helen mirren

The actress and her nephew tell Lynne Wallis how he became the son she never had.

"My grandmother had 14 kids, our mum had three, and my sister Kate and I have one between us, which is why Simon is so important. That's a hell of a shrinkage over three generations. I fell in love with Simon when he was a little boy. We used to call him "Tiger" after the old Shell adverts, and he was always very funny, never grumpy or a tortured soul. The main thing, the bond, is that he's my nephew, but we also get on incredibly well. If I do screen work I'll show it to Simon before I've even looked at it, and I've done that from before we even knew he could write. It's partly because I want to stay in touch with the young generation. Now, I get the tapes sent straight round to him when they come through.

Simon's mother and I became best friends after we both left home to go to college. The distance prompted our discover of each other, by phone mostly. Kate and Simon and I are always on the phone now.

Last year, when my mum died we all realised how much we rely on each other. When there aren't many of you it distils the experience down. We're all very close, but the appearance of Simon as a writer has taken us all by surprise, because we didn't know! He'd always told stories, but we had no idea he had all this inside him. It makes you realise you don't know children at all, and I can understand why parents get so hooked up on exams, because they are often the only measure you have of how they are progressing.

Kate and I both did well in exams, while Simon didn't, but his imagination is unbelievable and because he is instinctive, not intellectual, he is a 1,000 times better writer for not having had Chaucer forced down his throat at university. It would have ruined him, been a real tragedy. (I must say though, his spelling is so awful that not even spellcheck can spot the mistakes, because he'll spell "wear" as "ware").

The aunt/nephew relationship is a fab one, almost as good as being a grandmother. Simon is exactly like my son, except that he's not. There is no chastising, only spoiling, and you can be racy, and break all the rules. I've never wanted kids but I'm very happy to enjoy other people's, and I'm incredibly lucky to have Simon. Because he's been around us, he's not afraid of women and he's never an arsehole, like these neurotic men who are all messed up. It's just not in his nature, because he's so open.

Simon and I generally like the same things, but I'm more likely to enjoy an art gallery than he is, and I'm not as into music as him. We used to go out to trendy bars around London, because I love to see what young people are doing, and when he was a teenager he'd always have about five absolutely gorgeous boys around, real South London, you know. So handsome. Imagine! I remember young girls being absolutely vile when I was young, whereas Simon has always been so sweet. Perhaps it's an age gap thing, that they're nice to older people who can handle them.

I want to come back to England. I miss the rain, the cold, people in the street, and of course my family. I wish I'd picked up an accent, although I do say hooker and trash. God, what a life! I heard about some bad reviews when I was in LA about Painted Lady but I don't read them. Why go through the pain? I wanted it to be an almost gothic extravaganza, and I knew it was populist. Simon was the first to see it on tape. He would always express it delicately if he didn't like it. I can't stand brutal truth. I'm too fragile.

He's mercurial in temperament, emotional, and he will cry but he's also very manly and it's a wonderful mix. That was why he got on so well with Liam Neeson when we were together. Liam grew up around women and is very like Simon, blokish but emotional. Simon is also very protective and I could absolutely rely on him to fight my corner.

He never, ever calls me aunt, it's not allowed, but for about three years now I've said "It's your aunt" into the phone. He has become more and more important to me as we've got older, and it's easy to love a nephew unconditionally because at the end of the day it's not your investment. Our relationship isn't as fraught as parent/child because aunts aren't judgmental, but you do miss out too. I love Steve Martin's film Parenthood and at the end I was in floods of tears because I'll never know the pain and the pleasure of it - of parenthood.

I've never worried about my age except when I was 15 and I didn't want to be 18, unlike most girls who can't wait to grow up. Thirty-two is the best age because things just get better and better. People become more interesting from about 25 - they develop character and their personalities come out. It's great to see someone like Simon reveal their individuality. I do worry about the Mirren thing, and I'd hate to see it go against him, for it to look as if he were using the name, because he doesn't. He's got his work on his own merit. I also worry about the culture of celebrity, because he was born in London and grew up with it. Everyone wants to be a movie star or a model, to be in the papers, but few realise just what hard work it is, getting up early, and so on. I worry about it less with Simon now because he's had life experience. It's as if everything that happened to him until now was meant to be, exactly right for him to be a writer. It's such a relief he's discovered what he wants to do."

simon mirren

"I took the name Mirren for my mum's sake, in recognition that it was she who brought me up - my dad baled out when I was 11. After that, I was always around women. We're a very close family, partly because there aren't many Mirrens left, and when I'm with Helen and my mum, we talk and talk, about everything and anything.

