• Interviews

Helen Mirren on Olive Trees, Strong Female Characters and “1923”

The Golden Globe-winner talks olive trees, strong female characters and 1923 on opening night of the ORA! Fest in Puglia, Italy

You have a summer residence in the southern part of Puglia, which is famous for its olive trees, many of which are unfortunately affected by a deadly bacteria. Did you lose any trees?

Helen Mirren: We don’t have a lot of olives like some people, but we had 80 olive trees that got hit with Xylella. We had to pull them out and we replanted them. We did that three years ago, and we replanted with a resistant species called Favoloso and they’re doing very well. But all around our Masseria there are thousands of acres of dead olive trees, thousands. They think they have lost or will lose 60 million trees. It’s a huge disaster. And I don’t think Italians are really sufficiently conscious of it. I know there are articles from time to time in newspapers, but to me, it’s like losing this beautiful building. If this building was, you know, crumbling and collapsing, you’d say, no, wait, we have to save this beautiful building. If the Colosseum in Rome was falling into the ground, you’d say, we have to save this.

Is this the reason you are part of an organization that is working to save this?

Well, to me, it’s the same history. These trees are 900 years old, before Garibaldi. These trees had been through world wars and all the history of Italy. They ARE the history of Italy. You can’t look at the people of Salento and say, oh, it’s your problem, because it’s much too big. Italy has to look at this problem. And I know they are. And I know because I’m a part of an organization called Save the Olives. So, we are very aware that there are people all around the world working on this issue. The farmers have to be helped. They can’t do it on their own. It’s too it’s just too massive a problem. So, for me, it’s Italy and indeed the rest of the world that have to step in and help these olive farmers and save the history of Italy.

This festival has dedicated its entire program to the environment, almost every feature, all the shorts and the masterclasses. It is the first festival that completely concentrates on the region’s heritage…

Yes, it’s very exciting. So often film festivals completely ignore where they are. You go to the Cannes Film Festival, and you could take the Cannes Film Festival and sort of plonk it down somewhere else, and it really wouldn’t make a difference. You’d have the red carpet and the photographers and the paparazzi. But this is very different. The roots of this festival are in this land. And so that’s what makes it special to me.

What can you as an actor do for the environment?

I can do what I’m doing now, which is talking and using my voice as much as I can. I don’t mean to be presumptuous. I know I’m not representative in any way except where and when I can, I will use my voice.

What was your first impression you when you bought the farmhouse in Salento?

Salento is very, very beautiful. And the most beautiful thing about Salento is, in fact the people of Salento. So, I’m very happy there and very comfortable. But when I first got there, I was very shocked by the amount of trash that people left in in the country. A city is one thing, but the people would just drop trash in the country. And that disturbed me because the countryside was so beautiful. It was like, why do you put your trash just by the side of the road? So, I did do a couple of advertisements with a friend of mine called Edoardo Winspeare, who is an Italian filmmaker. And together we did some commercials. They only showed them in Salento and the message was, just don’t put your trash in the street.

Interestingly we can connect this in a way to your series 1923 where the conflict between the capitalistic world and nature is also addressed

It’s very much a theme of 1923. Absolutely. If you think of the 1900s, it’s just the most extraordinary century. You think where the 20th century began, with no cars, no electricity and then the 20th century finished with technology, with computers, with the Internet. That’s in a hundred years. That’s extraordinary. And the 1920s are very, very interesting when the effects of the industrial revolution were beginning to be felt and the rise of capitalism. And the way we in the West treated the environment in our ignorance and stupidity. We’ve only really fairly recently woken up to what we’ve done to the environment. But yes, absolutely. It is very much a theme of 1923.

In recent Western TV series, there are changes in the roles between women and men. Here, you play a strong woman. Do you think that is due only to the gender equality conversation that is ongoing now?

Characters like that always existed. It wasn’t that they weren’t there. They just weren’t dramatized or shown in drama. As a part of my research for 1923, I read autobiographies of pioneer women. And what they did was extraordinary. Think of those women who walked across America to get to the West. They were incredibly strong. It’s just no one ever told their stories before. Their stories were ignored. It was only the stories of the men that were told. But it doesn’t mean that women weren’t extremely courageous and strong and strong-willed. And I try to portray that in my character.

Is there a side to your character that you think modern women should look at in particular?

Yes. I feel I have this, for example, with my husband. Women should always look to be a partner in a marriage, an equal partner. And that’s what we try to show in 1923. Obviously, I’m helped in that by Harrison Ford because without the actor that you’re playing with, having that attitude, it would be sort of impossible. And I think he sees women as partners. When you’re in that environment and fighting nature the way these people are and fighting death, death is very much a present part of their lives. You’re forced by the circumstances to do it as a partnership. If anything, Kara and Jacob are equal partners.

Do you think that these strong women of the past were often without a partner because men were intimidated, certainly even more than they are now?

Yes, I think I think that is true, absolutely. I do believe men still tend to be intimidated by strong, independent women.

Looking back, what advice would you as the strong, independent woman you are now give your younger self?

I wish I could say to my younger self, don’t worry, it’ll get better. Because it was a shock to me when I reached puberty, when I was 13 or 14. Up til then I hadn’t really noticed the world. And then I suddenly realized how life was stacked against women, how you had so little chance, so little opportunity to do to achieve anything. You were blamed for everything. You were vulnerable. When that realization started dawning on me at the age of 12,13, I was enraged. I was so angry because my parents had brought me and sister and my brother up equally. They always believed in us earning our own living, being financially independent. I didn’t come from a wealthy family. My father was a taxi driver. There was no money in the family. We all had to make our own way in life financially. My sister and I were raised to be financially independent and not to think, oh, a man will come along, and I’ll get married, and everything will be fine. I have learnt in my life that the thing that matters most is opportunity. Opportunity for men, for women, for races, genders, whoever it is, opportunity. And once you have the opportunity, if you choose to take it, then you can take it and then you can go with it. And if you choose not to take it, that’s another matter. But opportunity is everything. And even more so, I have to say, for a black actress, a thousand times more so. In that sense, I was comparatively lucky. Anyway, times are changing. It’s interesting.

Do you feel as women we’re slowly getting there?

I mean, the misogyny is always lurking. It’s always there under the carpet. If you raise the carpet there, it is crawling around, and it can come to the forefront very quickly and very easily. I’m really hoping that the battles have been fought and won by men and women and not excluding men from this at all over the last 20, 30 years. I’m hoping that they have fundamentally changed culture. But you never know. You look at the political triumphs of various politicians around the world and you think, my God, are we going back? Are we really going back to the 50s? I would say that’s the primary challenge, is to make sure that women continue forward.

Is it true you agreed on doing 1923 without reading the script?

I did.

And would it have changed if you had read it?

I definitely would have done it. I would have read that first scene and I would have said, yes, I’m doing this. It’s a powerful scene. Taylor Sheridan‘s writing is extraordinary. Each time we all get a script, we’re always very excited to see where the stories go and how it’s going to develop.

Have you ever done this before?

No, the first time. But I knew Taylor Sheridan’s work. And I knew Harrison who tells the story that he said yes, because I was in it. And I said I said, yes because he was in it.

Career-wise, do you have any regrets?

I have many regrets. But I have to live with them. You absolutely make mistakes in life, without question. But you certainly can’t go back and redo them. And the good thing is they give you wisdom, understanding. I wouldn’t like to have lived my life without mistakes.