One’s a sex symbol with a superstar lifestyle. The other’s Russell Brand. Stylist talks to Essex’s greatest exports about their continued double act.
There is something magical about the perfect double act. You can’t manufacture it, when it fails it’s a disaster (Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier in 1957’s The Prince And The Showgirl anyone?) but when it works, it means seriously big box office figures. Which is why the pairing of enfant terrible Russell Brand (a former self-confessed sex addict) opposite Helen ‘Oscar-winner’ Mirren in this month’s remake of Arthur is so inspired. The pair are the perfect foils for each other – quick-witted, naturally funny and the embodiment of English eccentricity.
Strangely, when arranging the meeting the pair have chosen a very American setting for our interview. The SLS Hotel in Los Angeles’ Beverly Hills is all polished mirrors and monochrome and a gaggle of perfectly uniformed staff standing in hushed corners. It’s into this elegant and quiet scene that Mirren arrives first. She daintily sits on the edge of the plush sofa, sweetly complimenting my bright yellow handbag (“very Sixties”).
Then, a few minutes later, Brand arrives in a whirlwind of ridiculously electric energy. Within seconds, he’s sprawled along the length of the chaise longue, feet up, head back. Helen immediately bounces off his eccentric, boyish charm. She leans forward to ask with faux concern, “Do you want a cushion, darling, under your head? Shall I be nannyish?”
Both from Essex – yes really – it’s clear this is a pair with history. They first met filming The Tempest in Hawaii in 2009, reinterpreting Shakespeare’s classic tale of power and magic. But I’m not here to talk about Prospera and Trinculo. More recently the pair teamed up again for this month’s remake of Arthur, the 1981 hit starring Dudley Moore.
Remakes have, to be kind, a habit of being poor relations to the original. But with Brand joyfully gallivanting his way through the role of a lovable drunk about to inherit half of Manhattan if only he marries the right woman, and with Mirren as his nanny Hobson, it offers a new take on the story, with Mirren taking over the role which acting legend John Gielgud won his only Oscar for.
Their chemistry, the blend of her queenly elegance and his push-the-limits-until- they-crack unconventionality, isn’t just reserved for the big screen. Brand loves Mirren so much he dedicated a whole chapter of his second autobiography Booky Wook 2 to her, calling it ‘Mummy Helen’, and detailing not only his immense respect for her but, in his typical fashion, some rather unmentionable references about what he’d like to do with her Oscar (which she won for her very proper portrayal of the Queen). But Mirren can give as good as she gets…
Despite Brand’s horizontal approach to the interview, Mirren remains vertical. The Oscar winner is perched neatly in a chair, legs crossed, dressed in a prim pink cardigan and a short pink gingham silk skirt, looking like a piece of extremely poised, elegant candy. Until, that is, she proceeds to pour a cup of coffee all down herself. “Oh Helen, let me get you a wipe,” says a delighted Russell. “No don’t bother,” she replies, “I’ll just look like I’ve wet myself.” And so we begin.
Russell, you were asked to star in this film then you brought Helen on board. How did that come about?
RB: Well when it’s a remake, people start assuming you’re going to replace John Gielgud with a bloke – who will you get, Michael Gambon, Anthony Hopkins? As soon as I said, “I’ll get a woman”, there was obviously only one choice. And the whole movie opened up once you imagined Helen in that role. As an actor it gave me much more interesting things to play in my relationship with a mother figure.
Helen, did you jump at the chance?
HM: Well I kind of jumped, but with terrible trepidation. Mostly because it was Russell! [Russell shouts, “The nerve of you, woman!”] We had worked on The Tempest together but never really spent any time together until this. Russell is quite an intimidating person, because he’s so brilliant and extraordinary and rock’n’roll and I feel so boring and ordinary next to him. So it was quite scary. And I’m not very good at edgy, modern comedy. But in the film meeting I saw this incredibly bright and interesting person making this thing happen – and I fell in love.
Russell, what was your first impression of Helen?
RB: Well with people you’ve been aware of your whole life – you know the cultural real estate that Helen occupies… Agitator of the male; Oscar winner; sexy; there’s a lot of… baggage seems pejorative, but, there’s a big reputation. I felt daunted, but the heartening thing is when you meet heroic people often you find they’re able to be ordinary. Helen grew up in Essex and me and all my old mates who work with me still are from Essex, so we all got on wonderfully. Helen is very gentle and fun to be around. And then working, one of the things I find with her – I haven’t worked with loads of brilliant actors, Helen’s the most notable – but we’d be doing a scene and I’d think [does huffy voice], “Pah, she ain’t doing much, I’m carrying this,” and then you’d see it on the monitor, and go, “F***ing hell! That looks so much better on the screen!” There is stuff that they know, people like Helen. It’s not fair.
Did Russell change into character as soon as the director called action, or was he just playing himself?
HM: No, he was just him. But I think he found a character that’s not really Russell because Russell is not really childish.
Or spoilt, or rich...
HM: Well, he’s quite spoilt. And quite rich actually. He found this delightful childlike quality in Arthur, when he is very grown-up. I haven’t seen the movie, but if it works, it’s because of that. You could as an audience go, “Oh f**k off you spoilt t**t, get out of my face,” so you have to be charming. So I think that’s what Russell did.
RB: I remember growing up not having money and there’s a resentment towards people that do. But I once went to Oxford University and the students were so lovely that I thought it was beautiful that they had such a lovely institution. I didn’t feel a sense of resentment or that we should smash down this gorgeous university and build mess halls for the proletariat. Nobility is a trait as well as a class of people. So there’s a sense that Arthur is decent, that he has some humanity.
