In her latest film the Hollywood star tackles the supernatural thriller genre for the first time in her career. Gemma Dunn reports.
Dame Helen Mirren may be dipping a tentative toe into the horror genre, but that’s not to say she’s a fan.
“I’m a bit too scared to go and see ghost stories,” she admits with a smile.
“I like a funny ghost story, you know, Ghostbusters or that sort of thing. But serious ghost movies I do get a little hypertension and I hyperventilate.
“Horror films I cannot deal with at all!” quips Mirren, 72.
“But a really well-made ghost story is a wonderful thing.”
It’s a good job, then, Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built is just that. Inspired by true events, the film – directed by The Spierig Brothers – relates the story of Winchester House, a residence that sits on an isolated stretch in San Jose, California, and is dubbed the most haunted house in the world. Built by Sarah Winchester (Mirren), a bereaved widow and heiress to the Winchester gun fortune, it is a house that knows no end. Constructed in an incessant 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week mania for decades, it stands seven stories tall and contains hundreds of rooms.
But Sarah is not building for herself, for her niece (Sarah Snook) or for troubled Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke). She is building a prison, an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts – some of which have a score to settle. Marking her first foray into scream queen territory, Mirren was taken by the mystery that surrounds her extraordinary character.
“There’s a lot of mythology around Sarah Winchester,” muses Mirren. “In her lifetime there was a legend, a mythology that grew around her and the creation of this house. She was private, always in her house,” she adds. “You can understand why a mythology started building about her as the house became more extraordinary, more complicated, bigger and bigger.
“It’s very difficult to extricate the truth about her from the mythology.”
In a bid to try, Mirren, who openly stated she does not believe in ghosts, did her own research into those who had worked with her. “Many different people had different ideas about her,” she notes. “But I believe she was a woman with great empathy, deep feelings [for others].
“At the same time, the fortune that she spent on building this house came from the Winchester rifle fortune. So there is an incredible contradiction between the character of the woman and the source of her income.”
One thing Mirren could be sure of, however, was Sarah’s state of dress – an all-black look, comprised of an Edwardian mourning cape, complete with authentic embellishments and a mourning veil.
“Our costumes were absolutely designed for us,” recalls Mirren.
“With mine, it was just repeating the photographs of Sarah and, like the set of the house, they were reproduced as accurately as possible.
“But it’s never fun to wear a corset all day long!”
Today, Mirren – witty and engaging – is, by contrast, the epitome of Hollywood glam. She is wearing a fuchsia dress and bright bejewelled earrings.
This year alone, she has a number of contrasting projects on the go – from anthology film Berlin, I Love You; to crime thriller Anna; and Lasse Hallstrom’s much-anticipated The Nutcracker And The Four Realms.
“I never think of it as reinventing myself,” Mirren says, “because I have always – hopefully – chosen very different things to do, very different projects.
“I hope as an actor, in that sense, I’ve been constantly reinventing myself or at least giving the audience a surprise.”
She certainly has, although since starting her acting career with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967, there’s one regal role with which she will forever be associated.
One of the few performers to receive the Triple Crown of Acting, Mirren took home the Academy Award for Best Actress for her incredible portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in the film The Queen; before going on to receive an Olivier Award and Tony Award for the same starring role on stage in The Audience.
Now headed to Sky and HBO to play Russian Empress Catherine the Great in a mini-series, she is, by all standards, royalty in her field. It is important, then, that she too stepped out in all black at this year’s Golden Globes. An advocate of the #Time’s Up movement, does it feel like a revolution is coming?
“Yes, it does,” she answers candidly. “The revolution has been coming, very slowly, creaking along, little bit by little bit, incrementally.
“Only eight years ago, one started seeing women behind the camera. And I don’t mean as directors, but also as cameramen and sound people.
“When I started off on film, literally 99% of people on the set were male and I could never quite communicate to my male friends what it’s like every day, of your career, of your working life, to walk into an environment that is 99% male.
“I said, ‘Imagine, every day for year after year you’re dealing with an environment that’s 99% female’ and they went ‘Oh yeah, I suppose that’s true’,” remembers Mirren, who is married to American film director Taylor Hackford.
“It just never dawned on them. So it’s great to see that finally, finally changing,” she says. “I think that what happened in Hollywood, and now has spread to all kinds of professions, is a seismic shift in the culture and it’s fantastic.”
Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built (15) is out in cinemas today.