Helen Mirren is tough in ‘1923’ and in life. Just ask that bear that knocked on her door

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Helen Mirren
Helen Mirren.
(Erik Carter / For The Times)

The last time Helen Mirren was in Montana, she was up on Bear Mountain in Glacier National Park. It was November, the wind chill temperature stood at 25 below and she was filming her last scene for the inaugural season of “1923,” the Paramount+ prequel to “Yellowstone.” Mirren was miserable, shivering in the brutal cold, but, between takes, she did have the presence of mind to look across the hills, take in the view and think, “‘til we meet again.”

“I really can’t wait to get back there,” Mirren tells me. It’s going to be warmer, that’s for sure. She’ll be returning to Montana in mid-July to again play Cara, the stalwart, shotgun-blasting Dutton family matriarch. Right now though Mirren is in Hollywood at what she describes as the pied-à-terre that she shares with her filmmaker husband Taylor Hackford when they’re not home at Lake Tahoe, Nev. It’s within walking distance of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, but sometimes deer — and coyotes — show up in the backyard.

“Los Angeles is amazing that way, isn’t it?” Mirren, 77, says. And if you think communing with coyotes might worry Mirren ... well, you don’t know her as well as you think.


Two years ago, a young black bear came sniffing around Mirren’s Tahoe home. She ignored her husband’s suggestion for caution, slid the back door open and shouted, “Naughty bear! Naughty bear!” The animal scampered away, the only proper and, when you think about it, possible response to being scolded by a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

“I told [Taylor], ‘Don’t be scared. It’s just a bear,’” Mirren says, matter-of-factly. “And it was a young bear, not a huge, great grizzly.” She smiles at the memory. “But I did tell him off. And if he decided to make a run for me, I could simply jump back in the house. I’m not underestimating their strength and power, but I do love seeing them. They’re extraordinary.”

Mirren and Hackford moved to Tahoe several years ago, renovating a modest house that is far enough in the hills but close enough to the supermarket. She loves kayaking and, when the lake warms late enough in the summer, she’ll go for a swim. And she loves a nice hike.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she says, “I’m not a sporty person. I’m really, really not.” Gardening, she adds, gives her “scrambled brain” the most peace when she’s outdoors.

I’m wondering how this all squares with a headline that popped up while preparing for our conversation: “Celebrity nudists: the stars who like to let it all hang out.” Mirren was listed first.

“I was No. 1?” she says, laughing. “That’s great! I’m not the sort of person who goes off to a nudist camp, but the very few times I’ve found myself naked on a beach or somewhere with a lot of other naked people, it is a fabulously liberating experience. The whole construct of what it means to be a human being in terms of your earrings, your lipstick, your shirt, your age ... everything falls away! And you become a different kind of human being, a human being that’s not related to anything physical. It’s a very lovely thing.”

Helen Mirren moves her arms in different ways for a portrait shoot.
If you were to form an impression of Helen Mirren simply based on her many varied roles, you could go in a dozen different directions — and none of them would be wrong.

Taylor Sheridan, creator of “Yellowstone” and its two prequel spinoffs, “1883” and “1923,” offered the part of Cara to Mirren without a script. (The same was true with Harrison Ford, who plays Jacob Dutton, Cara’s husband.) Sheridan likes to write for the actors he casts, so if she wanted the role, Mirren had to take a leap of faith. That wasn’t necessarily a problem for her. But she did want to meet Sheridan in case he had the wrong idea of who she was, simply going from her body of work.

Paramount Network says it isn’t moving on from ‘Yellowstone’ just yet — but wouldn’t mind having Matthew McConaughey in its Montana-centric universe.

Feb. 6, 2023

“It can be a bit misleading, your image,” Mirren says. “So it was essential we meet in case he hated me and thought, ‘Oh ... I don’t want to write anything for her.’”

But if you were to form an impression of Mirren simply based on her roles, you could go in a dozen different directions and none of them would be wrong. She’s most famous for playing Queen Elizabeth in both “The Queen,” the 2006 drama that won her an Oscar, and “The Audience,” the 2013 play that earned her a Tony. But Mirren is also beloved for playing the charismatic, chain-smoking Det. Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in “Prime Suspect.” We’ve seen her as an enchantress (“Excalibur”), assassin (the “Red” movies), a proud housekeeper (“Gosford Park”) and a criminal mastermind who can handle herself behind the wheel (the last three “Fast and Furious” movies).

As much as anything, Mirren has become a brand, someone filmmakers call when they want ...

”... a superior English voice kind of thing,” Mirren says, laughing, finishing the thought. “I’m not like that. But you can make fun of me for being like that.”


“The erudite, oh-so-proper model of English reserve,” I continue. She can’t stop laughing. “So, so not true,” she says.

You can hear that cultivated voice as the narrator in Greta Gerwig’s upcoming, neon-pink “Barbie” movie and as the host of IFC’s brilliant ongoing parody series, “Documentary Now!” And it’s there, in a more serious vein, playing a therapist challenging Kendrick Lamar to examine his feelings in a 2022 music video “Count Me Out.”

Helen Mirren.

I ask Mirren if she’d ever met Lamar. “No!” What about Willie Nelson? The night after we spoke, she acted as a presenter at Nelson’s 90th birthday celebration concert at the Hollywood Bowl. “No! I’d never met either of them! Isn’t that so cool? They’re both great artists, so what an incredible compliment and what a pleasure to be able to do it.”

Recalling the day she spent shooting the video with Lamar, Mirren marvels at the rapper’s facility with language. On Nelson, she admires his ability to straddle both sides of the political divide.

“I hope we don’t lose that, because people like Willie Nelson are so important in our culture,” Mirren says.

What’s your favorite Willie song?

“Oh, don’t ask me difficult questions,” Mirren answers, laughing. “My husband is the music aficionado.”


Mirren and Hackford celebrated their 25th anniversary last year. Musing on their longevity, Mirren points to their willingness to let the other go off and pursue their own interests.

“With the result that actually in a long marriage, we’ve spent very little time together,” Mirren says, smiling. “That was one nice thing about COVID — you couldn’t go anywhere. So we’d have to be with each other every night. It was kind of a test, because we’d never done that for six months. And it was great. It gave us a real anchor — not that we didn’t have an anchor or feel committed — but it solidified the fact that we are put together. This works.”

More than a decade ago, Mirren lamented the way time accelerates as you grow older. “You want to be able to hold it back,” Mirren says when I broach the subject. “But you can’t. It goes so fast.”

Have you learned to accept that?

“I think so,” she answers. “What can you do? You just have to live and learn life as you go along. There’s no point in dwelling on it.” Mirren laughs. “You know you don’t have much time left. So don’t waste it dwelling on how little time you have left.

“I’ll tell you what I’m most pleased about,” she continues. “I’m most pleased that I lived long enough to experience GPS.” I raise an eyebrow. This is not the epiphany I was expecting. Mirren tells me she’s a “fantastic” navigator — “my husband will attest to this” — but she absolutely adores a device that will affirm her sense of direction. Her only quibble — without zooming out, the frame is too small.

“You need to have a bigger sense of the picture of where things are,” Mirren says. “That was always the great thing about looking at a map. You could see the whole thing.” She considers this. “Maybe that’s a metaphor for life. Look at the bigger picture.”


Now, there’s the advice. She has one more bit of guidance before we part.

“Look up the bear online,” she says. “‘Helen Mirren chases off bear.’ You’ll find it.”