We are well into the fish course at a fancy French restaurant when I ask Helen Mirren the drearily obvious question. Would she like to discuss women in theatre and film? She smiles, laughs gently and replies, "Not really." So that is what we talk about until the bill comes.
We do touch on a few other subjects. Gardening, for instance. Ms Mirren, just 56, loves growing things and has been secretly watering wilting busy lizzies in the flower box outside the house next door to where she has been staying in New York. (Our interview took place just before the traumatic events of last week.)
That leads us neatly into the reason for the dinner – to satisfy her agent's request that she plug her new film,Greenfingers, which has just opened in Britain. It is about a group of prison convicts who take to gardening and meet the Queen after competing at the Hampton Court Flower Show. Ms Mirren does a gently amusing turn as a British gardening maven, à la Penelope Hobhouse.
But enough of that. (The film, which actually had a young American director, has done dismal business in America and is unlikely to emerge as the next Full Monty.) It is much more important that we talk gender matters, such as: how does she like being seen still as the thinking man's totty? Although I was curious to learn first about the small symbol that appeared to be tattooed into the cleft of her left thumb.
"That was a long time ago," she says about the tattoo, a sort of mathematical symbol of interlocking "W"s that is meant to denote "Love thy neighbour." She had it done while touring with a Peter Brook production in Minnesota and was "having an affair with a North American Indian guy". Have there been so many men in her life? "There has been a few of them, but not that many." Ms Mirren, by the way, has been married to the Hollywood producer Taylor Hackfordsince 1984.
She responds to the earlier enquiry with a joke. "Bit of totty, hum? Me and Joan Bakewell, you mean?" But she admits that being the object of men's desire – a sex symbol – has done little harm to her career going back to her early days when she starred in Ken Russell's Savage Messiah at the Royal Shakespeare Company. "I have traded on it. I do the tousled thing from time to time. Like now. I can do the dirty thing. Or grubby. But at some point you decide enough of that, I had better move on".
Mirren's chance to do that came in the mid-Nineties when she read the first script of a police drama for television that was to become known as Prime Suspect. You might think that this is one subject the actress would be really tired of talking about. Her few years in so many British front rooms playing the exasperating and always exasperated detective, Jane Tennison.
"Jane was a brilliant moment for me to do that [move on]. It got rid of one sort of image and moved me onto another arena. It meant moving on to playing a part that was more personality-driven and wasn't dependent on the size of my breasts. It was very valuable for me."
It was valuable, too, she suggests, for millions of women in Britain and in the other countries that Prime Suspect conquered, including the US. Mirren is very serious – but never hectoring – on the matters of feminism and women's place in the world. The series, she argues, especially touched professional women who had begun their careers just when the feminist movement was getting started.
"They had put up with it for 20 years and none of them had been able to complain publicly about anything because it would have been death to their careers. And suddenly, there on the screen, there was a woman who was saying, 'Screw you.' A yell went up from all the women in all the professions, saying, 'Yes, that is exactly what it is like for us; that is exactly what it is like.' It articulated their frustrations."
They stopped making Prime Suspect years ago, of course, and we ought to be concentrating on Greenfingers. Still, it was worth my asking. You would never go back to being Jane Tennison again, would you? For all your fans? For all the women, and all the blokes who drool over you?
"Maybe, maybe." What? This was not the answer I had expected. Jane Tennison might be making a return? This is news, surely. "A script is being written now, and we will see." But would she do it? Isn't she afraid of being typecast, being best known for that one role? "That's why I stopped doing it, but now enough time has passed."
It all depends on the writing, Mirren says. If it works, she will be interested in reprising the role. She is fussy about writing – especially when it comes to portraying women. "I read a lot of scripts that offend me. They may be perfectly benign, in fact, but they offend me often because I don't like the way women, the female roles, have been approached." Things are better now, in that respect. Certainly better than when Mirren was starting out as an actress. "In the Seventies and early Eighties, women were actually horribly treated, worse than the fifties or even the forties. With the rise of feminism at that time, film-makers just found the whole issue of women really hard to handle so they chose to sideline them and they just became sex objects. I remember thinking, this is not my experience, this is not what women are."
What has been the best bit of writing for women that she has seen recently in the films? Mirren, the daughter of a Russian aristocrat who was stranded in London in 1917, pauses and cites Frances McDormand's part in the Coen brothers film Fargo. "It was just about being a smart, intelligent woman. A true woman and a hard-working woman." The actress she most admires, by the way, is the late Italian star, Anna Magnani. "She is still my role model."
But if the worst years of marginalising women on celluloid are long past, finding parts as an actress remains difficult, Mirren points out. And it is not about age, either. Her career has blossomed as she has grown older. "It is much easier for the men in my business than for women. Just look at anything on TV and count the number of males, men in big roles or small roles, whatever, and that represents the number of jobs that are available for actors as opposed to the number of jobs available to actresses, young or old or whatever."
Politics, and not just gender politics, obviously gets Ms Mirren going. On a break on Martha's Vineyard recently, she met Bill Clinton at a friend's house. She was impressed, just as she is unimpressed by the man who has succeeded him. In the last two years, she has become a little involved in one issue near the heart of American politics, guns.
She has worked as an ambassador for the Oxfam campaign to end the trade in small arms to developing countries, visiting Africa and attending a recent United Nations conference on creating a small arms convention. Mirren, who for the past 15 years has lived part-time in Los Angeles with Hackford, was moved to help, in part, by the gun violence she saw in America. As for Britain: "It is the arms-brokering centre of the world, so we are very responsible for all of this."
It is espresso time, and we really should be getting back to Greenfingers. She can tell I was not overly impressed by the film, but she is hardly going to nod and agree with me. "When I read it, I thought it was absolutely charming. It was a sort of throwback to the Ealing comedies and it had a sort of spirit about it," she suggests, just managing not to sound defensive.
All right, I say, at least admit this: your claim about loving gardening, that surely is made up. No, it is true, she insists. In fact that was another reason to do the film. "I have gardening in my soul." She then adds one more biographical detail about this gardening fetish. "I learnt my gardening from an old boyfriend. In fact, everything that has made me into a good person, I have learnt from men."
Heavens, we're back into the whole boys-girls thing, again. Which is fine.
'Greenfingers' (certificate 15) is showing at cinemas nationwideReuse content