a cleaning lady in the 2020 film The Duke. It’s only as of this Thursday, though, that American audiences will finally be able to see the performance partly responsible for the film’s notable five-star reviews. And while Mirren is devastated that Roger Michell—the late director best known for Notting Hill, who died of a heart attack last September—never got to see it with a wide audience, she is thrilled that his final movie is finally hitting theaters. She was positively glowing earlier this month when she turned up to a New York screening hosted by the Cinema Society, wearing a pink and yellow Carolina Herrera ensemble made all the more colorful by her purple nails.
And yet, even after all this time, Mirren says she still can’t wrap her head around the fact that the improbable story at its center is entirely true. There really was a cleaning lady named Dorothy whose family somehow managed to steal a much ballyhooed Francisco Goya painting from the National Gallery in London. The British government really did believe that an international crime organization was responsible for a theft that was, in actuality, carried out by her unemployed husband and son (two commoners played by Jim Broadbent and Fionn Whitehead, respectively). And that’s just the beginning of the unlikely tale. Here, Mirren explains why she’s so drawn to films about art and shares insight into her somewhat surprising relationships with Lady Gaga and Vin Diesel.
If you could steal or own any artwork, what would it be?
I would steal or own a [Vasily] Kandinsky, my favorite artist. One of his big pieces, but you know, any old Kandinsky [would do]. [Laughs.] The only art of any value I have in my house is a small, signed Kandinsky print. I find his work just magical.
What else do you have in your collection?
We have quite a lot of modern art, and some very extraordinary pieces by Adan Hernandez, a Latino artist who very sadly passed away last year. My husband [the director Taylor Hackford] did a film about an artist called Blood In, Blood Out, and he did the art for the film. We’re not collectors in the sense of trying to find art that’s going to go up in value or anything like that—just things that we like, which are quite weird. [Laughs.] We have one of this big guy with his arms folded, looking very, very aggressive. He’s obviously the frontman of a restaurant that he’s in front of, and the title is It’s Not Good, It’s Great. There’s something so terrifying about it.
What was the last show you saw at a museum or gallery?
We saw a great Picasso exhibition. I don’t particularly like Picasso, but it really opened my eyes. I think it was his sculptural work that made me rethink him.
Getting into the film, you and Jim Broadbent have great chemistry. Did you know each other before The Duke?
We’ve been in the same film, but different parts of the film, so we [had] never actually worked together. It’s funny, you know, I don’t think in a normal world, you’d say, “Oh, Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent would have good chemistry.” You wouldn’t normally put those two people together. But chemistry is a very mysterious thing.
Who have you had the best chemistry with over the years?
For some reason, I have great chemistry with Vin Diesel. [Laughs.] I absolutely love him. He loves me. We love being together. It’s one of those things.
Were you already familiar with the real-life story behind The Duke when you first got the script?
Even though it happened, if you like, in my conscious lifetime, it completely escaped me. My theory is—and I don’t know if I’m right about this—no one under the age of 20 reads newspapers. Mind you, maybe nowadays, nobody reads newspapers, anyway. But let’s say that if they’re online, they’ll look at the TikTok thing rather than the news. For some reason you don’t start reading the news until your thirties, I think. So when I got the script, I thought, This is absolutely lovely, but there’s no way this actually happened. Then I read the source material, and it was absolutely exactly like that. The death of the daughter, the girlfriend who threatened to turn them in—all of that is true.
I’ve gotten the sense that you’re very into art: you testified for the restitution of art stolen by Nazis after starring in a film about a Klimt painting, and you even did a talk at the MoMA about Kandinsky.
I’m very visual. I’m much more visual than I am aural, actually. I don’t really listen to music, [which is a] terrible confession. But I love looking. I get incredible visual pleasure from just a tree or a sunset or a city street. I love photography, I love ballet. And I love art and going to art exhibitions—I find it very renewing, revealing. I think it’s another reason I love clothes. I love going to fashion shows. It’s not that I’m a fashionista—I’m not. I get very lucky and I get many beautiful things, but in my normal life, I’m not really a fashionista at all. But I love the creativity and the artisanal and just visuals of fashion—the way shape, color, form are constantly changing.
I’ve really enjoyed seeing you on the runway for the L'Oréal shows over the past few years.
Actresses, we’re hopeless. Models don’t feel the need to communicate with the audience, whereas an actress feels that we have to communicate with the audience. They hold themselves above and beyond the audience, which is rather wonderful. They never smile; they’re haughty, if you like. And normal actresses go on the runway and they’re immediately smiling.
On the topic of fashion, I loved your outfit—and particularly your headband—at the SAG Awards.
I realized I was sort of channeling the prom dress that I never got to wear. I never got to go to the prom, because in England, we don’t have proms. So it was kind of like a dream prom dress.
There was a video of you and Lady Gaga going around on Twitter after the ceremony. Do you remember what you were talking about?
We didn’t really talk—we just emotionally engaged. She’s a beautiful person. She’s very, very, very special. I had met her before, with her parents, actually, and she had been very sweet. It was in her trailer at a function where she was performing, and what an amazing performer she is on every level. She’s also very, very vulnerable, and very sweet. I think we were just having a little girl love fest.
I would love to see you two in a film together.
Yeah, wouldn’t that be wonderful? I’d love that. That would be brilliant. We’d have good chemistry.
This Q&A has been condensed from two separate interviews conducted at the The Duke’s New York screening and on Zoom.
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