Queen gels with comedy King
The screen partnership of enduring sex symbol Helen Mirren and controversial comic Russell Brand transcends any gulf in experience, or age, says Evan Fanning
Russell Brand and Helen Mirren seem to come as a double act these days. Over the past few months they've been almost inseparable on-screen and off. They appeared together in The Tempest, released earlier this year, presented an award together at the Oscars and are now starring alongside each other in Arthur, not to mention touring the world together to promote the film.
For Mirren's sake it's just as well that Brand is a now happily married man rather than the lothario of yesteryear. "I'm stumbling along in his wake, trying to keep up but not succeeding," is how Mirren describes her time on the road with the 35-year-old.
You would suspect that Mirren, who will be 66 in July, may have been a sort of matriarchal figure to Brand during the lengthy periods they have spent working and travelling together (she certainly is on-screen where she plays Arthur's nanny Hobson) but she insists nothing could be further from the truth.
"No, not motherly," she says emphatically when it's put to her. "I'm not a motherly sort of person and never have been. But I had incredible fondness and respect and love for the person I'm playing with. It was easy to look at him with love and permanent amusement, but the charm has to be there and, for me, Russell is an incredibly charming person."
In retrospect, thinking Mirren may have a motherly quality was probably a mistake. She has been in a relationship with the director Taylor Hackford since 1986 (they married 11 years later) but they have no children together (Hackford has two from a previous marriage). Throughout her life the one thing she has been unable to escape is her portrayal as a sex symbol. It has literally bridged generational gaps.
A recent Guardian interview with Mirren recalled her first interview with the paper in 1969, an interview which prompted her to write a letter of reply bemoaning the focus on her as a sex symbol saying this image is something that "will be following me around for something like the next seven or 10 years". Try 42 years and counting.
This year, she has mostly been reprising roles made famous by Sir John Gielgud, firstly as a female Prospero in The Tempest and latterly as Hobson in Arthur.
"I think it's just a sign of the times," says Mirren. "It used to be 20 or 30 years ago that you were only ever the girlfriend, or maybe the mother. Then you were the girlfriend, the mother or the boss. Now there is a constant broadening of the understanding of what women are in the world, and therefore, what we see them play in film. It was fantastic that they decided to change that role to a woman and that I got to play it.
"It's funny about my weird relationship with John Gielgud. It is as if he's my funny guardian angel. He did play Prospero in The Tempest and our paths have crossed in peculiar ways for the whole of my life."
Brand's interaction with legends of the past is an altogether more cultivated affair. He admits that his motivation for starring in a remake of Arthur was Dudley Moore's involvement in the much-loved original. "He is a hero of mine and I love the original film and I thought it was a wonderful offer."
At 6ft 2in, Brand is an imposing presence you hear coming from down the hall. He stops to admire a piano in the lobby and is told it once belonged to Liberace.
"It ain't?" he says in his slightly affected Essex drawl adding, "actually he probably played on loads of pianos. He was a slut pianist."
As a personality, Brand is the sort of complex character of the kind that harks back to the era of Peter Sellers, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, when comic stars had complicated relationships with their home country which in turn led to dalliances of varying degrees of success with the US.
The tabloids like to peg him as "Shagger of the Year" or some sort of Frankie Boyle-style comic who will pull a nasty prank of the kind that landed Brand and Jonathan Ross in trouble after the series of telephone messages left on actor Andrew Sachs's answering machine, because it is the easier narrative for them to pursue.
And while they have been pursuing it, with some venom much of the time, particularly in the wake of Sachs-gate, Brand has pursued his kicks elsewhere, making inroads in Hollywood thanks to an alliance with the Judd Apatow school of comedy (Apatow staples such as Jonah Hill and Bill Hader regularly appeared as guests on Brand's BBC2 radio show).
It's led to roles in films such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall and its spin-off Get Him to the Greek, as well as a role alongside Adam Sandler in Disney's 2008 Christmas comedy Bedtime Stories.
Along the way he has become an almost household name in America thanks to two highly controversial gigs presenting the MTV Awards as well as his much-publicised marriage to Katy Perry.
As is the case elsewhere Brand divides opinion in the US and his performance in Arthur has come in for some criticism so scathing you would have to wonder if there is not a personal vendetta behind much of it. He denies that these reviews or comparisons with Moore's portrayal of Arthur have any effect on him.
"My attitude in life is this: you can only control your own life and your own actions. You can't control the outcome of it. If you define yourself by the way people will react to you then your life will fall apart. So you just have to do your best and then just carry on," he says.
There are certainly parallels between the character of Arthur, a billionaire whose life is a non-stop orgy of hedonistic indulgence, and Brand who is now more than six years sober after conquering a drug addiction which brought him to a place where, as he told Piers Morgan in a television interview last weekend, he was six months away from "prison, a lunatic asylum or death".
In a sense, the moral of the film could be the need to capitalise on what you are given in life and not to squander your opportunities. That is something Mirren feels is an unavoidable part of life's learning curve.
"You can't sit outside of yourself and watch yourself. Quite honestly I think a part of life is squandering stuff. We can't all be good all the time. Maybe it's a mistake but mistakes are not such an awful thing really, as long as you learn from them and you move on from them.
"Your parents always say this thing about squandering your talents. But do you know what? Go away, leave me alone. Let me live my life. I do think it is a part of growing up. Maybe it's not squandering, maybe it's actually learning about life."
Brand feels somewhat differently. "But what about George Best, for example?" he asks of Mirren. "Did he squander his god-given talent as a footballer? Some would say that he did but others would say that there was something incredibly beautiful and romantic about the element of self-destruction in George Best. What about William Blake, the great British genius, who said that the road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom? Perhaps there is something defiant in self-destruction when we know that ultimately death awaits us. To take the pleasure from the grim reaper before he can have his icy hand upon our shoulder to destroy.
"Perhaps one could equate it in fact to the Zen Buddhist practice of making those elaborate sand gardens before the next day brushing them away because perfection will only be destroyed anyway regardless of how beautiful you may be. Inevitably, ineluctably through time we will deteriorate."
It's a typical piece of Brand dialogue, a meandering tale which starts off with George Best and ending with Zen Buddhists, all the while you can almost see and hear the excitement in his delivery as the ideas come rushing into his head.
As quickly as he can draw on philosophical eloquence he is able to switch to slightly crass comedy. It's part of the Russell Brand enigma.
"What f**king cheek," Brand states when he hears that Mirren has not been invited to the royal wedding despite winning an Academy Award for her performance in The Queen.
Mirren disagrees. "I'm not the queen. I'm sorry to disappoint but I'm not the actual queen. I'm Helen Mirren."
Brand takes on mock outrage. "Well you can give that f**king Oscar back then."
Arthur is now showing
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