Smart, strong-willed and seriously stylish, Dame Helen Mirren has made a career out of playing determined women, from Prime Suspect’s DCI Jane Tennison to her Oscar-winning performance in The Queen. Furthermore, the 70-year-old actress has stuck two fingers up at Hollywood’s apparent ageism, calling it ‘f**king outrageous’, adding: ‘I don’t give a damn about getting older.’ The major film roles keep on coming, and in her latest movie, spy thriller Eye In The Sky, she takes the lead as a military intelligence officer in charge of eliminating terrorists with drones – a character that was originally written for a man. Starring opposite her is the late Alan Rickman, who sadly passed away in January, aged 69. ‘This was his last movie,’ says Dame Helen. ‘I’m still in a state of shock over his death.’

A natural-born hell-raiser, she sports a tattoo on her left hand – a result of getting ‘very, very drunk’ as a young woman – and admits she took LSD, albeit just once, in her twenties. She’s also known to make grown men weak at the knees. Flirting up a storm with Gerard Butler on stage at the Oscars and with Ryan Reynolds on the red carpet last year, she recently reduced Late Show host Stephen Colbert to a sweating, stammering wreck after greeting him on the set of his US talk show with a sultry kiss on the lips! Aged 68, she was named the face of L’Oréal Paris’s Age Perfect skincare – but the elegant star, who was brought up in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, dislikes being known for her beauty and prefers to use her fame to promote more serious issues, including sexism. Last year, she berated men who put their arms around women’s shoulders, saying: ‘It annoys me. It’s like ownership.’ And she has previously aired her dislike for describing women as ‘sassy’, calling it ‘insulting’.

Having lived with heartthrob actor Liam Neeson in the ’80s, Dame Helen began dating director Taylor Hackford in 1986 and they wed 11 years later. While Taylor, 71, has two grown-up children from previous marriages, he and Helen – who enjoy a ‘wonderful’ sex life according to the actress – don’t have children. They spend their time at their renovated farmhouse in Italy, where their ‘dear friend’ Richard Gere often visits. Here, Dame Helen chats about her new career as a farmer, her sadness at Alan Rickman’s passing and her secret to a successful marriage…

You starred with the late Alan Rickman in Eye In The Sky – his last ever film. What are your thoughts on his passing?

Alan was an extraordinary man, a brilliant actor, a very interesting and charming individual, and a truly decent person. Every time I think about him I can’t believe that he’s no longer with us. I’m still in a state of shock over his death.

What do you think he would have felt about Eye In The Sky?

Alan would have been incredibly proud that this is his last movie. What I love is that the Alan you see up on the screen is really close to the real Alan Rickman we all knew and loved. I still can’t believe I’m not going to see Alan again.

You turned 70 last summer. Do you attach any importance to that particular birthday?

No. Birthdays have never interested me. I don’t believe that one is more important than any of the previous ones. Between 69 and 70, what really changes? The only thing that occasionally strikes me with regard to age is that I’m surprised when I’m momentarily aware of it. I sometimes ask myself: ‘Where has my life gone?’ but then I simply appreciate that I’ve worked hard and tried to do interesting things.

Does it surprise you that you’re so busy with your career these days?

No. I might have been surprised if you told me when I was 50 that I’d be working as much as I am today. But times are changing and slowly there’s more recognition that women need to occupy a more important place in film.

Do you think there will be more roles for women in the future?

Yes, but it’s not enough to wonder why there are no roles for you. You need to fight. Women have always had to fight. It’s a constant struggle and I’m pleasantly surprised to be playing a military officer in this film. I’m also surprised, and delighted, when people address me as ‘Dame’ [laughs]!

You spend a lot of time at your home in Salento, Italy. What’s your life like there?

It’s very relaxed. We were driving through the region and suddenly we saw this lovely ruin in Tiggiano which we fell in love with at first sight. It’s taken a lot of work to renovate it and get the farm up and running. But my husband has kept encouraging me over many years and now I’m very proud of our home there.

Did you feel at home there straight away?

At the beginning it was very complicated and I was getting discouraged, but one day I was sitting on a bench and I saw a man passing by on a bicycle. For some reason that moment touched my heart. I thought, this is where I belong.

Is it true you’re cultivating pomegranates?

Yes. Apart from acting, my other job is that of a pomegranate farmer. My husband and I have planted over 400 pomegranate trees and we’re producing juice for the market.

How’s it going?

The juice is delicious. Our little company is still in the early stages, but we want to sell our juice in Italy and abroad. I love the people of Salento, I love Italy and I love the climate there. The first time I saw the full moon rising from the sea and shining on my pomegranates, I burst into tears.

You and your husband have been together for three decades now. What have you learnt from your life with him?

We’re very different, but I’ve learnt a huge amount from him, including returning phone calls. If he gets a phone call, he returns it immediately. He’s one of those detail-oriented people. I admire him very much. But then, it’s a two-way street. I’m sure he’s also learnt things from me.

What’s the secret to a long-lasting marriage?

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