“Who is Anna Magnani?”
You better know your classic world cinema if you’re lucky enough to enter the orbit of Helen Mirren. That trivia question is what we were greeted with by the 72-year-old Oscar winner at a recent Los Angeles press day for her new drama, The Leisure Seeker. (Magnani, in case you don’t know and you encounter Dame Helen one day, was an Academy Award-winning actress who rose to prominence in the 1950s and has been described as “the volcanic earth mother of all Italian cinema”).
Mirren is best known for pond-crossing imports like The Queen and Gosford Park yet has recently dabbled in more mainstream (and more “high-octane”) fare like the Red movies and The Fate of the Furious. Her heart remains in less, how shall we say, volatile stories, as evidenced by her latest project, The Leisure Seeker, which earned her a Golden Globe nomination earlier this year.
Directed by Paolo Virzì, the story follows a retired New England couple (Mirren and Donald Sutherland) who take off for a road trip to the Florida Keys in the titular 1975 Winnebago, much to the terror of their children. The RV’s pilot, John Spencer (Sutherland), is suffering from Alzheimer’s, while Ella (Mirren) is harboring her own secret health woes.
In her interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Mirren talked about why she initially balked at the heavy subject material of Leisure Seeker, how she’d handle a Donald Trump rally, and why she’s never been the type to have a celebrity crush.
Yahoo Entertainment: What made you hop on board The Leisure Seeker?
Helen Mirren: I [initially] didn’t want to go into the subject of the movie. I just did not want to do any movies ever in my life about people dying of cancer or people getting Alzheimer’s. I was like, I don’t want to go there. But this was a beautiful love story with those elements involved. And also the sensibility of the film director, Paolo Virzì, was so humanistic and amusing, lightly comedic, that I thought maybe it would be fun to do.
And you get to work with the great Donald Sutherland. He can be very intimidating, though. He doesn’t take any guff.
No, he doesn’t. But I tease him, so that’s all right.
I feel like you don’t take any guff, either. Who takes less guff, you or Donald Sutherland?
Um, probably Donald. I’m more patient than he is. I’m a very patient person, actually.
His character suffers from Alzheimer’s, so he’s constantly pivoting between being lucid and being fuzzy, where he thinks he’s in a different time and place. Did he use that as an opportunity to go off script and kind of you keep you off balance?
I think he’s wonderful in this film, absolutely fantastic. We both improvised quite a lot. It was very loose. We got into our characters quite deeply so we could improvise around them quite easily. … I think Donald really enjoyed that, it gives you a kind of freedom playing that. You’re not rigidly stuck to your lines and your character.
And if you don’t remember a line, you’re good.
[Laughs] Exactly. I want those roles.
It takes place during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, obviously a very specific moment in contemporary American times. It doesn’t directly play into the story, but how do you think the time setting informed the story in general?
I think that was very much Paolo’s understanding. I love any movie where you’re looking at the country through the eyes of the foreigner. … Two that come to my mind are Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas and John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. Both are an outsider’s view of quintessential America. And because of that outsider’s view of quintessential America, you get a perspective that’s a little bit more interesting than just an American would have. And I think that scene [where John and Ella inadvertently end up at a Trump rally] , that was a part of Paolo’s Italian vision.
Like many folks in this industry, you’ve been pretty critical of Trump. How would you survive an actual Donald Trump rally?
Um, by being objective and curious. That’s probably how I’d survive. Because in the end, all humans are the same. They all love their dog and they’re all having problems at home, or whatever. There’s a common humanity with all of us. … Certain days maybe I’d run the other way.
Ella expresses her love for Marlon Brando at one point. Who have been your celebrity crushes over the years?
Oh! Interesting question. I’m not a crushy sort of person, I never was. I never had pictures of pop stars up on my walls. I didn’t want to be fan, I wanted to be the person that people were fans of. That’s not to say I don’t admire people. Anna Magnani. Maybe she’s my celebrity crush. Put that down so people have to look her up.
The Leisure Seeker is now playing in select cities.
Watch the trailer:
Read more on Yahoo Entertainment: