Madam Helen

Photographs by Juergen Teller. Hair and Makeup by Neil Young/Carol Hayes Management.

“All that getting sanctioned by authority, settling down and doing the right things—well, I can’t say it appeals much,” Helen Mirren once said to a reporter. “What I really fancy is getting a bit notorious … ”

It was 1974, and she was a 29-year-old actress teasing the journalist much as she would the press and audiences for the next 36 years. Mirren was then a rising star at the Royal Shakespeare Company—luridly dubbed “Stratford’s very own sex queen” by one paper. It was long before the authorities sanctioned her with a pile of awards (including an Oscar for The Queen), and before the Internet made her a viral phenom thanks to bodacious paparazzi shots of her cavorting in a bikini. At the age of 62. And guess what? She had it both ways: She got her notoriety and the fusty accolades.

“I am a little notorious,” Mirren remarks, still teasing. She says nearly everything with a mischievous twinkle, like a naughty teenager appending “ … in bed” to the end of every sentence. The actress, who turns 65 next month, is elegantly attired in pale rose and silver, her delicate hands (the nails tinted a matching pearlescent rose) constantly buttoning and unbuttoning her cardigan. It’s probably not meant flirtatiously, but with Mirren, every action can feel like a seduction. Perhaps it’s the small, black Native American tattoo on her left hand (the result, she says, of a wild, drunken night in Minnesota), her subtle finger to propriety. “It’s weird when your life becomes vintage, like a period movie,” she says half-seriously. “I’m getting less notorious as I get older. People forget that I ever was.”

Her latest role, not to mention the Juergen Teller photos attending this article, should help remind everyone. After a raft of prestigious parts and three Oscar nominations in the last decade, Mirren signed up to play Grace Botempo, the madam of a booming seventies Reno whorehouse in her husband Taylor Hackford’s film Love Ranch, opening June 30. (The film, based on Nevada’s real Mustang Ranch, is scripted and produced by New York contributing editor Mark Jacobson.) For years, Hackford, whom she married in 1997, has asked her to play smaller parts in his films. “And I said ‘Oh, for God’s sake! Of course I’m not going to do that!’ ” says Mirren. “They were never interesting enough parts, and I wasn’t going to do it just because he was directing it.”

Interesting is probably underselling Grace. Diagnosed with cancer and frustrated with an epically sleazy husband (Joe Pesci), Mirren’s madam begins a hot love affair with a beefy boxer 30 years her junior, played with abundant smolder by Spanish newcomer Sergio Peris-Mencheta. “He’s got a fabulous big-animal thing in that sort of raw, brutish, ugly-beautiful way,” says Mirren, who shares a steamy, and, because it’s her, entirely plausible love scene with Peris-Mencheta. In addition, she makes dick jokes, stomps on the throat of a misbehaving prostitute, and presides over the brothel with such swagger that Pesci shouts, “Who do ya think you are, the queen of fuckin’ England?” Well, yes.

In another of her earliest interviews, Mirren was quoted as saying, “I’m a would-be rebel—the good girl who’d like to be a bad one.” She says she continues, at heart, to be the good Catholic schoolgirl named Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov, who grew up in Essex, England, with a Russian father and an English mother. “It’s true! I haven’t grown out of that, have I?” she says, laughing. “I’m still the good girl who wants to be a bad girl. But I’ll never make it as a bad girl … I’m not a prude or a moralist and I never have been, but I’m too fearful, too much of a wimp, really.” When her husband tried to convince her to spend a night at the Mustang Ranch, Mirren refused. “I said, ‘Read my lips: I’m not going to spend a night in a brothel.’ ” In the end, she dispensed with research and simply took direction. “It’s amazing how quickly you get into dildos everywhere and pink-feather handcuffs. Within an hour you’re completely used to it.”

Mirren believes that brothels should be legalized because its safer for the sex workers. But she’s also loathe to romanticize working girls: “Susan Austin [the Mustang Ranch’s real madam] said you had to be tough, because maybe you do have 25 psychotic whores. A lot of them come from very dysfunctional backgrounds, and women together like that can be very dangerous.”

There’s the old joke about actors prostituting themselves for their work, but for Mirren, who’s revealed so much of herself (metaphorically and otherwise), and who has often spoken out about the way women get eaten up by the entertainment industry, it’s a complex metaphor. “The girls who work in the sex industry, they put themselves out of their bodies. An actor does sort of the opposite,” says Mirren, who talks about acting as giving every intimacy—emotional and physical—except actual intercourse. “People say ‘Oh, you play someone else.’ I’m always playing myself. You can only do it by going into yourself, in the deepest, most terrifying way. Not to say I haven’t ever prostituted myself quite often and happily. But in my heart it’s very serious.”

Mirren, who began as a devoted stage actress, schooled in Chekhov and Shakespeare, quickly learned to use her sexuality to her advantage. “Especially when you’re younger and you’re a female, you’re being judged physically as much as for everything else,” she says. “And when you’re a serious actress like I was … I’ve always taken it very seriously at that level.”

Of her scandalous early roles in 1969’s Age of Consent (when she stripped as the teenage muse of an older painter) or Gore Vidal and Bob Guccione’s nutty art-porn Caligula (1979), Mirren says she had a plan. “A lot of it is plain, old-fashioned practicality. I wanted to work,” she says. “When I did Caligula, for example, I hadn’t really done movies.” And besides, she adds, “I much prefer overt sexuality to sleazy, vulgar prurience.”

As Mirren explains it, she struggled to get a handle on her own sexuality in order to use its power to accomplish her ambitions. “The Playboy Mansion, coke, and the rise of all that—Guccione and Hefner always pushed it as liberation, but it didn’t seem like that to me,” she says. “That was women obeying the sexualized form created by men—though maybe we always do that, because we want to be attractive. But I was kind of a trailblazer because I demanded to do it my own way. I’d say, ‘I’m not having it put on me by someone else.’ I didn’t want to be the sort of puritanical good girl with a little white collar who says, ‘Don’t shag until you get married.’ ”

Now, her reputation secure, Mirren’s enjoying the results of her efforts. “I’m thrilled young girls are claiming their sexuality for themselves,” she says. “I love bold women: Madonna and Scarlett Johansson—sexy and gorgeous, but not only that. And Miley Cyrus—fantastic! And Lady Gaga. I love the way she’s elevated pop to performance art, or dragged performance art down to pop, or maybe made a wonderful amalgam of the two.”

With her coy smile, Mirren looks like the conspiring queen who’s usurped the throne, securing the kingdom for her heirs: “My girls: Miley, Scarlett, Lady Gaga. My team … Yes.”

All photographs by Juergen Teller

Madam Helen