Helen, was Russell just ad-libbing on set? Because some of his lines sound like classic Russell Brand lines.
HM: Of course they are. Almost all of them are! Some of the most genius improvisations – watching him on set you just went, jaw drop, oh, my, god. He just goes off and he’s so unbelievably brilliant and wise and smart. His best one was this rant about what it means to be English.
RB: Nations are like human beings – when you’re absent from them you start to recognise what is beautiful about them. English people, the music of The Smiths, West Ham United, walking down a Camden street and people shouting “Awright” at you out of vans. Here they shout “Hey get him to the Greek!” People always shout.
Russell, you’ve played Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him To The Greek, and now Arthur, both louche out-of-control characters who get drunk and seduce women. They seem reminiscent of your old life. Would it be harder to play somebody sober like you are now?
RB: Well I don’t know but this is what I think about: Aldous Snow was meant to be an author but they liked me so they made him more rock’n’roll, and then they liked him so much they gave him his own movie, so that’s really just one incident prolonged into two movies. And Arthur is a pre-existing piece of material. For me it’s no more typecasting than seeing Clint Eastwood with a gun. There are certain facets of people’s nature that play off. For me it’s no more difficult to say “I have a problem with alcohol” than “We’re having some problem with livestock down on the farm.”
We did get into bed with each other though. I mean, we did a scene in bed together. That was nice
Russell Brand the farmer? Are you thinking The Archers next, then?
RB: They’ve been in touch – as soon as they meet my financial demands, I’m going to rock that wireless.
You write in your second book about marriage [to singer Katy Perry] saving you.
RB: Well I think I was employing the same narrative conventions that Hollywood films employ to give you a more accessible storyline than the complicated nature of truth. Certainly, my life has improved dramatically as a result of being in love and getting married, cause otherwise why would I do it? So I suppose one can draw those comparisons.
You two didn’t go to each other’s weddings?
RB: Helen doesn’t come to people’s weddings.
HM: I wasn’t invited! I was hurt.
RB: It was in India Helen, you wouldn’t have come! I bought you that massive teddy bear and you gave it back!
HM: That hurt more than not being invited to Kate and Harry’s wedding.
RB: It’s Kate and William, Helen. You see if you knew the protagonists of the royal wedding, there might be a chance of you being invited.
So it wasn’t true the Queen had you round for tea?
HM: No, no, she had me for tea! Well, at Royal Ascot, not the palace.
RB: And she never mentioned The Queen to you, did she Helen?
HM: She only mentioned the film to the extent that she introduced me to the Sheikh of Bahrain at Ascot as, “This is Helen Mirren, she played me.”
RB: Oh my god!
HM: But back to Russell’s marriage, I have met Katy, and her parents, which was nice. They came to the set when we were filming. And then Katy and I were both on the same episode of [the US chatshow] Ellen but I didn’t get to say hello and I was very sad about that.
Helen, I have to ask, did Russell ever try it on with you?
HM: No I was hoping that he would, but he never did. We did get into bed with each other, didn’t we? I mean, we did a scene in bed. That was nice.
RB: That was nice. With everybody else still there, on set. But we did manage to create an igloo of intimacy. But there were people there and we are both adults in committed relationships so that would not have been the perfect opportunity, or time, to express ourselves in any way other than verbally.
HM: I do think Russell’s charm is absolutely a part of his nature. It is not remotely in any way calculated. From what little I’ve seen of his stand-up, it’s all a bit ‘eff off’, pushing himself out into another world, but the Russell you live with on a daily basis is an extremely kind and charming person. So different from the comedian who’s so challenging and edgy.
Do you have any examples of his kindness?
HM: Hundreds! We were shooting in unspeakably hot conditions and I never once heard Russell complain. On the contrary, he was making sure that everybody was OK. We shot a scene in a garage and Russell came back from the street with a little boy and his mum who had found out we had a Batmobile. They were on the set, looking at the Batmobile and Russell was so lovely with this boy, lovely to watch. And in Manhattan, where Russell is hounded by paparazzi, you never have a moment’s peace when you’re shooting because they’re in your face – everyone asking for autographs. It was so hot and awful, and Russell was consistently nice. He was amazing. And then he pushed this one photographer… and I could not believe that they arrested you! I was outraged!
RB: Were you Helen?
HM: I was so angry, it was outrageous. So unfair. So unfair. After seeing you go through that and then finally he’s got a moment’s peace to go off with your fiancée. Bastards. How dare they?
RB: I know, it’s a bloody nerve. They dropped the charges because it was absurd.
Helen, have you recovered from winning everything [in 2007 she received a Golden Globe, an Oscar and an Emmy]? Did you think ‘I should just give up now’?
HM: I did actually. I thought, ‘Wow, this is just amazing’. And I was very grateful it had happened now. Obviously you would love it to happen when you’re 28 but psychologically it’s a lot better to have it at this end, and think, well now I don’t have to do any more, it’s just for me if I do. That grating little thing of ambition, of proving yourself, has gone.
Do you still have that Russell? That grating little thing?
RB: I hope not but there are certainly things I’d like to achieve.
RB: I’d like to be able to do what I want. All the time.
Arthur is out nationwide 22 April. Watch the trailer to see the dynamic duo in action.
Words: Sophie Heawood, main picture credit: Rex Features