It's a Monday afternoon at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills and I'm sitting across from Academy Award-, Emmy-, Golden Globe-, and Tony-winning actress Dame Helen Mirren. She is seated on a gold sofa wearing a stylish floor-length dress and, for a moment, I feel as if I'm in the presence of royalty. It was her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II that won her an Oscar, after all. Yet, as we begin to discuss her new film, Winchester, which she will defend as a ghost story, not a horror movie, I'm relieved to find that Mirren—while strikingly intelligent and full of wit—is not royalty, but a woman who is grounded and far more interested in others than in herself, despite her extraordinary life.
We chat about her role as Sarah Winchester, a deeply mournful woman filled with grief over the loss of her husband and daughter and racked with guilt over her family's rifle business, which profits off the creation of deadly firearms, we discuss gun violence as it relates to the film and how it has been perpetuated throughout American society, and she opens up about herself, sharing how her confidence has evolved over time. I left our conversation with a renewed sense of purpose and a desire to adopt some of Mirren's wise habits into my own life.
Here's what I learned from the woman who has achieved the "Triple Crown" of acting and still finds joy in the smaller things in life.
There's a bit of an expectation that with age comes a greater sense of self and confidence. However, Mirren, like most, agrees that confidence is not a constant condition—each day is different. At 72, she's found that the secret to feeling good about herself is not confidence but in letting go of any and all expectations. "I think it is true that as you get older—it's not that you get more confident, you don't—but you care about it less. You care less about being un-self-confident," she says. "I think what happens is that you see yourself less and less as the center of the world and you start to lose your self-obsession, and in losing self-obsession, you lose the very things that are making you feel unconfident," she says.
Keep Calm and Carry On
When it comes to Mirren's mental health, there's one ritual she practices each day to take care of herself. A true Brit, her cure for most anything is a cup of tea. She also swears by the phrase "keep calm and carry on," which she informs me became famous during the second world war in Britain before it was printed on everything from mugs to aprons. "If I am getting a bit tizzied, I just say to myself keep calm and carry on. Just take it one step at a time. If you can't deal with what's going to happen tomorrow, don't deal with it now, deal with it when you come to tomorrow, and then you will be able to deal with it."
Fall In Love with People
Mirren makes it clear that happiness is not found in focusing on yourself, but in everything that lies outside of you. "No, I'm not in love with myself. I'm not in love with myself at all," Mirren states matter-of-factly. "I'm in love with other people. It's the opposite of falling in love with yourself. It's go outside of yourself. Don't go, oh, me. Go, oh, you, him, her, that tree.' Go outside," she says, gesturing with open arms. This is what brings her the most happiness.
Mirren's ideal day off would probably include one of her favorite hobbies: gardening. The actress loves to garden—her favorite flowers are peonies—and her eyes light up when she begins describing her collection of gardens all over the world. "I have a garden in Italy. I have a terrace in New York. I now have a rock garden in Tahoe, so I'm forever planting things and never quite getting to see them flower because I'm off working somewhere," she says.
Do Work You Find Fascinating
While Mirren's latest film is a period piece set in the early 1900s, the eerie plot places the film outside the actress's usual wheelhouse. However, Mirren was drawn to the role of Sarah Winchester simply because of the story. "I thought it was just fascinating," she says. The film, based on true events, reimagines the haunted Winchester House, built by Mirren's character Sarah Winchester (Mirren swears her presence can be felt in real Winchester House located in San Francisco). "There's a complete mystery about it. Why did she build this house in the way she did? Nobody knows. So you know that's always going to be appealing, isn't it, for an actor?" Her passion and intrigue is infectious and serves as a reminder of the kind of energy everyone should strive for in their own work.
Learn From History
The crux of this film is the intense guilt felt by Mirren's character and her connection to those who have been killed by the rifle her family has profited off of for years. Naturally, this theme feels more relevant now than ever due to our society's incomprehensible gun culture. Mirren agreed that there were certainly intentional parallels present in the film. "The only thing I feel strongly about really is that the proliferation of the armaments trade in the world and in that context, Britain, Germany, France, Russia, China, Italy, and many countries of the world owe a large amount of their GDP to the manufacture and the sale of arms.
And those arms are causing unbelievable havoc in the world," she states. According to her, the largest problem is the proliferation of these sales. "Smaller and smaller and more and more unstable groups want to get their hands on armaments. They're always profiteers who are prepared to sell them, and it's the profiteering that I find so unbearable," she says after a moment of contemplation.
Don't Stop Doing What You Love
Just before we part, I ask Mirren if she could grab drinks with anyone dead or alive who would it be. After a long hesitation, she hints at her next major role, saying, "I'd have a vodka with Catherine the Great, as I'm about to play her. I'd ask her about herself."
See Mirren transform into Sarah Winchester and take a sneak peek at the film—now in theaters—in the trailer below.