Helen Mirren talks about her trip to a brothel, filming sex scenes and working with her husband behind the camera.
She’s played both Queen Elizabeths and her official title is Dame Helen Mirren, but in Love Ranch, you can call her “madam.” The ever-celebrated British actress, 64, stars as Grace Bontempo, the overseer of America’s first legal brothel. In the 1970s-set drama—directed by her spouse, Taylor Hackford—Mirren’s character falls for a hot, young Argentine boxer (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) whom her ambitious, neglectful husband (Joe Pesci) is promoting and…trouble ensues. We spoke to Mirren recently and quizzed her about the finer points of the skin game.
Your research for this role must have been quite a voyage of discovery. How in-depth was it?
My husband quite rightfully forced me to spend the night in the new Mustang Ranch. It was funny. He dragged me kicking and screaming, really. I said, “Read my lips, Taylor. I am not going to spend the night in a brothel!” I thought I would find a corner to hide in and read my book. And of course, the minute I walked in, Susan Austin, the madam, was so interesting and so lovely. I think she’s one of the truly great madams. She’s a great businesswoman. She has a very charismatic personality. She’s kind. She’s funny. She worked in the original Mustang Ranch as a working girl, so she understood that job from all the different angles.
What was the cathouse like?
You walk in and you might as well be on a spacecraft traveling to outer space. It’s a complete world to itself. There’s a kitchen. There’s a chef there. There’s a restaurant. A laundry. You forget there’s an outside world. If anything, it was more difficult for Taylor, because being a man in that environment means you’re a target. Not that they targeted him. They knew that wasn’t what he was there for.
Lucky for them. You might have had to intervene!
No. That was never an issue. They’re very elegant. They understand. They’re professional. It’s not this fantasy world we see so often on film. They treat it in the objective kind of way that we all approach our job.
Did any of the girls or the johns recognize you?
I don’t know that they recognized me. It’s very dark in there.
You met Taylor on the set of White Nights, and you’ve been together ever since. Why did it take 25 years for him to cast you in another one of his movies?
I was always kind of hoping in the back of my mind that Taylor and I would work together. But all the films he was attracted to doing didn’t have a good role for me. I didn’t want to be in his movie because I’m his wife. But my profile within the Hollywood world rose, so I think he realized he could get the financing. Fifteen years ago, he wouldn’t have been able to.
Is it harder to act for your husband?
It wasn’t harder to act for him. On set, he was my director, he wasn’t my husband. Joe Pesci was my husband on set.
Do sex scenes get easier over the years, or harder?
In comparison to doing a five-page speech, they’re much easier to play.
When you started acting, you were the young girl having affairs with older men. Now, you get the young studs. Seems only fair.
[Laughs] That’s very nice. Thank you very much. Well, in The Last Station, you know, I got the older man. I went from Christopher Plummer to Sergio Peris-Mencheta. I’m a very lucky girl.
We don’t want to put you on the spot, but of all your big-screen lovers, who was the best?
I tell you who was great, was Cuba Gooding Jr. in Shadowboxer. I mean, they’re all great. Some are more nervous than others. Cuba just jumped in. He was unafraid. He was unembarrassed. He made it work. He made me feel good. He was fabulous. Absolutely fabulous. I’d do it again with Cuba any time. And I don’t mind being on record for saying so.
Love Ranch is in theaters now.