Helen Mirren’s Been Slaying Sexist Creeps for Years: ‘You Can Change Culture’

The Oscar-winning actress opens up to Marlow Stern about her new film ‘The Leisure Seeker,’ the #MeToo movement, and the Viola Davis buddy movie that needs to happen.

Guy Corbishley/Alamy

Helen Mirren is living her best life.

When she’s not commanding the screen or giving glamour lessons on the red carpet, the Oscar-winning actress kicks up her heels at a stunning 16th-century masseria in Tiggiano, a picturesque town in the Puglia region of Southern Italy. Mirren, along with her director-husband Taylor Hackford, purchased the olive tree and rose bush-lined estate some years ago, and had a very special plan to ingratiate herself with the locals.

“In this little Italian town I live in, at Christmas time, the local motorcycle clubs gather Christmas presents. And then they all dress as Santa and they ride on their motorbikes to the local hospital and deliver Christmas presents. I was part of that,” she says. Yes, you heard correctly: Dame Helen Mirren occasionally delivers Christmas presents to hospital children on a motorcycle dressed as Santa.

“It was more like a Mrs. Santa,” she adds with a laugh. “I didn’t wear the big white beard!”

The first image that greets us in The Leisure Seeker, Mirren’s latest film, is far less inviting: a vehicle festooned with “Make America Great Again” signs, blaring the voice of candidate Donald J. Trump. The harsh sound causes Ella (Mirren) and John Spencer (Donald Sutherland), two old, terribly infirm, lovers, to recoil.

With Ella dying of cancer and John losing his battle with Alzheimer’s, the two decide to embark on a little bucket list adventure, taking their vintage camper—dubbed “The Leisure Seeker”—from the suburbs of Boston to Key West, Florida, in order to visit the home of John’s favorite author: Ernest Hemingway (and, of course, escape the everyday hell of overattentive children and nurses). Along the way, the gregarious Ella and deteriorating John encounter a number of obstacles, from knife-wielding redneck crooks to ghosts from their past.

One of the most unsettling sequences in Paolo Virzi’s film sees Ella lose track of John at a Trump rally in the Deep South. When she finds him, a lifelong liberal who supported Walter Mondale, chanting alongside a group of wild-eyed Trump supporters, she can’t believe her eyes. He’s abandoned all his principles, guided by little more than groupthink naïveté.

“They don’t do that stuff anywhere else in the world, really,” says Mirren, commenting on the curious nature of American electoral politics. “They don’t wear those hats, wave flags, wear those funny outfits with the flags on them or any of that stuff. That’s for soccer, not for politicians.”

Those two bookended scenes notwithstanding, The Leisure Seeker is far from a political parable; rather, it’s a delightful little tale about two kindred spirits confronting their mortality and choosing to go out on their own terms.

“This is a woman who loves life—she goes out, communicates, chats with people, wants to hear their stories. She’s enjoyed her life and is not stepping back from life. She knows what’s coming is coming, but she’s leaning in, as they say,” explains Mirren.

At 72, Mirren has seen it all. In addition to garnering four Oscar nominations—and one win, for 2006’s The Queen—she has spent her entire career calling out sexism in the media and Hollywood. One of the most famous examples was her 1975 interview with Michael Parkinson, wherein the English broadcaster barraged the young actress with a series of sexist questions on national television, commenting on her “equipment” and arguing that her breasts could “detract from the performance,” all while shamelessly ogling her. Mirren slapped down the line of questioning, calling it “boring” and leaving Parkinson red-faced.

“It was the first talk show I’ve ever done, and you know who got the flack after that interview? It was not him, it was me. I was criticized and he wasn’t,” recalls Mirren. “Now, of course, it’s changed, but at the time it was a why were you so rude? kind of thing, and to this day he’s denied he was sexist, which is extraordinary, really.”

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In the mid-aughts, a decade before the #MeToo movement hit Hollywood and beyond, Mirren also came forward to call out the (since deceased) Death Wish director Michael Winner for his “sexist” treatment of her during a 1964 audition, alleging he forced her to flaunt her physique.

Since the Weinstein allegations broke, three more actresses have come forward to accuse Winner of sexual misconduct, claiming he demanded to see their breasts during auditions, with one of the women branding him a “dirty old pervert.”

“He was very demeaning,” Mirren tells me. “It was ‘stand up, turn around,’ and he treated me like a piece of meat. It was demeaning, and very annoying.”

“It was the norm until quite recently,” she continues. “It was completely accepted. People would go, ‘Oh, that’s the way of nature.’ But no, it’s not the way of nature—it’s the way of culture. And you can change culture.”

Mirren is grateful that she didn’t enter Hollywood until her thirties, instead opting to act on the stage and in British art films, thereby avoiding potential sexual predation.

“I didn’t come to Hollywood when I was young. I didn’t come to Hollywood until my thirties, and it doesn’t happen to women in their thirties. It happens to women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four. And that’s just the way it is,” she says. “And why is that, for example? That’s something we need to look at, and investigate. That kind of situation happens to young women, for whatever reason, and I would love to learn the psychopathy behind it.”

Though The Leisure Seeker doesn’t hit U.S. theaters until early March, Mirren earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance. And there she was at the Globes, in a stunning black lace Zuhair Murad gown, lending her voice to the women of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

And she had a blast.

“I was expecting everyone to be a little bit tense, and a little bit, oh god, this is going to be awkward, but in fact it was very celebratory, and very positive. The black was a beautiful thing. People looked beautiful, classy, strong, and it was visually very arresting,” she remembers. “There was a kindness in there, and I felt very proud of women in general—as I did when I went on the Women’s March after the election of Trump. I went on the New York Women’s March, and there was this incredible sense of positivity. It wasn’t celebratory, but it was a reclaiming of the space in a very positive, loving, inclusive way. And I felt the same about that night. There was an inclusiveness.”

Mirren presented the first award of the night with the equally arresting Viola Davis. And the sight of the two acting titans on stage together had many at home thinking, yes, this buddy movie needs to happen.

“Wouldn’t that be great? I was thinking the same thing,” offers Mirren. “Good god, she’s so brilliant. I looked at pictures of me and her together and I thought, ‘Wow, I would love to do a film with you, Viola. That would be fantastic.’”