My auntie Helen is like my mum number two, and we're very close. I grew up in south-east London and we never had much money, but all the way, Helen has helped us out financially. My mum, a teacher, four years older than her sister, is tough just like Helen, and the good thing, for me as a writer, about growing up with strong women, was that it gave me the woman's perspective. It was invaluable in terms of understanding how women's minds work. I'm not an intellectual writer - I write about real people and real situations.

Kate and Helen weren't always as close as they are now. When I was born, everything changed because my mum had so much love for me while Helen wanted to achieve something else with her life and she knew she wouldn't have kids. That difference, that understanding, brought them closer, and I am to Helen like the son she never had. I don't think Helen has any regrets about not having kids, but I have to admit I would have loved to have seen her as a mother. She would have been great. My pet name for her is Pops, short for her mother's nickname for her, Popper. Helen and I both love telling stories and we're both real lefties.

When I was a plasterer, doing Michael Grade's ceiling, I went to Bafta for the preview of Prime Suspect with Helen. I wasn't blown away by the event because people are people whether plasterers or film stars, but I was terrified seeing my lovely little aunt in the middle of all this attention, the cameras, all this mayhem. The press thought "ah, toyboy" and were so disappointed to discover I was a Mirren. It became obvious then that Prime Suspect was going to be something really big, and she wouldn't let me go from her arm. Everyone was raving about it but she came straight over to me and said, what do you think? Later on when she won the awards I was in tears but she was so cool.

Helen is such a grounded person, she's definitely of the earth. She enjoys the respect she has earned but she never name-drops, and she is genuinely interested in other people, which is partly what makes her such a great actress - people-watching. Helen can handle any situation, and she isn't afraid of saying whatever she believes. People say she is controversial and she's not, she just isn't a coward. It wasn't easy being an actress in the Sixties, and she has learned to stand up and say her piece if she feels strongly about something. She is a very driven woman, who is doing exactly what she's always wanted. Helen advises me about work and scripts all the time, but her career decisions are strictly down to her. I never get involved. One particular occasion when I felt my sense of worth to her when she was in a play called Sex Please, We're Italian which wasn't hugely successful and I was some comfort I think. I said, you chose this career, and these things happen, don't worry about it, although personally, I loved it. Helen says it's one thing getting there, and another staying at the top. It's ironic that in her thirties she was very scared of getting old, dreading the forties, and it's during her late forties that her career has really come together.

I lived in Helen's flat for six years, and I see her a lot when she's around. We'll all be together at Christmas - my girlfriend Louise handles Helen's PR and they're good mates. I think Helen will come back to London to live soon. She's tired of LA now. She's in England often and when she's here I tend to cook in for Helen and her man Taylor at my place in Battersea, although my wallet had a real shock at how much Helen's favourite champagne, Krug, costs. Everyone thinks Helen smokes but she hates it. She thinks it's a really stupid thing to do, but would never nag me about it. The great thing about Helen is she'd never say, you should do this. She'd say, I think it might be better if you did this, not that. I go to my mum and to my mates with problems, but if it was something really full on, involving say the way I was bringing my daughter up, I'd go to Helen. I don't know if she realises just how much I listen to her.

Her mother died last year and it brought us all even closer together. Kate was close to her father, Helen to her mum. I think we all realised that even if someone is adored by everyone, at the end of it they are surrounded by about three people, and it made us realise how valuable the time we have together with those we love actually is. I'm so proud of her, and I want her to be proud of me one day. I've written for The Bill, and I'm doing Casualty soon, but I know she'd like me to do something like Prime Suspect. I'm blessed that I've got her as my aunt, and my mates adore her.

I remember when I was about 10, Helen and I and the rest of the family were planting carrots out in the country. She's a keen gardener. It was an idyllic moment, and Helen said, do you know what is so sad? You will never remember this. That made me remember it. Recently, I said, do you remember when we planted those carrots? She didn't remember at all."

Deborah Ross is away