Helen Mirren goes from ‘Queen' to killer with ‘Red'
BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK — Imagine Martha Stewart brandishing a blazing automatic weapon, dispatching scores of marauding thugs, then going home, tying on an apron and a sweet smile and
baking a cake.
That’s essentially the image Helen Mirren had in mind when she stepped into the role of Victoria, retired British assassin turned bed-and-breakfast maven, in the star-studded action-comedy “Red.”
The Academy Award-winning actress who in 2003 was named a Dame of the British Empire for her services to drama was appropriately decked out in a royal red jacket as she faced a room full of journalists at the Four Seasons Hotel for a pre-opening news conference hosted by Summit Entertainment. “Red” (drawn from a pop-cult DC Comics graphic novel) is an old-school action picture about an aging band of former espionage operatives who are jarred out of retirement when they become targets themselves for assassination by CIA hit squads.
With an ensemble that includes Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Richard Dreyfuss, Mary-Louise Parker and Ernest Borgnine, Mirren said she was challenged to find a proper way to approach the darkly comic story and to hold her own with the powerhouse cast.
“I approached it very seriously, like I do everything,” she said. “It’s not a comedy, really. It’s a comedic action picture, or something like that. It’s always great to find someone that you can pin your character on. Obviously, in ‘The Queen’ it was very easy to find the person to pin the character on. She’s called Queen Elizabeth.
“But here I was kind of looking for who this woman might be, and then I had this flash of inspiration, and Martha Stewart came into my mind. And I thought, that’s who it is, it’s Martha Stewart,” Mirren said. “From that point on, I based everything on Martha Stewart. The hair was Martha, the color even; the clothes were Martha.
“Because I thought Martha Stewart combines this perfect combination of sweetness and gentleness and unbelievable efficiency with this kind of laser-like ability to concentrate and get the job done. And I thought that was the perfect sort of thing for Victoria.
“So I had a picture of Martha up in my trailer and in the makeup room, so every day I could look at her and be inspired,” she said. “That was just my secret story. I mean, obviously, I didn’t try and imitate her or impersonate her. That wasn’t the point. It was just getting inside of Martha.”
Mirren said the inspiration came partly from firsthand experience.
“I have been on (Martha’s) TV show, actually,” she said. “The woman is amazing. I watch her show, and I’m always sitting there with a note paper jotting down ideas. She’s an amazing fund of lovely domestic information that I love. When I was on her show, I think we repotted something — I do love gardening, and I know quite a bit about gardening — and we were repotting or regenerating geraniums or something like that. I can’t quite remember.”
Noting that this role is far afield from her 2006 Oscar-winning turn in “The Queen” and her upcoming, gender-bending performance as Prospero (or Prospera) in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Mirren said she relishes variety in her acting choices.
“The whole idea is to do something different from what you’ve just done, and, you know, ‘The Queen’ was an incredible experience for me in terms of the attention the film got,” she said. “But that kind of attention kind of sticks, and I was getting a bit sick of people saying, ‘Oh, you’re so regal and you play all these queens.’ I thought, actually I don’t play queens, I play all sorts of different things. For a long time before that I was a police detective (in PBS’s “Prime Suspect” series) and I transmogrified into ‘The Queen.’ And you just want to always try to push the last thing out of people’s minds so they can look at you in a fresh light.”
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