'Why that bikini photo will haunt me for rest of my life'
As Dame Helen Mirren turns special agent for her new movie The Debt, she tells Susan Griffin about the fall-out from that pic
Dame Helen Mirren is sitting in a chair with her head in her hands, giggling in embarrassment. She's just been reminded about her most recent honour where she beat the likes of Elle MacPherson, Cheryl Cole and Jennifer Lopez to be crowned Body Of The Year.
"I'm grateful for the kindness of strangers," says 66-year-old Mirren with a familiar and mischievous glint in her eye.
"The reality is that I'm in a permanent state of guilt for not exercising enough.
"I'm just like anyone else really, it's a constant struggle," says the actress who won an Oscar for her role as Elizabeth II in 2006's The Queen.
She does watch her weight though, she concedes: "You know, to a certain extent, but not obsessively."
Then she laughs and says that her husband, director Taylor Hackford, is currently working with J-Lo on the new thriller Parker, "so I'm going to have to deal with her sooner or later".
Mirren has never been one to shy away from stripping off on screen. Perhaps Russell Brand, her co-star on the remake of Arthur, put it best when he described her as: "Our punk queen. She's got a matriarchal authority but she's very, very sexy."
And indeed she's always been lauded for her physical attributes and barely latent sexuality during her 40-year career.
That said, the shot of her posing in a red bikini, looking tanned and toned on an Italian break in 2008, still managed to generate headlines the world over.
"That photograph will haunt me for the rest of my life," she says.
In a recent interview she said she thought there was a sense of shock that a woman in her 60s could look like that, but today she says: "It's a lie. I don't actually look like that, I just cover it up well."
She's doing herself a disservice, of course, because in the flesh she looks remarkable and effortlessly elegant in a light green dress and cream jacket, her silver hair styled in a soft bob.
She's currently promoting her latest film, The Debt, a two-tiered espionage thriller about three retired Mossad agents who have been venerated for decades by Israel because of a secret mission they embarked on in the Sixties.
Mirren stars as the only female agent, Rachel Speed, while the up-and-coming actress Jessica Chastain, who recently appeared alongside Brad Pitt in The Tree Of Life, plays her younger incarnation.
"It's old-fashioned storytelling with a great, great story," says Mirren.
"And it's a lovely role because we (actors) are selfish and self-interested. We want good roles to play."
The movie sees her reunite with her former Prime Suspect director John Madden (who won an Oscar for Shakespeare In Love.)
Madden only ever had one actress in mind for the role that, he says, would require a woman "to be very strong, but at the same time, vulnerable".
Of his leading lady, he adds: "Helen's an actress at the top of her game and she likes to test herself. "She is fearless."
Mirren responded immediately to the challenges posed by the material.
"Aside from wanting to work with John again and the fact this was a good thriller story, I was interested in exploring the notion of how every action you take in life has a result, a consequence, and sooner or later you're going to have to face up to it," says Mirren.
"Very often you make a mistake, a little misjudgment, and it can blow up horribly in your face. The best thing is always to come clean," says Mirren, adding that actors make very bad liars. "It's funny, you'd think we'd be brilliant at it!"
Having learned to live with compromise in The Debt, Rachel slowly arrives at the realisation that it doesn't always work.
"She's not a person who reveals much to anyone, not even to the daughter who has written a book about her and her colleagues," Mirren explains. "Rachel has buried her true emotions and existed for many years on a superficial level, not confronting the depth of her true feelings."
This posed particular challenges for Mirren, who says that while she's never been the kind of actor to take a role home with her, the part of Rachel required a huge amount of concentration.
"Although there's not a lot of dialogue, there's this internal story that's constantly going on and you have to communicate that through the camera without words," says Mirren, reluctant to give too much of the plot away. But once the takes were done, she'd like to think she reverted to "laughing Helen Mirren".
In preparation for the role, the actress worked with a dialect coach to hone an Israeli inflection and spent time with Chastain "to find little habits, little physical things to give the effect of this being one person".
She also learnt basic krav maga, the defence skill rooted in hand-to-hand combat used by the Israeli Defence Forces, though Mirren points out her character hadn't fought for some years, so she wanted to keep that realistic.
"When Rachel's called upon to defend herself again, she's far from a credible fighter," she adds, before laughing and referring to the scene as a "geriatric fight between a 60-year-old woman and a 80-year-old man. It's really hard to get back up once you're down," she hoots.
Mirren's made no secret of the fact she enjoys shooting action sequences and wouldn't rule out playing the first female James Bond.
"That would be cool, wouldn't it?" she says.
"What's Dame Judi's character called? M? A movie all about M would be brilliant.
"The great thing about action is you don't have to act. All you have to do is get from A to B as proficiently as possible. It's much harder to do a long speech from The Tempest (she recently starred as Prospero in a big screen adaptation)."
Next up will be period piece The Door and she's currently shooting a biopic on the Phil Spector story with Al Pacino.
"To be on the set with one of the greatest living actors and watching him work is really, really thrilling," she says, as breathlessly as someone who's just starting out.
As inspired and excited by her career as she was 40 years ago, this Dame's certainly not slowing down any time soon.
e Helen Mirren was born on July 26, 1945, in Chiswick, London.
e Of Russian descent, her family name is actually Mironov but it was changed to Mirren when she was seven.
e She launched her career playing Cleopatra at the National Youth Theatre.
e One of her most memorable roles was in Cal, the film based on Bernard MacLaverty's book about a young man on the fringes of the IRA who falls in love with the Catholic widow of an RUC man.
e She received Oscar nominations for The Madness Of King George, Gosford Park and The Last Station, before winning the acclaimed award for The Queen.