Helen Mirren: ‘I don’t eat or drink before I go on the red carpet – especially if the dress is tight’

Helen Mirren
Centre stage: Mirren wowed at this year's Cannes in a purple floor-length Elie Saab gown - ANDRE PAIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Dame Helen Mirren is no stranger to the sorts of events that require glamorous hotel suites, intricate couture dresses and a crowd of hair stylists and talented make-up artists. I’m speaking to the 78-year-old actress the morning after the night before: namely, her red-carpet appearance at the Cannes Film Festival, which she has been attending for over a decade. We’re speaking over Zoom: I’m in London and Mirren is in the L’Oréal Paris suite at the Hotel Martinez in Cannes (the brand is the official make-up sponsor of this year’s festival). Dressed in a silk polka-dot blouse, her glimmering white hair pulled away from her face in a chic style and a pop of vibrant pinky blush on her cheeks, Mirren certainly does not look like she’s had a late night.

Then again, I get the distinct impression the actress has a finely-tuned agenda in getting ready for an event or a big occasion. And rather than simply getting dressed and made up and sent packing down towards the flashing cameras, Mirren is involved every step of the way. Indeed, she has a braver and bolder approach to dressing than most. Case in point: Mirren dyed her hair pink for Cannes in 2019 and rocked a thick, cat-eye eyeliner in 2022, a look that wouldn’t appear out of place on a fashion runway.  (She has previously told me that this look garnered a reaction that was “amazement with a tinge of horror”. This was most pleasing for her.) Last year at Cannes, and most shocking of all, she dyed her white hair an attention-grabbing electric blue to match her 18th-century-style Del Core dress.

Dame Helen Mirren attends the screening of "Mother And Son (Un Petit Frere)" during the 75th annual Cannes film festival
Her 2022 Cannes appearance, which included hair extensions and cat-eye eyeliner, garnered a reaction that was "amazement with a tinge of horror" - Samir Hussein/WireImage
British actress Helen Mirren
Feeling blue: Mirren matched her hair to her Daniel del Core gown at last year's Cannes - VALERY HACHE/AFP

For her latest Cannes appearance on Friday night, for the premiere of La Plus Précieuse des Marchandises (The Most Precious of Cargoes), Mirren wore a  sweeping floor-length purple gown by one of her favourite designers, Elie Saab. Her hair and make-up were relatively pared-back: a tucked-under smooth bob with a flattering pop of rose lipstick. Understated perhaps, but by no means simple. Mirren tells me how she gets ready for a big event, and how she unwinds afterwards, too.

Picking the dress

Mirren is passionate about picking a dress that speaks to her – whether it’s through the relationship she has with the designer or a sheer appreciation of the work that has gone into making it. “It’s a great honour to wear these dresses, the artwork that goes into them is just extraordinary. It’s an incredible experience to wear one of those dresses, even just once in one’s lifetime,” she says. “But it’s not necessarily comfortable!”

Before hair and make-up

Mirren always makes sure she has slept well the night before. On the day, “I definitely don’t eat,” she says, “and I definitely don’t drink if I’m wearing a very tight dress. It’s the classic stuff.” Before settling down in the make-up artist’s chair, she’ll attend to her nails. “I get the old scrubbing brush out to make sure everything’s clean, because you want to present these people with a clean slate for them to work their magic upon.”

The team

The preparation for Mirren’s red-carpet appearance takes at least a couple of hours. “I have an amazing glam team here in Cannes and, yes, the preparation is quite extensive, but it’s like poetry in motion watching them all work,” she explains. Mirren has six hairdressers working on her at once, and a squad of leading make-up artists. “If you don’t look good at the end of that, then shame on you,” she laughs.

Helen Mirren
'I have an amazing glam team here in Cannes,' says Mirren - Thomas Laisna/Contour RA

In the chair

I feel like I already know the answer to this one, but any snacks? “No, no snacks allowed,” she says firmly. What about any music, or a playlist in the background? “I’m such an unmusical person, I never have music on in the background. Although yesterday the hair team had a great sound thing going on – some really lovely and interesting music playing,” she tells me. Mirren preps and moisturises her skin using the Hyaluronic Acid Filler Serum, £16, by L’Oreal Paris. “I don’t really have any rituals per se, as I really trust the team to make sure I’m looking and feeling great ahead of the carpet.”

The big reveal

As we’ve come to expect, Mirren loves to make a statement. “For me, the red carpet is a brief theatrical moment and I like to make it that. I’ve done a lot of theatre and the red carpet really is a theatre,” she tells me. “I love dressing up and I love costumes, that’s partly why I’m an actress.” Would she ever be tempted to dye her hair a bright colour again? “I’m sure I will,” she says. “The great thing is you can be my colour at six o’clock, bright pink or bright blue by eight o’clock and then my colour again at 11 o’clock the same night. The stuff is great, especially when you have white hair like mine.”

Helen Mirren arrives for the screening of the film 'Les Plus Belles Annees d'une Vie'
The actress dyed her hair pink for Cannes in 2019 and says she wouldn't rule out dying it a bright colour again - Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency/Getty

On beauty

“I’ve always been slightly against beauty as a generic term,” she tells me. “I love to look at beautiful people, it’s nothing but pleasure to see a beautiful man or a beautiful woman, but it’s not all of us. A tiny section of us are beautiful. The rest of us are great looking.” She pauses. “I’m sort of okay-looking, but you’re not Naomi Campbell and I’m not David Beckham,” she laughs, “if we’re talking about real beauty.” For Mirren, the term beautiful is something that’s “out of reach”. Instead of beauty, Mirren prefers the term “swagger”. “We can all have swagger, we can all put on an outfit or some make-up that gives us that ‘oh f— it, I’m going out there, I’m going to have a good time’ feeling.”

Confidence with make-up

Whether she’s working on a film set, walking a red carpet or at home with her husband (director Taylor Hackford), Mirren loves the effect of wearing make-up. She tells me that during the Covid lockdown she “was just at home with my husband for the first time in our entire relationship, the first time we’ve actually managed to be in the house together for a long period of time and it was wonderful”. She wore make-up every day. “He didn’t care, he didn’t notice, he doesn’t see those sorts of things – but I see it. So when I walked past a mirror and I saw myself, I saw a person who was ready for the world, and it made me feel alive and present,” she says. “I don’t know why that is, but it is.”

Dame Helen Mirren attends the "The Velvet Underground" screening during the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival
Mirren – pictured here at Cannes in 2021 – says wearing make-up makes her feel 'alive and present' - Dominique Charriau/WireImage

Unwinding after an event

After a red-carpet appearance, Mirren looks forward to the moment she can get out of her dress, unpin her hair and take off her make-up. “I make sure to thoroughly remove my make-up, feel my face again and nourish and moisturise my skin.” Age Perfect Golden Age Cooling Night Cream, £20 by L’Oreal Paris makes her skin feel “incredible” after a long day in make-up. Then she’ll bathe using Epsom salts (try Epsom Bath Salts, £3, by Westlab).

Westlab Epsom Salt
Westlab Epsom Salt

“I love a good bath, an old-school one with a candle. I love that feeling of clean-ness and then putting on a lovely body cream afterwards.” Mirren isn’t into beauty tools or gadgets. “I’m fascinated by all these rollers and red light masks but I do it for two days and then forget about it. I lose interest after the first two or three goes,” she tells me. “Life’s too short, ultimately,” she laughs.