"Oh gosh, where do you start with that?"
"No, not actually the language -- the thought," Mirren replied. "The thought that the language is carrying. The understandings about life that are so amazing."
Her interest in the stage concerned her parents at first. But after a stunning performance as -- what else? -- a queen, in "Cleopatra," she was invited to join the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company.
"It was like riding a big, powerful horse," she said, of playing Margaret in "Henry VI." "All the other times I've been on that Shakespeare horse, it was like, 'Oh my God, you know, I can't do this.' And suddenly, I could control the horse."
Since then, she's gone on to play all manner of strong women.
She went from ruling subjects to serving them in "Gosford Park." And in the action franchise "Red," Mirren wields a different kind of authority.
And she won rave reviews for her portrayal of an alcoholic detective in the British TV series, "Prime Suspect."
Often, her roles are heavy on intellect as well as sex appeal. Early on, Mirren got a reputation as "The thinking man's sex symbol" -- a title that she's never quite been able to shake.
Cowan asked, "Did you ever get sick of people talking about it?"
"Of course I got sick of it," she said. "It's annoying, yes, absolutely. And here you are asking me about it yet again. Every time. It's inevitable!"
In the '60s and '70s, she says, sexism came with the territory: "It took women quite a long time, I think, to fight their way out of that and learn the wonderful words, 'F*** off!'"
"Do you think you learned those early enough?" Cowan asked.
"No, I didn't learn them early enough. No, I didn't."
She certainly could hold her own, though. When an early interviewer suggested she was more seductress than serious actress, Mirren was quick to put him in his place:
Michael Parkinson: "Do you find that what can best be described as your equipment hinders you in that pursuit?"
Mirren: "I'd like for you to explain what you mean by my equipment. In detail."
Parkinson: "I mean your physical attributes."
Mirren: "You mean my fingers?"
"I was impressed with myself," she said. "I thought, Wow, you know, you're quite funny, you didn't lose your temper. And you handled it quite well actually. I was surprised."
She was just 30 then; she'll be 70 this July.
The Academy Award-winner has been around long enough to know that the red carpet treatment doesn't always last in Hollywood, which is why she still savors her moment.
"You're on this fantastic merry-go-round," she said. "There's all color and lights and people looking at you -- and then you're through, and off at the end. And you're back in the mud on your hands and feet thinking, 'What happened to me?'"
So far, however, what's happened to Helen Mirren has been royally grand. She hopes her crowning achievement is still to come.
"The fun is to learn," she said. "To just keep that learning process going."
"And it still is for you?"
"Yeah, of course, absolutely. Absolutely."
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