The legendary Helen Mirren talks about hitting the road in The Leisure Seeker

by Andrew Parker

I don’t think Helen Mirren needs any sort of flowery introduction. One of the most luminous, celebrated, and noteworthy talents in the history of all media, the British performer has appeared hundreds of times on screens big and small, dabbling in almost every sort of medium or genre that’s ever been created. Although her career took off in the 1960s and her status as a legend of the performing arts solidified sometime in the 90s, 72-year old Mirren has shown no sign of slowing down and no desire to stop making eclectic, fulfilling career decisions, appearing in everything from the horror tinged Winchester, the bombastic Fast and the Furious franchise, the military thriller Eye in the Sky, and several turns as various members of the British royal family in the past decade alone. Point blank: there’s no one like Helen Mirren, and simultaneously there’s no one who can perform at the level she consistently reaches with her performances, no matter how big or small.

This weekend, audiences can find Mirren on the big screen in the bittersweet road trip comedy The Leisure Seeker, which premiered at Venice and TIFF last fall. Mirren and Donald Sutherland star as Ella and John Spencer, an elderly, married couple from Weymouth, Massachusetts who’ve grown tired of waiting to die at home and make the decision to take their 1975 Winnebago out for a final trip down to Key West, Florida. John is suffering from increasingly problematic dementia, and Ella finds herself living on borrowed time due to a terminal illness. While their adult children (Janel Moloney and Joshua Mikel) fret over their parents’ decision to fly from the nest, John and Ella do their best to enjoy the time they have left together.

We were honoured to sit down with Helen Mirren last fall while she promoted The Leisure Seeker at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her experiences with road trips, starring in the English language debut of Italian writer-director Paolo Virzì, and how films about senior citizens have become unnecessarily condescending.

Helen Mirren: So sorry to keep you waiting. We had to get through the traffic from the baseball game.

That’s okay. I think it would have been fine if I had to wait until you watched to the end of the game.

Helen Mirren: (laughs) Well, at least I was sort of wearing Toronto colours for the game.

Did you have to drive over here in the actual Leisure Seeker from the film? I couldn’t imagine driving that in the downtown core of a city.

Helen Mirren: (laughs) You know, I think they wanted to bring it up here for publicity, and I think it would have been fun, but that poor old girl is a bit like me. She’s a bit creaky in the joints. Her brakes are gone, the gears don’t work. It was tough, and in this traffic I’d have probably just parked it on the street, gone in the back, had a cup of tea, and had you all just come outside to meet me there.

So have you ever RV’d in your life before?

Helen Mirren: No. I’ve never RV’d. My sister in England has a caravan, but it’s one of those sort of permanent caravans. She loves it, though. She goes every weekend to her caravan. We do both share a bit of a penchant for caravanning, but I have never done a trip in an actual RV.

And after this experience on the film?

Helen Mirren: To be honest, it kind of put me off a bit. (laughs) The romantic idea of it is one thing, but the reality of it is something altogether different. The idea of pulling into a place to sleep, having to attach the electricity and water to a source, to have to break everything up and pack it all up again, that’s quite a challenge, really. And most of the time you’re just in this ghetto of other caravans. You’re THIS close to the other family, and you’re not exactly “roughing it” then, are you?

But I do love a good road trip. My husband and I took a road trip from New Orleans to Charleston across the Southern United States, and that was fabulous. It was really, really great.

Do you and your husband tend to clash over what music plays in the car?

Helen Mirren: My husband is a much more musical person than I am. I’ve never been very musical. When I’m in the car, I’m usually fine with some classical music playing. But because he’s so into music, I’ve found that what he tends to do is listen to the same song over and over AND OVER again. For the longest time in the car it was Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders, and it was just the same song of theirs for, like, three hours. I should remember which song it was because he played it so many times and for so many hours, but I think I’ve blocked it out. I’m so unmusical that I can barely remember any sort of musical things.

One of the things that I love about The Leisure Seeker is that it’s a kind of road trip movie featuring senior citizens that I haven’t seen before. Most films about older people tend to go for easy jokes along the lines of, “Oh, they don’t understand technology” or “They’re clueless as to what’s going on in the world around them.” But here, the main characters are smart, intelligent, literate people who understand perfectly well what life is like in modern times. What’s it like getting a script like this? Because I can imagine that something with that sort of perspective would be a bit of a rarity in this sort of genre.

