BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK – In 2010’s surprise action-comedy hit “Red,” Helen Mirren elegantly embodied one of the most startling femmes fatale in recent film history in Victoria, the demure, apron-clad, bed-and-breakfast maven trying to leave behind her past life as a dead-eyed British black-ops assassin.
The role was a complete lark for the refined and articulate Mirren, who’d earned an Oscar in 2006 for her regal performance as Britain’s reigning monarch in “The Queen,” and who herself was named a Dame of the British Empire for her services to drama.
In press interviews at that time, Mirren said she modeled the character on America’s prim, efficient queen of domestic engineering Martha Stewart (albeit Martha Stewart packing heat). Now, with “Red 2,” Mirren again dons apron and combat boots and takes up her high-tech sniper rifle to rejoin the troupe of over-the-hill spies (Bruce Willis, John Malkovich and Mary-Louise Parker, joined by new players Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins) for a globe-hopping new adventure.
“People really seemed to enjoy the first one, and I’m thrilled we got to do a second one,” said Mirren, resplendent in a hot pink dress, during a press conference hosted by Summit Entertainment at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. “It’s lovely to reprise a character in action as well because the character takes on a different kind of life when you come back to it.
“It’s like when I did ‘Prime Suspect,’ coming back to Jane Tennison,” she said. “It’s funny because these characters become a part of your personal life. I feel that way about Victoria. She’s just a great, funny, surprising sort of character to see on screen, and actually, one someone hasn’t seen on screen before. It’s always a bit of a miracle when you can do something that hasn’t been seen before – that sort of very refined character who has this other secret life.”
In the sequel, Victoria is given a very sinister assignment to take down her former buddy, Willis’ retired CIA spook Frank Moses, who, along with his paranoid pal Marvin (Malkovich), is implicated in the pilfering of a missing Cold War nuclear weapon dubbed “Night Shade.”
It all leads to a mad scramble of spooks and villains, witty rounds of double- and triple-crosses, blazing gunplay, hurtling action sequences that range from London to Paris to Moscow, and lots of that astringent blend of tongue-in-cheek violence and dark, biting comedy.
A big part of the wink-wink joke about Victoria is that she pulls off many of her down-and-dirty deeds while decked out in elegant fashions. She literally “kills’ in evening wear.
“I think she absolutely prefers killing in formal wear,” Mirren said with a laugh. “Quite right. Well, as long as she’s got the right shoes on. Her shoes are very, very important. In the first one, there’s a sequence where out of a bag I pull combat boots, and that was completely my idea. I said, ‘No woman can do this kind of job in high heel shoes. You cannot run. If you’re going to be serious about it, I want her to get the right shoes on.’”
Likewise, this chic and lady-like British actress had to undergo a certain amount of martial training to play a convincing sharpshooter and to keep up with the robust acting beats of an action veteran like Willis.
“Most of the ‘prep” was in learning how to use the equipment, the guns and such, because you can’t look like you don’t know what you’re doing there,” Mirren said. “Certainly, I’d never handled guns, so I did have to learn that.” But it all came back to her quickly, she said, for the sequel.
“Every role brings different challenges, actually, and the challenge of doing something like ‘Red’ – and it’s why someone like Bruce (Willis) is so brilliant in these movies – is that it takes great self discipline but at the same time there’s also an ease. There’s a relaxation,” she said. “There’s an ability to think on the move and improvise.
“That’s where the real work on a movie like this is,” she continued. “It’s in prepping yourself to realize that you’ve got to be free. That’s actually very difficult on a film set because the whole set-up is not free. It’s so technical; it’s so controlled. To get on that set and be free is really a great skill, and Bruce has it to the max. I would always watch Bruce and take my lead from him.”
Since a central premise of the “Red” films rests on former spies who wish to leave danger and intrigue behind and retire to normal lives, Mirren is asked if she’d ever wish to live a quiet life away from the spotlight.
“You have your dream of what it’s going to be like being retired,” said the actress, who turns 68 this month. “My husband (director Taylor Hackford) and I have been building this house in Italy that’s sort of our retirement dream, but in reality, whether we actually do that, I don’t know. It’s hard to let go of our business. It’s hard to let go of the creativity involved.
“It’s also had to let go of the attention you get,” Mirren said. “You don’t think that you’re addicted or in love with that attention, you think it doesn’t mean anything to you, until suddenly you don’t get it. Then you think, ‘why isn’t everyone asking me questions, or taking photos of me?’ ‘What’s going on?’
“It’s funny how people in your business in particular think that if people aren’t in the public eye, they must be somehow dead,” she said. “Not physically dead, but it’s like whatever happened to them? Well, actually, they’re really living in a house in the country with their family – and they couldn’t be happier. They’re living life.
“Maybe in the end,” she concluded with a rueful smile, “it’ll be lovely to do that.”