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Mirren on madam role: 'Right up my alley'

TORONTO - Illustrious British actress Helen Mirren says her role as the madam of a legal brothel in the new film "Love Ranch" is right up her alley.

TORONTO - Illustrious British actress Helen Mirren says her role as the madam of a legal brothel in the new film "Love Ranch" is right up her alley.

"Actually, much more so than 'The Queen' in many ways,' you know," Mirren, who won an Oscar for her turn in "The Queen," said in a recent phone interview.

"I've always been slightly on the funky side of town, if you know what I mean."

"Love Ranch" — opening Wednesday in Toronto — is inspired by the true story of Joe and Sally Conforte, who gained fame in the 1970s as the owners of the Mustang Ranch brothel in Nevada.

Their relationship hit turbulence during an alleged love triangle with heavyweight boxer Oscar Bonavena.

In the film, the brothel owners are named Grace (Mirren) and Charlie Bontempo (Joe Pesci) and the boxer is Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). Gina Gershon and Taryn Manning are among the stars who play brothel workers.

"It's a kind of a woman's movie, in a weird, perverse kind of a way," said Mirren, 64.

"A brothel is run by a woman, it's not run by a man — a legal brothel, I should say. It's a woman's world and only a woman can really run it."

The film is directed and co-produced by Mirren's husband, Taylor Hackford, who won an Academy Award for best short film for 1978's "Teenage Father." In 2005, he was nominated for another Oscar for helming "Ray."

It's the couple's first feature collaboration since he directed her in 1985's "White Nights," where they first met.

For research purposes, Hackford — who is also president of the Directors Guild of America — insisted Mirren visit the real Mustang Ranch.

She had to be "dragged screaming and kicking," she recalled.

"I just didn't want to go, not for moralistic or puritanical reasons — well maybe a little bit," continued Mirren, who has also won four SAG Awards, four BAFTAs, three Golden Globes and four Emmys.

"I was thinking: 'Oh God, I'm going to be so embarrassed and feel so awkward,' you know, but also I didn't want to feel prurient and voyeuristic and I didn't want to feel people were peering at them. I hate people peering at me, if you know what I mean. I like to do my work but I hate, funny enough, being watched while I'm working."

Mirren immediately felt at ease, though, when Susan Austin — co-owner and madam of Mustang Ranch — took her under her wing and showed her how the operation ran.

By the end of the evening, Mirren — who in 2003 was invested as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire — had to practically be dragged out.

"At two o'clock in the morning I was sitting at the bar, having a drink, going, 'I don't want to leave, Taylor, I'm fine! No, no, no, we don't have to go yet, do we?'" recalled Mirren, who was born in London and now lives in Los Angeles.

"These girls are called 'independent contractors': they're free to leave whenever they want to, there is no coercion of any sort, they're there because they want to be there and lots of girls come back year after year after year.

"It's not to say they're not from difficult backgrounds — they very often are, so there are problems, there are psychological problems — but that's about as safe an environment as they could ever have."

Pesci, who won an Oscar in 1991 for "Goodfellas," displays his signature spunky side in "Love Ranch" as his philandering character grapples with issues surrounding his marriage and business.

At one point during a fight with Mirren's character, Pesci quips: "Who do you think you are, the Queen of ... England?"

Mirren — who has played three British queens in different films and TV series — says the line was improvised.

"Joe and I put that in. We talked about it in the car and ... we put it in and then Taylor said, 'Oh, I don't know if we can use that,' and I said, 'Oh, well, see because it's really good.' I'm really glad he kept it in."

Mirren also shows a signature side of herself in the film: her sexpot one, particularly inintimate scenes with Peris-Mencheta, who hails from Spain.

"I was very comfortable with him," said Mirren, who has appeared nude in several films.

"I think he's an incredible, future star. He's got that wonderful, animal quality on the screen."

 
 
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