Helen Mirren: “It’s incredibly painful to lose someone you love”

We've been watching her on screen for 50 years but only now can Helen Mirren claim to have done it all as an actress.

Having played everything from sex symbols to royalty, the 71-year-old star has now transcended this world to play the one thing she's seeing a little too much of lately, death.

Mirren’s version of death is very different and not nearly as bleak as you might expect as she joins an impressive ensemble cast of the thought-provoking movie Collateral Beauty.

The British Dame of the silver screen is in good company with Will Smith as a man struggling with personal loss and Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley and Ed Norton among those he looks to for answers.

Married for almost 20 years to director Taylor Hackford, Mirren is at a stage of her life where death continues to play a leading role. She has had to say goodbye to some dear friends and colleagues in the past year.

However, Mirren certainly isn't about to slow down. At 71 she is as busy and as in demand as ever. And she's certainly still mixing it up with her next role after Collateral Beauty, a high-speed ride in the latest Fast & Furious blockbuster, The Fate of the Furious.

Here the sexiest Dame in Hollywood talks about playing and coping with death, celebrating her luck in life and her career highlight – and it's not her Oscar.

Q: Why did you want to do this film?
HM: “When I read the script and I heard about the rest of the cast I thought, 'My god, what an unbelievable cast; Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Edward Norton, Michael Pena and Will Smith. Great!' This is an extraordinary cast. You don't often get this many extraordinary actors in one piece and so that was always going to be interesting to me.”

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Mirren stars alongside Will Smith in the new film Collateral Beauty (Image: Facebook / Collateral Beauty)

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your role?
HM: “I play a person who has to impersonate the concept of death. First of all I had to marry the two characters and find the right person to make this impersonation. I felt the only way to do it was to make this character just as alive as I possibly could. I just wanted to have her the most alive that I have ever been on screen, to be open and free and energetic. It was almost an exercise for me.”

Q: What was your first reaction when you were told you would be playing death?
HM: “Outrage! I was absolutely outraged, like, 'Who do they think they are asking me to play death? I should be love or optimism or energy! Death? No, that's not me.' But I really wanted to do this movie and the subject matter was just so powerful, interesting and true from my experience of life. I believe there is collateral beauty in the darkest of moments. I loved the thought of working with Will and David Frankel who is a fantastic director so I said, 'Okay, I'll play death and I will see what I can do with that.' That was the start of a really cool journey actually.”

Q: What was the vibe like on set?
HM:
 “It was quite a challenge on a daily basis to find and to calibrate scene by scene how much comedy we can afford and how to make the relationships work. That's where we were so lucky to have such experienced and generous actors. I suspect that David Frankel particularly chose his cast, knowing that all of those actors are people who are capable and love to work collaboratively.”

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Q: What does the concept of death mean to you?
HM: 
“It happens earlier in your life that you do lose people, but obviously as you get older, memorials become a more common occurrence in your life. My dear friend and colleague Alan Rickman; I went to his memorial last year. Just very recently I went to Garry Marshall's memorial. But there is unbelievable joy in a memorial. I find myself saying, 'I love going to memorials!' Which sounds terrible, but it's not. In death it becomes a celebration of life, but in a much deeper way than just tootling down the road thinking, 'Oh what a lovely day it is!'.” 

Q: How do we find the balance between grief and joy?
HM:
 “Grieving has to be a part of that and it is incredibly painful to lose someone you love. Even a colleague and not necessarily someone who is a close partner because you are left bereft. The thought of never seeing them again and never hearing them again, it's the most devastating feeling. But the name of the movie is Collateral Beauty and in these moments you find beauty in the best ways. One is never taking the pain away, that absolutely exists, there is no question about that.”

Q: This film has been compared to It's a Wonderful Life. What do you think about that?
HM:
 “Well, that would be the most wonderful comparison to have. Certainly there is a feeling that it is very much a film about family as much as anything and about love.”

Q: How do you feel when you look back on your own life?
HM:
 “My husband and I were saying, 'My God, we are so unbelievably fortunate,' and we are and there are just no two ways about that. There are always challenges in life and as you get older, I think they come more often, probably simply because you have lived on this planet for a longer time.”

Q: You are as busy as ever. What is it about acting that you love so much?
HM:
 “It's just the entry into the world of imagination that is so extraordinary. I love acting because kids love it. It's like when you're little kids and 'I'll be the spaceman and you be the alien!' Or, 'I'll be the mum and you be the dad!' Kids love playing and honestly, it's that. It's that entry into the world of imagination that I think is very fundamental to human existence. We live by our imaginations.”

Q: What inspires you?
HM: 
“My inspiration always comes from other people; watching other people, enjoying other people and being inspired by other people. Whether that is as an actor and watching other people work and learning from them and being inspired by them, but also in behaviour and how to be.”

Q: How do you feel when you get recognised and awarded for your work?
HM:
 “Sometimes it's a little stressful because you have to make a speech and you never know what to say. That's a stressful side of it. Also it's incredibly gratifying. Having the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is amazing and being on the Pirelli calendar. Those are the two highlights of my life! Also when Obama, at the last dinner for the Washington correspondents, called me out and said, 'Helen Mirren'. To have my name coming out of the mouth of Barack Obama, not just the President of the United States but, what a President! He's an extraordinary man and we are going to miss him so much. That extraordinary man. That was probably THE highlight of my life, ever, actually.”

Q: How do you stay looking so good?
HM:
 “It's something I'm often asked and I never really know what to say other than the obvious. I try to look after myself, exercise and eat well. There's no big trick.”


Collateral Beauty trailer

Q: Finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from seeing Collateral Beauty?
HM:
 “It's a light film, in spite of all these incredibly heavy things that we are talking about. This is a film that has comedic qualities to it, or a certain kind of lightness to it. I hope it will be an enlightening film. A film that people will, in spite of its arc subject matter in many ways being very dark, come out with a sense of optimism and engagement in life and a recognition of the positiveness in life.”

What your favourite Helen Mirren movie? 

Feature and inset images: Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock.com

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