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Helen Mirren: People are realising agency of older women

In an exclusive interview with Mint Lounge, the Oscar-winning actor talks about the film industry in the post-MeToo era and her idea of beauty

The actor opted for a Dolce & Gabbana dress for the Cannes red carpet on 7 July.
The actor opted for a Dolce & Gabbana dress for the Cannes red carpet on 7 July. (AFP)

"I have always lived my life on my own terms. I never cared what others said,” Helen Mirren says when I ask about her approach to life and movies.

The legendary British actor, who turns 76 later this month, has been an ardent feminist from a young age, though she admits she wasn’t vocal about it for a long time. But after spending more than five decades in an industry dominated by male producers, directors and executives, she’s learnt the importance of speaking up.

Mirren, who started her career in 1965, making her mark in a stage performance of Antony and Cleopatra, has essayed a variety of roles. She’s set to play Israel’s Golda Meir in an upcoming biopic.

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Wearing a sharp white suit with a knotted scarf in shades of white, black and grey, Mirren is sharing her life experiences via a Zoom call from France. It’s the day before she’s due to walk the red carpet at the 74th Festival de Cannes as a L’Oréal Paris brand ambassador. The festival, which has for the first time launched the Lights On Women award in association with L’Oréal Paris to honour female filmmakers, began on 6 July.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Despite so much conversation around gender equality in world cinema, aren’t the initiatives to recognise women’s talent still very few?

Yes, absolutely, that’s very true. I think we have to start the conversation; it’s absolutely essential. You know, I grew up in the early days of feminism. And I always lived my life as a feminist, I made my own money, I didn’t want to get married, I wasn’t interested in having kids, I wore what I wanted to wear. I didn’t care when people said what I did was inappropriate. I have lived my life as a feminist, but I wasn’t vocal as a feminist. As time went on, I learnt that it is very important to be firm. Until we raise our voices, nobody will hear us.

We need more role models so that young women can be inspired by them. We need more doctors, teachers, priest, directors, journalists. Role models are very, very important. I’m much older than you are, but the change has been extraordinary. And I think, you know, the story of the boy who plugs a leaking dike with his finger (referring to Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates, an 1865 novel by American author Mary Mapes Dodge)... I think the finger has come out of the dam. And I think it’s time to address the issues.

What changes have you seen in the film industry post the MeToo movement?

The first thing I’ve noticed is seeing women behind the camera. For many years when I walked on to a film set, there would be 115 men there, and literally one woman. I’ve said this to a man once on a set, “Can you imagine seeing this every day of your working life? I walk into an environment that is 99% male, and I have to negotiate how to deal with it. Imagine if you had to deal with 150 women every day of your working life.” He looked at me like he had never thought of that before because it was so normal that they just didn’t. Men… the privilege that they have, it just doesn’t occur to them. It’s a sky-is-blue kind of attitude.

Post MeToo, I saw more women behind the camera. Now cinematographers are women; boom operators are women. Of course, women directors are very important but so are women in technical roles, just the whole spectrum.

In the past five or six years, there have been more films that capture the lives of older people. Do you think the industry has finally realised that it’s no longer just the 18-28 age group that drives the box office?

Oh yes, of course. I’m a living and walking example. Here I am talking to you, on behalf of L’Oreal Paris, a major part of the beauty industry. Twenty years ago, that would not have been the case. People are now realising the potency, the energy, the agency of older people, especially women. Young women are, of course, beautiful and their energy is wonderful. But you also have to recognise that older women are like them; they, too, have the energy, the imagination, the professionalism.

What’s your idea of beauty?

It’s about confidence. It’s about how you carry yourself. It’s about how you think. We are all beautiful from the inside. We are beautiful from outside as well. If we want to use makeup to enhance our looks, we should. I love makeup. It gives me, what we call in Britain—it’s my favourite term—swagger. Makeup gives me swagger. A little bit of Color Riche (lipstick) and a pair of dark glasses… that’s all you need. And also, some mascara. Okay maybe a little blush (laughs).

I know you’re on a tight schedule and we’re out of time… what is your most prized possession?

What an interesting question. Oh, goodness me, that’s very difficult to answer. Let me think... I have a little wooden Buddha. I’m not a Buddhist; I’m not religious… but I do love my little Buddha. It’s such a beautiful little piece of sculpture. It was a gift. I’ve had it for a very long time. You know how sentimentally attached you get to things after a long period.

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