When Dame Helen Mirren walked into the pressroom, one was quite tempted to stand up and curtsy as she is undisputedly one of cinema’s most gifted actors and is most outspoken. Mirren is currently starring in The Love Ranch, the first film she and her husband director Taylor Hackford worked on together since White Nights in 1985. The script by Mark Jacobson is loosely based on the Mustang Ranch, the first legal brothel in Nevada. Mirren plays the tough madam Grace Bontempo and Joe Pesci plays her philandering husband Charlie. The following interview is with Mirren and co-star Sergio Peris-Mencheta, an up-and-coming star who plays Armando Bruza.
Mirror: The role of Grace showcased your sexuality and femininity that obviously is quite different from playing the Queen. Is that what attracted you to the role?
Mirren: I have to say that you always look for your next piece of work to be as different from your last piece of work because that way you keep interested and hopefully keep the audience interested as well. It’s a bit of a poison chalice to be that kind of an actor because the audience, especially a film audience, really wants you to be the same character over and over again because that’s what they’re familiar with. The great movie stars are exactly that. If you want to be a certain kind of an actor, you have to resist that even if sometimes it’s not in your own self-interest, but ultimately it is in your artistic self- interest. Anyway, I looked for something different, and this was different from the Queen. That said, I don’t agree that it’s about sexuality or femininity. It’s really about a tough working class woman.
Mirror: Did you feel good chemistry with Joe Pesci and were your styles of working compatible?
Mirren: We don’t have different styles of working and I don’t know why people keep saying this. We work in exactly the same way. We look at the script, we learn the line, we hit our marks, etc. He doesn’t like to rehearse and I’m in accord with that. I don’t mind running the lines with someone, but I don’t want to rehearse it. You want it to happen in the moment on the set. Joe, above all, is a professional. He’s been in the business a long time. He knows what’s required and he delivers and I respect that more than anything. He happens to be a great actor with incredible energy and it’s great to work with that “Joe thing.”
Mirror: You met with a real madam. What was that like?
Mirren: Honestly, the great thing about the work we do, and the thing that I love most about my job, is that it takes me into the most unexpected places, places that I would never dream that I would be, and along comes a role that takes you to that place. One of the places we visited was a brothel in Nevada and was introduced to a pretty extraordinary woman, Susan Austin, madam of the Mustang Ranch. She’s very elegant, very gracious, very smart, very business like and if you met her on the street, you would think she was the CEO of a cosmetics company. She was a revelation to me and it was great to meet her.
Mirror: Can you both talk about your torrid love scenes? Was it harder for both of you or for your husband Taylor?
Peris-Mencheta: It was more difficult to do the audition than the shooting. Two days after I met Helen Mirren, we did the reading and we had to kiss each other and touch each other. For me it was very difficult. I got to know her and said to myself she’s not Dame Mirren, she’s Helen and I can touch her. After a while, it was very normal and natural. After all, I’m from Spain. (laughter)
Mirren: I have done this quite a few times and I think in general it’s harder for the guy. I know that’s a broad generalization. Taylor was great because he was incredibly straightforward and practical about it. He might as well have been shooting a scene about washing up. He gave us direction about where we should lie down and how he was going to shoot it, which really helped Sergio and me. I know it’s really hard for people to understand and it’s always a question. I can understand why because kissing and sex are so intimate and something you only do with a loved one or a drunken night with someone. (laughter.) The thought of doing it with a complete stranger with whom you are not intimate is difficult for people to get their heads around it. I’ve often walked into a room and within ten minutes I’m kissing a complete stranger. Actors are use to that because that’s what we do. It’s our job. It’s natural and it’s easy. Believe me, it’s no big deal unless you choose to make it so.
Mirror: Sergio, to prepare for this boxing role, you trained with hall-of-fame trainer Jimmy Glenn. What was that like?
Peris-Mencheta: I worked out for four months in New York, training for five hours a day. I ate a lot because I had to gain 35 pounds. I turned into another guy that helped me lot to play this role. The worst part was to go into the ring to spar. That was tough.
Mirror: Knowing you were not really a boxer, did they hold back in their sparring with you?
Peris-Mencheta: At the beginning they were polite, but after a while, when I learned some moves and tried to punch, sometimes I would connect and they would want to fight with me, but they did try to respect my face.
Mirror: Are you loosing some of those 40 pounds?
Peris-Mencheta: I’m on it. It’s more difficult to gain weight because you have to eat when you’re not hungry and you’re thinking about having to lose that weight after the movie. So before and after dinner every night, I had to drink Haagen Daz ice cream that I microwaved.
Mirror: Taylor is a boxing fan. Do you have a sport that you love?
Mirren: Ever since I was in my teens I watched boxing and all my boyfriends have been boxing fans, so I’m quite a fan. Three of them boxed themselves, one of them almost professionally. I can certainly watch a boxing match and do love fight night in Vegas.
Mirror: Do you have a special thing that you like to do?
Mirren: Crocheting. Not! (laughter) My husband, incidentally, also loves dance and will happily go to the ballet. We enjoy all kinds of forms of physicality.
Mirror: One can’t imagine you having difficulty doing anything, but was capturing an American accent a challenge?
Mirren: Someone said that you are good at accents if you are musical and I’m completely unmusical. I cannot sing in tune or hear a tune and I do find accents very difficult and have to work very hard at them. Some people do them very easily and brilliantly, but I don’t. I’m very bad at it. So whenever you see me doing an accent, believe me, it’s a lot of work. Given that I’ve lived in America for 20 years, you’d think it would be easy.
Mirror: Sergio, you’ve made your first American film, directed by Taylor Hackford, co-starring with Helen, love scenes with Helen. How was this whole experience for you?
Peris-Mencheta: Too much. (laughter) At the beginning it was too much but they tried to make me feel at home and I think that was the key, including the make-up guy Luigi Rocchetti who put on my beard every day. I finally found my place in this big thing. I saw the movie the other day and thought, “I did that!”
Mirror: In the end you go off with the young, gorgeous guy. What is your feeling about the expression Cougar?
Mirren: I think it’s offensive. Mind you, a Cougar is a rather beautiful animal, but it’s still offensive. Men have been going off with younger women forever, but there’s no special name for that.
Mirror: Can you talk a little bit about your photo spread in New York magazine?
Mirren: The photographer is one of the top ten European photographers. He’s an art photographer. I lived with a photographer for four years so I’m very much into the art of photography and always give photographers artistic freedom and time, especially if they’re top notch. I don’t try to control what they do.
Mirror: Thank you so much.
Mirren: You’re welcome. Bye. Bye.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following interview originally appeared in the Santa Monica Mirror and the edited version is being reprinted as a courtesy of that publication.