Mirren's Italian dream come true

British actress Helen Mirren's wish to star in an Italian film is fulfilled in director Paolo Virzi's The Leisure Seeker

In The Leisure Seeker, Helen Mirren (left) and Donald Sutherland play a long-married couple who go on a road trip despite their children's objections.
In The Leisure Seeker, Helen Mirren (above) and Donald Sutherland play a long-married couple who go on a road trip despite their children's objections.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK •Half a century traversing an illustrious acting road, with its detours to queens, detectives and other kaleidoscopic women, one milestone still eluded Helen Mirren.

"I've always wanted to be in an Italian movie," she said recently, recalling her lack of fascination with the American films she saw growing up in Essex, England. "What alerted to me the potential of film as an art form was Italian film."

So when director Paolo Virzi asked her to star in The Leisure Seeker - his version of an American road-trip movie - Mirren climbed into a recreational vehicle (RV) with Donald Sutherland in the driver's seat and an Italian crew in the back, and set off in the sweltering Georgia heat.

The actors play Ella and John Spencer, a long-married couple who defy their adult children by absconding in August 2016, during the early days of the presidential campaign, for one last journey in their decrepit RV.

Destination: Key West, Florida, where John, a retired English professor whose failing mind clings hard to beloved literary quotations, can visit Ernest Hemingway's home.

"I like being a foreigner in this country and, in a way, this film is very gentle and loving, but as foreign as I in a certain kind of America," Mirren, 72, said in a call from Los Angeles. She is married to director Taylor Hackford.

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation with the actress, who bagged the Best Actress Oscar in 2007 for her performance as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen.

This is a road-trip movie but also something more.

I think it's about love. So many movies are about love, but they're about the beginning of love or sometimes about the middle of love.

This is about the end of a love story - the trials and challenges of the happily-ever-after bit. It's much more difficult than the beginning.

The Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump presidential campaigns each get a nod in the film. A Vanity Fair headline from November suggested that you would like to play President Trump.

Oh no, I did not say that. I think I may well have said that is an interesting character to play.

These people who want to make that kind of a mark upon the world are always incredibly flawed and also incredibly self-delusional. They have to be.

You called him Shakespearean.

Whether it's Timon of Athens, Macbeth, Coriolanus or Henry V, Shakespeare was brilliant at looking at the public figure, and then immediately, underneath that human being, full of insecurities or failures or paranoia or delusion.

So, on that level, I think all of these people are Shakespearean.

I do not think Barack (Obama) was a Shakespearean.

I have to say I look at Barack with very, very romantic eyes. Maybe he is Romeo.

Have you ever taken a road trip?

Yes, my husband and I drove across the South from Natchez (Mississippi) to Charleston (South Carolina) in a van.

We were buying furniture for our house in Los Angeles, so the van got more and more filled as we drove with less and less room for us.

We stayed in bed-and-breakfasts and I learnt about all-you-can-eat buffets - fried chicken, mac and cheese, grits, collard greens, total soul food.

That was a fabulous trip.

Do people take road trips in Europe?

I think it is an American invention, actually.

I was astounded when I first came to America how people would get in the car and drive for five hours without even thinking about it.

I think 50 per cent of Americans do not own a passport because there is an awful lot of America to see.

There is a ubiquitousness that Europeans find quite difficult to deal with, the fact that you can drive for thousands of miles into a place that looks exactly the same, with a (office supply retailer) Staples, (department store chain) T.J. Maxx, (home improvement supplies retailer) Home Depot.

But I have yet to go to a part of America that is not unbelievably beautiful - New Mexico, the Smoky Mountains, South Dakota, the redwood forests, Yosemite, the bayou.

You're a long-time Hollywood sex symbol. What do you make of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements?

I have never wanted to be younger than I am, but the only thing that makes me think, 'I wish I was 18 now', is that 18-year-olds now are coming into a very different world.

People often ask: "What would you say to your younger self?"

And I say I would teach my younger self to say: "(Expletive) off" with more alacrity and confidence, and more often.

I think (the movement) will have its flaws and backlash. The whole uncomfortable, wonderful-but-weird relationship between men and women has got a lot more unravelling to do.

But I'm thrilled the journey has started.

Honestly, I thought it was something I went through when I was young, but that it was over.

I had no idea. I am an idiot.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2018, with the headline 'Mirren's Italian dream come true'. Subscribe