LOS ANGELES—Complimented that she’s such a “bad a**” in “Red 2,” Helen broke into an impish smile and quipped, “I am, aren’t I?” Reprising her role as Victoria, a fur coat-clad British assassin, Helen, arms stretched, coolly shoots at targets on either side of a road with a gun on each hand, while aboard a speeding, spinning blue convertible driven by another hit man (Byung-hun Lee).
“That car was very fast,” said Helen, a welcome sight in a hot fuchsia dress one recent morning at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York. Turning 67 next month, Helen, wearing a striking gold bracelet (virtually a modern sculpture) on her right wrist, is perhaps the world’s most attractive sexagenarian woman. “The car was impossible to get into,” she admitted. “Then even more difficult to get out of. I needed three people to haul me out. It was ridiculous. That’s the thing about these cars—they are made for 19-year-old boys. I am not a huge fan of that sort of car. They are boy toy sort of cars.”
She conceded with a grin, “But once you are in them, then it’s fun because they do drive unbelievably well.”
Playing up her “bad a**” mood this morning, Helen cracked that yes, there was a bit of a sexual tension between her and Byung-hun, a Korean actor who played Storm Shadow in the two “G.I. Joe” movies.
“You felt it—you were right,” she said with a grin. “It was an unlikely pairing but a great one. He did look spectacular in those suits. Byung is quite slight. He’s not a big guy. But we were in the plane in a scene.” Pretending to swoon, Helen recalled, “He suddenly took his shirt off. And all the women just went, ‘Oh, my God!’ He has this gorgeous body. We were like, ‘Oh!’ ”
“He’s a brilliant actor,” she added. “I went to see his film in Korean (‘Masquerade’) where he plays two characters. It’s a wonderful movie. I loved him in that film.”
Back in this fun sequel directed by Dean Parisot are Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Mary-Louise Parker and John Malkovich.
While Helen seems to relish playing a sharpshooter onscreen, in real life she is “not a fan of guns.” She stressed, “They cause such appalling damage so easily, with so little effort. Guns are the most horrific things, automatic weapons in particular.”
A wickedly delicious moment happens in “Red 2” when Helen, pretending to be insane to get into a mental institution, wears a paper crown and rags. It’s a funny send-up of her royal roles—as Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen,” for which she won Oscar and Golden Globe best actress trophies, and in the West End play “The Audience,” which recently ended; Elizabeth I in the TV mini-series of the same name; and Queen Charlotte in the film, “The Madness of King George.”
“Isn’t it lovely in film that you can make fun of yourself in that way?” Helen asked aloud. “It was certainly my idea to do Elizabeth I whom I had played as well as Elizabeth II. I said, ‘I want a really bad red wig, a terrible paper crown and some really bad costume.’ They ran out and found all those elements. Then I wanted to bring a little bit of the real history into her (Victoria’s mock) craziness. It was really fun to do that.”
On playing Queen Elizabeth II again in “The Audience,” which was written by Peter Morgan who also wrote “The Queen,” Helen explained, “When Peter e-mailed me and said he had written a play about the Queen, I e-mailed him back a two-word e-mail that said, ‘You bastard!’ because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to say no. At the same time, I knew that it wasn’t necessarily such a great idea to do the same role again because it becomes too heavy a weight in your career. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist and I was very glad I didn’t because it was a hugely successful experience. It was undoubtedly a very important part of my life.”
It’s no surprise that Helen loves being in costume. She said, “Actually, in a perfect world, I would wear an 18th -century costume all the time—corsets, big skirts, huge wigs and things.”
Of her personal style, she commented, “I love bright colors and bold, clean, clear things. I don’t like fussy things.”
“As you get older, you do realize that there are things that are appropriate to wear and other things that just make you look like a mad old bat,” she remarked with a laugh. “But I quite like looking like a mad old bat sometimes. I am a bit of an old bohemian at heart.”
Helen may be an A-lister but goes for the sale racks when she shops. “I love shopping but I don’t like to spend a lot of money on clothes,” she admitted. “I go straight for the 30 percent off. I love a bargain. I am very lucky now that I get lent beautiful clothes to wear, which is the ideal situation. Then I give them back and that’s perfect. I get the pleasure of wearing them and then they go back.”
She takes issue with the word “flaunting” “because you can’t stop being what you are. The idea that women are sort of flaunting something is just a weird concept to me. I don’t get that, honestly. It comes from old ideas of repression, that women are not supposed to behave like that, not walk around like this. If you are not walking like this, you are flaunting yourself. No, I am not. I am just being who I am. I have no secret apart from the genetic thing, maybe. I have learned to conceal the bad and reveal the good. It’s a constant battle, that’s for sure.”
According to Helen, no one’s giving her tips on how she should look or what she should do. “I don’t have that sort of advisor,” she remarked with a chuckle. “I have the good angel and the bad angel. The good angel says, ‘Go to the gym, Helen.’ The bad angel says, ‘No, it’s raining. I don’t want to go!’ (Most of the time) the bad angel wins, I have to say. But occasionally, the good angel wins.”
Lessons from parents
Buying clothes on sale and other habits come from lessons she learned from her parents. “I came from a financially impoverished situation,” Helen disclosed. “My dad was a taxi driver in London. We didn’t have a television, a washing machine, a car. But the one thing that my parents taught me, and it was very important, particularly as a woman, was that you must be financially independent. They didn’t want me to become an actress because they felt that was a dangerous financial proposition. I didn’t train as an actress.
“They wanted me to become a teacher. So I spent three years training as a teacher in order to be financially independent and secure. I take great pleasure and pride in that. I did it myself. Everything that I own, I earned. I was very lucky. I don’t disregard my luck in that particular scenario. Luck is terribly important and I recognize it. But I also worked hard and as professionally as I could. I do take pleasure in my personal economic security.”
We almost lost Helen to the British postal service or a department store chain. “I had a lot of jobs but my first non-acting job was working in the lingerie section in a department store in my hometown,” Helen recalled. “It was a job I did on Saturdays. I guess I was 16. As soon as I could get a job, I got a Saturday job. And I probably spent my first pay on a swimsuit from Marks & Spencer. I also worked as a postman. I worked in a dart stall at a fun fair.”
Typical of this woman with whom our conversations over the years are always memorable because of her humor and zest for life, Helen declared, “I don’t want to be dead. Either you die young or you get old. There’s nothing in between. And I don’t want to die young. I am too curious about life and the universe and what human beings are going to be doing in the next 20 years. I can’t wait to know. If I died when Kurt Cobain died, I would have never seen the Internet. Incredible things are happening all the time. So it’s fun to be alive.”
As for her acting skills which have so far netted her enough trophies to fill several shelves, Helen pointed out, “I generally aim at what I want. But whether I get there or not, I have to let go of things. A great friend of mine, Bob Balaban (actor), gave me the most wonderful advice about acting. He said, ‘Ultimately, you can’t really control where the arrow lands. All you can do is aim it as best as you possibly can. Let go of the arrow and it will land where it lands. You can’t control that and you just have to accept that.’”
“That’s what I do in life. I aim but if things don’t work out my way, I accept that. I am not a control freak in that way. I don’t go into angst if things don’t work out the way I expect them to,” she said.
Ever down-to-earth, Helen declared, “Success comes and goes. I am undoubtedly more successful now than I have ever been in my life but that rolls on and it will go down inevitably. Maybe it will come up again if I have another chance somewhere.”
(E-mail the columnist at email@example.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)