Dame Helen Mirren is a serious thespian: A Shakespearean-trained actress who’s worked with the arty likes of Peter Greenaway (“The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”) and Julie Taymour (playing a female Prospero in “The Tempest”). She won an Oscar for playing Queen Elizabeth. But right now she’s an action star. In “Red 2,” she resumes her role as Victoria, a 60-something assassin of moral murkiness who, as in the first “Red,” gets huge applause whenever she picks up giant guns and mows down baddies without mussing her hair or dirtying her designer dresses.
What drew you to action in the first place?
I did “National Treasure 2” and loved it absolutely — especially the action part of the action. The action part is just so fun, because you don’t have to act. There’s no acting in action. The action does all the acting for you. All you have to do is hit the mark and try to look like you know what you’re doing. In “National Treasure 2” I got to go on a wire, and I was just in heaven. I shouted to the director, “This is the best day of my life!” I always wanted to fly. And there I was.
What was it like returning?
As Bruce [Willis] said, when we came back to do it, on the first day it was as though we had just been shooting the day before. On the first read [of the first one], none of us were quite sure if these relationships were working, and if audiences were going to buy it. And knowing that the audience bought it and loved it, coming back then to these now known and loved characters, it was kind of a slightly different thing.
This is a franchise populated with actors who, apart from Bruce Willis, aren’t action stars.
I am an action star now. And don’t you forget it.
Not that you absolutely needed to for such a light film, but did you do any research into assassins?
I did, yes, I did a little bit. There’s a very interesting book about an Italian assassin from the ‘70s, when Italy was going through that really bad period of extreme left-wing groups, underground groups. They assassinated businessmen. And that was absolutely fascinating. But really, you don’t want to get too serious about it. Although I thought that was an interesting character to play absolutely seriously. A realistic movie, not a fantasy, about an assassin would be very interesting.
You’ve said you don’t take roles home with you. Which types of roles do you find challenging?
I always find it really hard to play Americans.
It’s a horrible accent.
It’s a wonderful accent. I disagree with you. I just find it difficult and it paralyzes me. And I was very intimidated when I did the first “Red” — just to get the tone right, of seriousness but comedy. I wasn’t just quite sure where you pitched it. I just watched Bruce like a hawk, basically. I tried to copy anything he was doing. Not very successfully. [Laughs] It’s got to be casual and throwaway, and yet it has to be full of life.
You’ve worked with art filmmakers who are very visual: Peter Greenaway, Ken Russell, Julie Taymour. Is the acting style similar to working on a big Hollywood production?
I guess it is similar, yes. I love working with a visual director. You feel that they’re putting you into a picture. All you have to do in that picture is do your job. And I love that. Film is a visual medium, and the great filmmakers are the visionaries, the ones who somehow can make the pictures they want. And not all directors can do that. Some of them are curiously uninterested in any of that. There are some many, many different ways to make a movie, so many different kinds of directors. And every kind of director you work with teaches you something about filmmaking. But yes, in many ways, a big action movie, because it has to be so carefully thought and visualized, it is like putting in yourself a very visual film. Peter Greenaway is the most extreme version of that. But then his visuals are so extraordinary.
You didn’t do a lot of film in your first 10 years. Were you wary of film at first?
I wasn’t interested in film. If I want to be any kind of film actress, I wanted to be a European film actress, because those were the kinds of movies I liked to go see at that time. And the rise of independent film in America was a great thing, far as I was concerned. And when I was working in England, film was alive and well and living in television. That’s where all the directors were coming out of. Movies were made, but they were made for television. It’s a bit like HBO now, for example. The British film industry films were terrible. They were awful, vulgar comedies, and just really, really crappy through the ‘70s and ‘80s. Before Peter Greenaway they were only a few esoteric people working in film. It was mostly Ken Russell, and that was it. And after awhile, even he went a bit off.