Helen Mirren groans, followed by a laboured sigh. "I think that will haunt me for the rest of my life," she says, recalling the frenzy over a rather impressive image of the mature actress, flaunting a decidedly taut body in a bikini on an Italian beach four years ago. "In and of itself, it is a lie because I don't actually look like that and I know that that is going to haunt me forever and I'll be forever trying to bury it."
She pauses for a few beats, and musically clears her throat. "Although, I guess in hindsight there are worse things to be associated with."
The Oscar-winning actor is a marvel at duplicity. Regally poised, she oozes a Romanov-like lineage that begets an aristocratic background. Along with Maggie Smith and fellow Dame Judi Dench, she assumes the title of modern cinema's great doyenne, a towering spirit with household brand status. Yet there's relaxing affability about her. It's as though she couldn't care less about the adulation, the praise, the honours.
Nominated for four Academy Awards, finally claiming a statuette for her powerful portrayal in The Queen, Mirren's earned a reputation as a daring and inspired actor. It's strange then that she should often find herself beleaguered by doubts about her own ability. Because despite the extraordinary popularity she gained playing DCI Jane Tennison in seven seasons of Prime Suspect, Mirren has come to the reluctant conclusion that there is no such thing as perfection where acting is concerned, or art in general.
"It's taken me a long time to realise that you are always going to be striving to reach that ultimate level of performance," she begins. "When you're young, you're driven by the desire to find that perfection or ease of expression that erases all your doubts. Acting has helped me escape my natural tendency to be uptight and conservative, but I've had to accept that you can never quite erase your upbringing. The thrill comes in getting as close as you can to that feeling of total abandonment to your art."
Throughout her career, her calling card has been the strong woman, faultlessly empowered, standing up for her beliefs. Early roles – including the scheming Caesonia in Caligula (1979) and Morgana in Excalibur (1981) – laid the foundations, while Prime Suspect's Tennison brought her exacting, no-nonsense demeanour to a widespread audience in the early 1990s.
Diverse parts in The Madness of King George (1994), Some Mother's Son (1996), and Gosford Park (2001) played on a tender vulnerability, but those Mirren features – the sharp cheekbones, those pensive, demanding eyes – always earned attention. She was never one to fade into the background.
The star, who has recently been shooting Red 2 alongside Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones, admits, however, that in the initial phase of her career she struggled to find her voice in a world dominated by men. "I've been fortunate to play strong women and there is a sense of empowerment to that," she says. "I've also learnt a lot from roles where I get to display a great deal of determination and will power and manipulation.
"I had to fight for respect as an actress coming up in a film world that was, and still is, heavily dominated by men. I didn't realise at the time that you had to be this loud, annoying, tub-thumping aggressive kind of person to get anything done. One of the great lessons I learnt from my parents was to make my own way in the world and not rely on a man for everything. I still believe that the greatest gift every girl can have is economic independence."
Born Ilyena Mironov, the granddaughter of a Russian count who lost everything during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Mirren was educated in London public schools while her cab-driver father struggled to make ends meet.
Fiercely independent and sexually liberated, Mirren became an art-house favourite in racy films such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover in 1989 and 1990's The Comfort of Strangers. Even while embarking on affairs with actors like Nicol Williamson and Liam Neeson, the actress was always keen to maintain her independence.
Happily married for nearly 26 years to director Taylor Hackford – falling in love when they worked together on 1985 flick White Nights – Mirren says she's still constantly aware of the gender power struggle, not only in her own industry but in society as well.
"Women have to be aware of the fact that a lot of forces are still in place in society that favour men. There's still an old boys' network that operates, except now it's much more subtle and men are cleverer at hiding the ways they keep power. Of course, there are a lot of men who accept women as equals and don't play destructive and cruelly manipulative games with women. But women still have to fight to stake out their territory and be very conscious of people working to undermine them."
