Q&A: Dame Helen Mirren, Star of The Last Station

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Dame Helen Mirren

It was only two years ago that Dame Helen Mirren was building up serious momentum in what was ultimately a successful Best Actress Oscar run for The Queen. Mirren is attracting similar raves this year as Leo Tolstoy's wife Countess Sofya in The Last Station. Aristocratic, yes, but the temperamental Countess Sofya is no Windsor. Heading into Golden Globes weekend with a Best Actress nomination, Mirren talked to TIME about gracious award speeches, fiery plate throwing and the half a night she spent in a brothel.

TIME: Last we saw you, you were the very reserved queen, and now you're throwing dishes at your husband Tolstoy — isn't your audience going to get whiplash?

Mirren: Yes, indeed. That was the pleasure of the role. Those roles don't come along very often, especially following the Queen. And when it was sent to me it wasn't sure the movie was going to be made. It was very much: if it was made, would you join? I said absolutely.

How much china did you throw in that explosive argument scene?

We didn't have a big budget, so we didn't have a lot of china. I remember the props people grabbing plates and putting bits back together again. It went great when we filmed it. And then three days later they said, You've got to film it again. Because it got ruined in the bath — that's what it's called when the film is sent off to get processing. It happens once in a blue moon that it gets destroyed. So we had to shoot that scene, and the whole day's work again. That was devastating. But luckily it was just as good, if not better the second time.

You say to your daughter in the film something like "I've had children that have died, why couldn't one of them have been you?" That's one of the greatest horrible lines ever.

It was horrible. And then I realize I've said the most horrible thing in front of hundreds of people. That's the nature of this woman, it just comes out.

It hurts me to even say it. Was it hard for you?

Luckily I don't have any children so it didn't go into me like that. It was the most appalling thing to say. But I suspect it's the sort of thing that within family, people are capable of saying. Nothing is quite so emotional and passionate as what goes on inside of a family. People are driven to distraction by a father or a mother or a husband. Or a child.

It's fascinating in this film to see Tolstoy and his wife being shot by early paparazzi, which really happened. Do you get it much?

The camera had just been invented, so it was this new technology and people were like wow, you can take film of people.

I don't get much of that. It's funny they pick on certain people. I know that I worked with James [McAvoy] on this film. And they don't bug him either. Yet they bother Britney Spears. It's weird. But you go to the supermarket. You live your life normally. If you do that, they have no interest whatsoever.

I've noticed that you and the Brits really know how to nail those award speeches. Is award-speech-giving taught in British schools?

Don't! That's such pressure! Now if I ever accept something again in my life, I'm going to be like, Oh my God! What am I going to say? I'm representing my country now.

I was very careful when I went through that whole process, a couple of years ago — I really tried to say something different each time and think of something a little bit funny. Sometimes I'm prepared, sometimes I'm not. In the beginning of the process I met Emma Thompson at an award show. She told me, don't worry, but be prepared. Write something, learn it. So if you don't know what to say, you have that. And that's the best advice. I did sort of do that. I didn't always use it, but I had it. Because when that moment comes, everything falls apart. And I'm not talking about the Oscars, but all of them. It's nerve-wracking.

What's your red carpet tip?

You have got to be prepared to answer the most obvious question with grace and as if you've never been asked that before. You get "How are you feeling?" every time. But you have to answer it as if you have never heard it before. Be prepared. Have a lot of energy. Enjoy it. Feel open and warm. And you'll be fine.

Your next movie deals with a real-life American brothel. I understand your husband, the director, had you spend the night in the brothel?

Not the whole night, but until like 2 a.m. What did you learn?

I learned so many things. It's utterly self-contained; it's like being in a little space capsule in the middle of space. You never know what time of day it is or night because there is no natural light. So there's a real feeling of going into a complete world.

You learn all the different reasons why women become prostitutes, and there are many. Some of them love it, some of them don't — they're making money. There are so many different personalities. They were very generous and welcoming and that surprised me. I loved the girls.

So that was a real departure from The Queen. Yes, it was a big departure from The Queen. Although, not altogether. The madam of the brothel is very much the queen bee of her world — the queen of that world. So there was a kind of similarity.

I guess they are just very different kingdoms.

Now don't be saying the Queen of England is anything like the madam. I'm not saying that. I'm saying the madam is like a queen, a very different thing.