There are a lot of reasons to love Helen Mirren. She’s an Oscar-, Emmy-, and Tony-winning actress who also makes surprise appearances as the British gangster mother of Jason Statham in the Fast and Furious movies. She’s a proud feminist and a dame, but with a great sense of humor about herself. The venerable Brit can even rap, as she demonstrated this week in a “Drop the Mic” showdown on The Late Late Show. (“I’ve played the Queen but also warriors and witches, crime lords and wizards, bosses and bitches.”) This weekend, she stars in the new movie Winchester, meaning she can add “eccentric millionaire widow who communes with the dead” to that laundry list of roles.
As Sarah Winchester, Mirren plays an heiress to a weapons-company fortune who, to cope with the various losses in her life, devotes herself to building the most elaborate haunted house imaginable so restless spirits can find peace within the rooms. Mirren, draped in black lace, floats across the screen like a ghost herself, and her signature charisma makes the anguished interiority of Sarah Winchester more haunting than the hundreds of possessed rooms in her spooky house. Vulture caught up with the actress to talk about her own (kind of) supernatural encounter, what it takes to play an American, and the “ride or die” women who are forming a coalition in Hollywood.
Horror is a bit of a change of pace for you. Do you believe in ghosts or the paranormal?
Not really, no. I’m very skeptical, but at the same time I’m very open. I would say I’m an open-minded skeptic.
I did read, though, that you were potentially haunted on your wedding night. What happened?
It was something that terrified me, but turned out to be completely not a ghost at all. It had an absolutely practical, physical explanation, but I did go through those moments when your imagination does take over and you’re in state of complete terror.
So what was it?
I woke up in the middle of the night. I had been told that this room was haunted by the owner of the castle, and I woke up just terrified and thinking maybe there was a ghost in the room. Was I actually experiencing a ghost? Then I saw a light flash around the window, and I got up to investigate what the light was, because it was terrifying me, and I thought it was a spirit. Then I realized it was the reflection of the cars driving home that were shooting through a little tiny hole in the shutters. But you know, I was terrified for 10 or 15 minutes until I made myself get up and discover what the reality was, and I think too many people just sit there in terror and go, “Oh, I saw a ghost” without actually investigating, the way I did.
If you don’t believe in much, then what is your fear pressure point? Do you watch horror movies?
I don’t like horror movies. I would not call Winchester a horror movie. I would call it a ghost movie. But no, I can’t take horror films.
Do they scare you too much?
Yes. That all-powerful imagination that we have starts working on me, and I get very, very spooked, especially with horror films. Some of those images, I just don’t want them in my brain, in my memory. It’s just better not to even look at them, because I find it difficult to wipe them out.
I read in an interview you did last year that you said you have a “dark soul” within you that stems from your Eastern European heritage. Do you tap into that, playing a haunted widow like Sarah Winchester?
I try to, yes. Absolutely. Any role that I take — I mean some roles, actually. Stop lying, Helen! That was a complete lie. “I take every role very seriously!” That’s not absolutely true. Some roles I just do for the pure fun of them, and it’s incredible fun to do them. But other roles, certainly Sarah Winchester, I wanted the weight of her sense of guilt, of her pain over the loss of her daughter and her husband. This is a woman who’s really haunted. She is dealing with these feelings of being haunted on a nightly basis and trying to resolve them.
In this movie you play an American woman, but I understand that you prefer not to do American accents.
I’m getting better at it. In the early days, 20-odd years ago before I spent quite so much time in America, I found it really, really difficult for some reason, but I’m getting more and more familiar with it.
An accent or a dialect is such a central part of a person’s makeup, so when you do put on an American accent, what is the emotional comportment that goes with that? I saw you once described the British sensibility as “cool or ironic.” So what defines the sensibility of playing Americans?
That’s such an interesting question, because it goes absolutely to the heart of what the whole business of doing an accent is. If you’re doing German or French or Australian or Russian or whatever it is, there is something psychological that happens with the accent, and the interesting thing about the American accent is, the first thing is that it drives through to the end. It’s very forward-thinking. It’s very present. The English can be a little more tuneful and maybe a little manipulative and a little more thoughtful. With American, you just go straight through to the end. You speak absolutely straightforward.
Speaking of being hard-charging, you recently participated in a rap battle with James Corden on The Late Late Show, where you kind of handed him his ass on his own stage. It turns out you’re an MC?
[Laughs.] With a great deal of help from a friend, James Corden.
Where did you get those freestyle bars?
Well, it wasn’t very freestyle, but all the people on the show are just incredibly sweet and helpful and encouraging, because it was something that was so far out of my comfort zone, basically. I’m like, “Oh, no! I can’t do that!” But I’m always up for doing something that scares the shit out of me.
Hopefully MC Mirren is the future Grammy in your EGOT pursuit.
Oh, wouldn’t that be cool? Good idea. Absolutely, do a sort of rap Shakespeare album that wins a Grammy. That would be fabulous. It might be a step too far, but I would love that.
I especially liked that, at the end of your battle, you name-checked your industry peers like Meryl Streep and Dame Judy Dench by calling them your “ride or dies.”
Absolutely. Women are very supportive of each other, you know, as I think we’re seeing more and more. The attitude of the media has always been to try and drum up competition and meanness between women, and in my experience, the absolute reality is the opposite. Women are actually very, very supportive of each other, and when you’ve been around for a long time and been aware of each other’s careers, there’s a great deal of camaraderie, in fact.
It made me think of something Nicole Kidman said when she was accepting her SAG Award a few weeks ago: that she was heartened by an increased volume of roles for women as they progress through various ages and stages of their careers. Is that something you are seeing reflected back in the roles available to you?
Yes. I think we have to be very aware that our business, the business of entertainment or drama — being theater, film, television, everything — reflects the world around us. I’ve always said, spend energy on changing the world around you, the real world, and then the roles in drama will absolutely follow. And I do feel that that has been manifested. Until there are women in the military, you don’t see women in the military onscreen. Until there are women in politics, you don’t see women in politics onscreen. The presence of women in all kinds of professions has been expanding, so inevitably, our world of drama reflects that.
With a generation of younger actresses setting an example for being outspoken about their work rights and their rights to their bodies, do you see yourself as a mentor or a leader?
We’re all building blocks, you know. I was inspired by and informed by the people who went before me, and there will be people who will be inspired by me or informed by me — and many other women around me, obviously. And it’s partly a reaction against what went before! It’s your revolution against it that pushes art forward. I believe in that. If young people will be looking at me and going, “Well, I don’t want to do it like that” [laughs], they will be the ones who will actually push the whole thing forward. But guidance in terms of negotiating, I will be happy to be someone that people could turn to. I don’t know if I’ve got good advice, but still.
This interview has been edited and condensed.