Nicknamed "Hell", which she says derives from her intolerance of incompetence on film sets, the actress is said to be in line for an Oscar nomination for her performance as Alma Revile, Alfred Hitchcock's long-suffering spouse, confidante and intellectual muse in Hitchcock, the highly anticipated biopic of the filmmaker, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins.
Released in Australia on January 10, the film is centred around the making of Psycho, the 1960 black-and-white masterpiece that shocked audiences when the film's apparent main character Marion Crane – played by Janet Leigh – is killed off after only 30 minutes in the iconic shower-stabbing sequence. Scarlett Johansson gives a luscious performance as Leigh while Jessica Biel co-stars as Vera Miles, who originally played Crane's sister.
Trained as a film editor in the nascent British silent-film industry of the 1920s, Reville married Alfred Hitchcock in 1926 and over the course of their 53-year marriage helped him create some of the world's greatest films, including Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, North by Northwest and Vertigo. Reville served as his tireless collaborator and actively participated in story development, casting and editing, while also serving as his most trusted critic.
"Alma loved Alfred's wit and sense of humour," says Mirren. "Hitchcock had this wickedly ironic streak and he was always joking on set and teasing his actors. She adored him and from the beginning of their marriage understood that he was an artistic genius. She also knew he needed her support and that he could rely on her judgment, which was very precise and valuable."
Reville's contribution has gone largely ignored, so it pleases Mirren no end to put her in the spotlight. It was Reville, with her particularly sharp editing eye, who noticed the supposedly lifeless Janet Leigh could be seen on film swallowing after the shower scene in Psycho, and demanded it be changed.
"Though Hitchcock was one of the world's most famous film directors during his day, very few people knew that Alma was a key collaborator on every picture. She would often rewrite scenes before and during the actual filming, and she was always there to help him refine his vision," Mirren says. "Alma was his staunch ally, editor, writer and a great partner in life and work. It was a great chance to bring her out of the shadows."
Could the same dynamic of cinematic collaborators be reflected in Mirren's relationship with Hackford, the celebrated director of Ray and The Devil's Advocate? "Taylor's tried to get me to work with him many times, but I've almost always told him that the roles haven't been good enough," she says. "But we worked closely together on Love Ranch , so that was good."
Mirren and Hackford live mainly in Los Angeles but also have homes in New York and Provence, plus a riverside retreat in Wapping on the River Thames. The couple never had children, but remain lovingly devoted to each other.
"I had always had very intense relationships with men and I always hated dating because it's such torture at times. So I was something of a serial monogamist and had some wonderful, truly wonderful, relationships with men. And when I met Taylor, I knew pretty much from the beginning that we could get along and live very harmoniously. He has a very strong character, which was a prerequisite since I have a fairly strong will myself. It's also interesting to occasionally make a film and go home and sleep with the director!
"I do get homesick and I've kept going back to London, which I still consider my home and to which I still have a deep connection. London is where I was raised and where my Russian father came to settle and met my mother, who was from West Ham."
A long-standing, cross-generational sex symbol, Mirren finds the concept still rather convoluted, but accepts a certain level of flattery. "You can look at it either way. I suppose it's a good thing, but as you get older you wonder whether the public still accepts you, because they don't see you as sexy any more," she laughs. "I've never felt particularly empowered by the nudity experience [in films] – it was something I just had to get on with. I felt that it was part of my personal journey towards a kind of liberation.
"I'm a great admirer of beauty and sexiness, although I don't think I'm that kind of a woman. And often when men talk about sexiness, it's just about tits and legs, and what's so remarkable about that?
"Of course, it is flattering to be perceived as having some sort of sex appeal, but in my case I think it's more my force of personality, and some people find that sexy, I suppose. At least it's helped me find roles where I play a more dynamic kind of woman than roles where you tend to be more subservient."
Lead-in image: Rankin/trunkarchive.com/Snapper Media. Top image: Mike McGregor/Contour by Getty Images.