Helen Mirren: Yes! I find that generally the attitude and approach to older people in films like this in the way you’re defining to be so insulting to the audience. You’re absolutely right. It’s so condescending. In general, people really do tend to be insulting and condescending towards older people, and it enrages me whenever I see that happen in real life, so why should we see it on screen? Not that people deserve or command respect simply for being older. No, absolutely not. But there should be that recognition that this person in front of you is of equal value to yourself – or maybe more because of what they’ve experienced in their life. I find that tendency in so many stories to be really, really annoying.

But in terms of this movie, it was such a lovely, gentle, comedic, humane, and respectful approach and context to this particular story. I find that when you talk about films about elderly people you don’t quite get that. (laughs) And in some ways, I think when I talk about this film it might not even come across because I think people are expecting just what you outlined. It’s hard sometimes to describe that this isn’t that kind of film that turns people like us off.

You have a wonderful chemistry with Donald Sutherland in the film. What was it like working on that?

Helen Mirren: I think that Donald loves women, and I don’t mean that crassly or crudely at all. Some men really don’t like women or like working with women all that much. Some men find working with women to be difficult and a challenge, and Donald isn’t like that. Donald loves women, and I suspect he’s loved women all of his life, and that hasn’t diminished. (laughs) I think he’s the same person now that he was when he was thirty. He’s very generous to women, and he certainly was to me.

I think a question that a lot of people wrestle with as they get older is which would be worse: to lose control of your body or lose control of your mind, and in the film you and Donald have to look at both sides of that. And your characters make a bold decision to live life how they want to live with the time they have left, which is also a novel approach that’s handled very delicately here.

Helen Mirren: I think so, too. It’s very brave what these characters do. Absolutely. Very brave, but also essential for them at this point in their lives, I think. One of the things that I love about the film is that you could go out on the streets right now, stop any person, and every single person would have a very similar story about someone in their lives, be it their parents, grandparents, or themselves. Not necessarily going on the road, mind, but of going through this particular passage of life that we go through. Every one of us will. I will. You will. We all will. And through our grandparents, parents, and loved ones, we realize over time that we will experience this several times over before we even experience it ourselves. It’s one of the great passages of life. It’s a strong subject to make a film about.

We sometimes – as we get older – start to think that we’re the parents of our parents, but what’s great about this movie is that it’s about a couple that refuses to be defined anymore in these terms. Obviously, they went through a period, as we all do, where we’re defined by our children – and at some point by our children’s’ children – and at a certain point I think there has to be a moment where one reclaims their own sense of individuality. It’s no longer about being defined as “mother,” “aunt,” or “grandmother.” You have come back to being the individual you were when you were eighteen. It’s another chance for you to discover yourself, but one with the added benefit of everything you have learned over the course of your life. You can’t deny that experience and how it has developed you. In the film, our couple finds out secrets about each other, and it’s not a nice, lovely, easy sail into the sunset, but they both learn a lot about themselves once they’ve redefined who they are back down to the essence of being human beings and coming away from those labels.

Your character of Ella is almost this sort of Southern belle who has been transported to New England, and that could have been a bit of a caricature. How did you keep her from becoming that?

Helen Mirren: I never saw her that way just because she’s from the south. She’s certainly a simple person. She’s not an intellectual, and not a grandstanding person, but she’s still a smart person. She’s someone who perhaps because of her upbringing just loves other people and is a bit garrulous. She loves the art of communication, and most importantly, she loves the world. She’s definitely a “cup half full” kind of person, rather than a “cup half empty” sort of person, and that was always how I saw her.

Is it a different sort of experience working on a film about a quintessentially American road trip that’s being made by an Italian filmmaker?

Helen Mirren: Yes! Absolutely, and it’s fantastic. A foreign eye, let alone an Italian one, on a culture, community, landscape, and language is always a wonderful thing. It brings out sides of the world that we don’t see, or ones that might take me for granted. Thinking about that always brings me back to Midnight Cowboy, made by John Schlesinger, which might be one of the best examples of how an outsider redefined a city on cinema. Everyone had seen New York and had their own impressions of it, but no one had seen it in that light. It took this Englishman to come along and say, “Hey guys, this is what New York is to me.”

That’s what Paolo is doing with his movie here, and I very much feel that while it’s an English language film and shot in America, it feels like an Italian film in so many ways. It has an Italian sensibility. It has a gentle sensibility and a very loving eye. It’s not cynical, harsh, cold, or unnecessarily clever. It’s so not a German movie. (laughs) It’s not intellectual. It’s not a French movie. It’s not a “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” American movie. It’s very much an Italian movie, and I have always wanted to be IN an Italian movie. And finally, I did it! (laughs)

The Leisure Seeker opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Friday, March 16, 2018. It opens in Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, and Waterloo on March 23, and in Halifax, Winnipeg, and Victoria on March 30.

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