On a bright Los Angeles morning a few days after the Golden Globes, Helen Mirren — dressed impeccably in black while discussing her latest film, the haunted-house tale “Winchester” — arrived at an unexpected concern: the fate of all those poor Stormtroopers in the “Star Wars” movies.
“I saw (‘The Force Awakens’) and I thought they made a terrible mistake because they took the Stormtrooper’s hat off,” the Oscar-winning star of “The Queen” and British national treasure said, feigning shock.
“There was this lovely young actor (John Boyega) — which means one of the Stormtroopers is a human being. And if he’s a human, they’re all human. And you have been indiscriminately killing Stormtroopers for the last (six) ‘Star Wars’ movies without any consideration to their humanity!”
Themes of violence, death and how those in the world of the living come to terms with their role in it all run throughout the otherwise titillating frights of “Winchester,” a supernatural horror film based on the real widowed heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. Opening Friday, the CBS Films/Lionsgate release is directed by Peter Spierig and Michael Spierig, whose cult-favorite genre work includes “Daybreakers” and “Predestination.”
A cult figure of her own among haunted-house enthusiasts, Sarah Winchester spent 38 years and millions of dollars building her famously bizarre Victorian mansion in San Jose, California, at the turn of the 20th century. Urban legend says she was guided in her blueprints by spirits who spoke to her from the beyond.
As Winchester, who lost her husband and young child at an early age, Mirren spends the film in black widow’s lace. It’s an intriguing turn for a grand dame of stage and screen — and also perfectly fitting given the ways Mirren has sought to defy expectations over a five-decade career.
Few moviegoers would expect to see Helen Mirren possessed by malevolent ghosts in a mainstream PG-13 horror movie. Costar Jason Clarke, who plays a (fictional) doctor hired by the Winchester board to declare Sarah Winchester unfit to hold her shares in the company, certainly didn’t.
“But,” he said, “I was happy to be there to see it. There’s this sense of exploration and play in how she plays a scene and a character and the choices that she makes. There’s nothing scared about Helen Mirren, and you see that in the way she goes about her life.”
In one action-packed scene in which their characters face off against dark forces inside Winchester’s sprawling, forbidding home, the actors agreed to go for it and play it big.
“We were both nervous about whether it was too over the top, but then she grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘I didn’t play Phedre three times for nothing, dear.’
“She is Helen Mirren. She was Cleopatra. She was Phedre. And that was how she characterized it,” Clarke said with a laugh. “We were in a ghost story acting big and pretending to hear spirits and voices and she just goes — ‘We’re doing Shakespeare.’ Right on, Helen.”
Mirren might not believe in the supernatural, but she did find herself communing with the late Winchester while gazing upon one of the estate’s most intriguing pieces.
“In the house are these two beautiful stained glass panels with quotes from Shakespeare on them,” she said of the twin windows inscribed with lines from “Troilus and Cressida” and “Richard II.” “‘Wide unclasp the tables of their thoughts’ and ‘These same thoughts people this little world.’”
She leaned back, marveling. “Two quotes from two different plays that fit together, but the meaning is so mysterious. I looked at that endlessly trying to think, ‘What is she saying?’ And I think she’s talking about freedom of thought, that people should be able to think whatever they want.”
As for what attracted her to a film in the horror genre — at a time before the mega-success of “Get Out” and “It” repopularized the medium with audiences — Mirren pointed to the conscience behind Winchester’s tragic obsession.
“I think it is legitimate to say that there was a sensitivity to the deaths of the people who died by the Winchester gun,” Mirren said. “The world is a terrifying place, and a lot of the terror in the world comes from arms in one sort or another, and the sale of arms. And that’s what I really like about the underlying story of the film — her guilt and her pain.”
Mirren cited a moment where Winchester slams the most “unconscionable” part of the gun trade. “She’s not talking about people who use them,” said Mirren. “She’s talking about the people who make and sell them. Every country is culpable in that.”
The actress also considered her own culpability in the glamorization of violence.
“It’s always worried me,” she admitted. “In ‘Red’ I played a sniper. I fired every kind of gun on the planet including a Gatling. The thing that upsets me in movies is when the baddies all just get slaughtered. I always watch going, ‘He’s got children! Maybe he’s only there because he’s got a second mortgage and his wife’s got a terrible disease and he’s trying to pay her medical bills!’”
Earlier in January Mirren took part in a moment in Hollywood history when, as a presenter and nominee at the 75th Golden Globes, she joined a wave of celebrities in wearing black in support of the Time’s Up movement.
“It was a great year to be in that room,” said Mirren, who earned her 15th Golden Globes nod for an awards-qualifying run of the upcoming release “The Leisure Seeker.” “The best thing about it was that it was very positive. Often, people are criticized for using that situation as a platform for any political statement whatsoever, but that night it was like, ‘This is what we’re all here for.’ I was proud of women and I was proud of my industry to a certain extent.”
Grade: This film did not screen for critics in time for publication
Starring: Helen Mirren, Sarah Snook, Jason Clarke
Rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Slaughter, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights, Evo, Flix, Galaxy, Gateway, iPic, Metropolitan, Moviehouse, Pflugerville 20, Round Rock, Sky, Southpark, Stone Hill, Westgate.