Helen Mirren Goes to the love ranch

Her character has a torrid affair while her real husband makes her ‘very cross’

Courtesy E1 Entertainment Canada

Taylor Hackford fell for Helen Mirren on the set of his ballet movie, White Nights. That was a quarter-century ago. The American director and the English thespian have been living together since 1986, and married since 1997.

But in all that time, Hackford could never persuade her to act in another one of his movies. She was a busy woman—dressing down male underlings as Inspector Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, incarnating two Queen Elizabeths, being named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and winning an Oscar. In a recent interview with Maclean’s, Hackford, 65, says he began to wonder, “What am I doing living with the greatest actress in the world and not working with her?”

But it’s hard to imagine Helen Mirren playing the Kathy Bates character in Hackford’s Dolores Claiborne, or getting naked with Keanu Reeves in The Devil’s Advocate, or acting as wife or mother to Jamie Foxx in Ray. Occasionally, Hackford would offer her minor roles, “but she would politely decline,” he says. Despite what they say about there being no small roles, only small actors, the Greatest Actress in the World did not jump at the chance to play bit parts for her husband, a man who, after all, would not even make the Greatest Director in the World short list.

Finally, however, Hackford offered Mirren a role she couldn’t refuse—starring opposite Joe Pesci as the no-nonsense madam of a Nevada whorehouse who is seduced by a handsome Latin lover 30 years her junior. In Love Ranch, Mirren and Pesci play Grace and Charlie Botempo, a husband-and-wife team who are long-time owners of a legalized brothel in Reno, Nev. Branching out as a boxing promoter, Charlie signs an Argentine prizefighter (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and becomes obsessed with his comeback. As the fighter trains at the Love Ranch, he puts the moves on the madam, who has terminal cancer, and a torrid love triangle ensues.

Set in the mid-1970s, the movie was inspired by the true story of Joe and Sally Conforte, owners of Reno’s Mustang Ranch, and boxer Oscar Bonavena, who once fought Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Their real-life melodrama was spun into Love Ranch’s fictional screenplay by New York magazine writer Marc Jacobson, who also wrote the profile that inspired American Gangster.

Hackford, a boxing fan, was drawn to the notion that the ring and the brothel are both about “the selling of flesh.” He says he had to push his wife to act tough in her role as a jaded madam running 25 whores—“it’s not her natural demeanour.” On the set, he adds, the couple had to keep it professional. “It’s not easy. Helen knows I’m consumed by whatever I’m doing. I’m going to work 18 hours a day. We never ate lunch together. She had to bond with those women, and she ate with them. At moments where I was pushing people beyond the limits, she was probably saying, ‘What an asshole!’ ” In fact, Mirren, 64, told the Sunday Times his behaviour sometimes made her “very cross . . . I would get upset if he was shouting—not at me, but at someone else. I would find myself rushing around trying to mop up after him.”

One of the trickier challenges for Hackford was shooting his wife’s love scene with Peris-Mencheta. “Just think about this,” he says. “Sergio’s going to be saying, ‘Oh my God, the guy behind the camera is her husband and I’ve got to run my hands all over her body!’ I say to Sergio, ‘Listen, I’ve done a lot of love scenes. You’ve got to go in and make it real. Don’t worry about me and don’t worry about Helen.’ ” Adds Hackford: “It’s emotionally difficult for me only if they’re not getting it, if it’s not happening. Then what do you say to your wife?”

In Mirren and Pesci, he had two potent forces. Pesci, who famously stabbed a guy with a pen in Casino, is a coiled spring. In Love Ranch he subdues a man by shoving a hand down his throat, a trick he once used in real life to defend himself from a bouncer at a concert. With Mirren, he meets his match. In one scene, she tells Pesci, “Who do you think you are, Clint Eastwood?” Improvising, he snaps back, “And who are you, the queen of f–king England?” Well . . . yes. And she’s doing the director.