When she signed her contract last year [with L'Oréal], she insisted her photographs should not be retouched to make her look younger. "I said, ‘You take me with my attitude or just don’t have me, have someone else.’ They said, ‘Absolutely, that’s what we want. We want truth, we want transparency.’” The resulting photographs were so unfeasibly flattering that complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Authority about undeclared retouching. The allegations were proved to be unfounded: “We noted that wrinkles were clearly visible on Ms Mirren’s face in both ads, including across her forehead and around her mouth,” the ASA concluded.
Is the acting industry less accepting of older women? “There is profound sexism – the ‘Would you f--- her?’ kind of attitude,” she says, sounding more philosophical than furious. “On the cinema screen, your face is 10ft high and 6ft wide. It’s huge. And I, as a cinemagoer, like to see beautiful faces up there – it’s a pleasure. But there’s also story and entertainment, and one wants variety in that. You also want, as an audience member, to see people that you recognise and can identify with.”
When roles for women in real life change, then you will see change in the film industry,” she says. “If we happen to see a [female] president of the United States, and a world expert on marine biology comes on television and it’s a woman, or the female head of a petroleum company on the news.” But surely Hollywood will insist on having them played by young supermodels? She laughs. “I think what’s galling to me is when you see someone who’s supposed to be a high-level surgeon in a film and she’s being played by a 28-year-old actress. They wouldn’t even be qualified yet, never mind eminent.” She cites her role as the middle-aged, borderline alcoholic DCI Jane Tennison in Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect as a key example of art imitating what was already happening in the workforce. “The more those roles change for women in life, the more people get used to that image – seeing an older woman’s face. They become more familiar with it. It’s not uncharted territory, visually, so it’s not such a shock to the system any more.”
She credits maturity, not fame, with her increased self-confidence in a notoriously precarious profession. “I’m always very insecure and nervous before I do any job. It would be so nice not to have to be nervous any more, not to have to be afraid. But the other thing you learn is that your fear and nervousness and insecurity is your own business, nobody else’s.”
I ask what has been her greatest achievement and immediately regret it, expecting her to give me a stock “the best is yet to come” answer. But she doesn’t. “The longer your life, the more you have to remember, and I do have amazing memories.” She pauses for a moment and volunteers, “I feel particularly grateful that I’m in a happy marriage. I love my husband, I love being with him. He’s a nightmare, but he’s great, and I look forward to seeing him and miss him when he’s not there. Not that I can’t live without him, because I can. But that is a really nice part of my life, when I look back and think of what we’ve done together. Family in general, I think. It’s not any of my doing really, and the fact that I’m very close to my family is great, even without children. Maybe especially without children.”
Being 70 is a pleasure, she says; it has all been a pleasure. “You live your life,” she says. “The reality is, you either die young or you get old. There is nothing in between.”
-Sali Hughes via The Guardian