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The Debt - Helen Mirren interview

The Debt

Interview by Rob Carnevale

HELEN Mirren talks about the appeal of playing a Mossad agent in John Madden’s The Debt and why she enjoyed working with Jessica Chastain as her younger self.

She also discusses why it proved invaluable to be able to film in Tel Aviv and reveals why that bikini photo continues to haunt her…

Q. What was the appeal for you?
Helen Mirren: Great story, you know, really interesting story. Lovely role, because we’re selfish and self interested and you want good roles to play. And then John Madden, who I’d worked with before on Prime Suspect – before he did Shakespeare In Love. But a great director, so that’s a combination you don’t say no to.

Q. Did you have to work with the younger actors to develop seamless accents and mannerisms?
Helen Mirren: John decided we should all do this with a very slight Israeli accent. It’s always an interesting question when you’re playing maybe a Russian or an Israeli or a French person, but you’re doing it in an English-language film. In theory, you’re actually speaking Hebrew to each other, but you’re using English because it’s an English-language film. Should you be speaking English with an English accent? Or American? John made the decision to really point up the fact that we’re actually Israelis, so just to use a slight Israeli accent and then we had a very good dialect coach. But she had a lot of different voices to deal with and she worked on bringing out our accents together so we became seamlessly one, at least from one country. And then Jessica [Chastain] and I did work together to find little habits, little physical things that we could do to give the effect of this being one person.

Q. Have you continued your self defence classes?
Helen Mirren: I’m afraid it was a bit…… I didn’t take any self defence classes, Jessica did. She had to do the fight stuff. I do have a fight in it, we called it the geriatric fight, between a 60-year-old woman and an 80-year-old man. It’s really hard to get up once you’re down. So, I didn’t do that fantastic fighting.

Q. Is now the right time for a mature, female James Bond character?
Helen Mirren: That would be cool, wouldn’t it? What’s Dame Judi’s character? A movie all about M would be great.

Q. What were your experiences in Tel Aviv like, both from a political and practical point of view, and were the locals at all upset that you were remaking a well regarded movie of theirs?
Helen Mirren: So often you shoot in Toronto and it’s supposed to be New Orleans, or you’re in New Orleans and it’s supposed to be New York. Toronto is never Toronto, but you’re so often shooting in the wrong place that it’s invaluable to be in the right place. I don’t know what it is, it’s really hard to articulate. Obviously, for the filmmaker it’s great because you have the authentic background, and also the light and the feeling of the light is so important. But for the actor it’s just something that you’re soaking up some feeling from the people around you.

I thought it was absolutely brilliant, and it gives the film a feeling of authenticity and veracity that I think it needs. As I felt when I watched the Israeli film, I thought: “I never read about this in the newspaper, that story must have come out on a day that I didn’t read the paper.” It has this real sense of ‘did this really happen?’ and I certainly felt that watching the Israeli film and I think that’s one of the strengths of our movie, it has that feeling that this could have happened. And therefore to shoot in Israel gives us an enormous amount of help in that direction.

Q. Have you been haunted by anything in your own past?
Helen Mirren: I think the thing that will haunt me for the rest of my life is that bloody photograph of myself in a bikini, which in and of itself is a lie. I don’t actually look like that, and I know that is going to haunt me forever and I will be forever trying to bury it unsuccessfully.

Read our review of The Debt

Read our interview with John Madden