Hailed for her Oscar-winning performance in 2007’s “The Queen,” Dame Helen Mirren reigns over the open road in her latest movie, “The Leisure Seeker.” The title refers to the 1975 Winnebago Indian that a retired couple commandeers for one final adventure, a leisurely trek from their New England home to Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, Florida. Mirren, 72, plays Ella Spencer, the devoted, albeit overwhelmed, wife of a college professor (Donald Sutherland) addled with Alzheimer’s disease. “It’s so nice when you forget to be forgetful,” she sighs during one of her husband’s increasingly infrequent moments of clarity.
What does “The Leisure Seeker” say about growing old in the 21st century?
People who are older have passion. They have appetites. They have everything that you have as a younger person—in an older body.
Any advantages to being older?
You’re wiser. If someone were to put a gun to my head and say, “Right now, you can choose to be 16 again,” I would say, “Absolutely not. I’ll stay where I am.” That is one of the remarkable self-truths about living life as a human being: Each age is kind of wonderful and seductive and interesting and challenging.
Do you approach your work differently now than when you were younger?
No, but I know more. So that’s a help.
“The Leisure Seeker” offers an unflinching look at a couple dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. That’s a tough subject in Hollywood, where most movies are all about the happy ending.
Films should reflect life. I’m sure I could walk out the door and stop the first person on the street and ask about their parents or grandparents or their aunts or uncles and find someone in their family who’s dealing with a major health issue. It’s a part of life.
What was it about your character, Ella, that struck your fancy?
I liked her openness, her energy, her gregariousness, her curiosity about life. She wasn’t someone giving up on life. This is someone who was fully committed and is actually the way she might have been when she was 20 or 30 or 40 or 50. I feel the same in my life. I don’t really feel any different than how I felt when I was 30 or 40 or 50. So I recognized something in her.
This is the first time you’ve worked with Donald Sutherland since 1990’s “Bethune: The Making of a Hero.” What was it like to reunite after nearly 30 years?
It was great. You know, I didn’t really feel that I worked with him the last time. I did scenes with him, but I had a very small part in that movie and he was a much bigger star than I was at that time. This time it was very different. But Donald hasn’t really changed and I suspect I haven’t really changed either. (Laughs)
You’ve become such a symbol of sexuality and strength for so many of your fans. Does that surprise you?
Yes, because I don’t see it—and I’m not so sure that’s true. I just carry on the way I do. I can’t control what other people think.
How does the Me Too movement against sexual harassment and assault resonate with you?
Like a bell—like a huge bell. I’m so angry that it didn’t happen 30 years ago. I wish that I could have partaken as a professional actor in the world that is about to be revealed to us in my particular profession.
What do you think will happen next?
There are cracks in the dam and the water is seeping through. Behind that dam there is energy, imagination and a lot of tapped resources that are about to, hopefully, loose themselves upon the culture.
Sexism and racism have been such hot-button topics lately. Is ageism the next barrier that needs to be addressed?
Probably. It is one of the isms that is raising its head. But ageism is not universal. Many cultures have the attitude that older people are to be listened to.
Hollywood seems to be getting the message. Not so long ago, a movie like “The Leisure Seeker” would never have been produced.
They realize there’s an audience out there that wants to see these movies. They’re my generation. We grew up in the 1960s, loving the movies as an art form—and then we were forgotten about as an audience. Now we’re being rediscovered and [producers] are trying to find more films that appeal to that audience.
Claire Foy predicts you’ll be playing Queen Elizabeth II in future seasons of “The Crown.” True?
No. There’s no truth to that.
Well, you’ve already played three queens—
And a few housekeepers.
Which are the most delicious roles for you?
You know, it’s always good to be queen. For a long time, women had to play queens because there were not that many complex, authoritative roles for women unless they were queens or something like that. And now that’s changing.
What are you working on next?
I’m going to be doing a film in England with Ian McKellen (“The Good Liar”). It’s a very interesting sort of thriller, quite dark but funny. And I just finished a film with Luc Besson (“Anna,” a French crime drama due out later this year).
Any thoughts of retirement?
I do think about it. But then another job comes along and I think, “Oh, that sounds like fun!”