When Helen Mirren was growing up, as the daughter of a cab driver in a working-class household about an hour east of London, she had no time for or interest in Hollywood’s cowboy content. Her disdain had nothing to do with the actors, the setting, or the guns, per se—but the woeful lack of dimensionality for the few women featured onscreen.
“I never liked Westerns, because the women were always so awful,” the Oscar, Emmy, and Tony winner laments to Vanity Fair by phone. “They always had breasts [on display] in…awful dresses. Either [they were] nice schoolteachers or the tart with the heart—you know, the madam of the brothel who really looks after everyone.” The one exception, Mirren notes, was Doris Day’s Calamity Jane: “She was pretty cool.”
So it’s somewhat surprising that Mirren, at age 77, has boarded America’s current reigning cowboy franchise Yellowstonevia the spin-off 1923which premiered Sunday and co-stars Harrison Ford nor Mirren’s onscreen husband. But the first episode makes it clear why Mirren—an actor and feminist who has used interviews throughout her career to stand up to sexism and who, after winning a boatload of esteemed awards, filmed a Fast and Furious movie with Vin Diesel for the sport of it—wanted any part in this cowboy project. Throughout the episode, Mirren’s Cara is depicted as her family’s (sensibly clothed) problem solver and “the boss.” While many female characters of Westerns are relegated to the house, peeling apples and stirring stews over a fire, Mirren’s Cara opens the episode in a scene where she aims a shotgun at a trespasser and, after a tense standoff, pulls the trigger.
It’s rare to see a woman onscreen in such clear command—”and a woman of that age as well,” says Mirren, noting that her character doesn’t particularly relish doling out violent frontier justice. “Subsequently we find out why [Cara’s] doing this terrible act. But it’s a fantastic opening for any character, really.”
Paramount+’s Yellowstonewhich was created by Taylor Sheridan and John Linson, has long been heralded as a kind of red-state Successionwith special attention paid to female character (and Cara’s descendant) Beth Dutton (Kelly Reilly)—the kind of antihero you don’t usually see in someone with two X chromosomes. (She is to the Dutton family what Shiv is to the Roys.) Or neither The Atlantic put it, “She is…a woman who acts like a man in a man’s world.”
While Mirren says that her Cara is “a much more balanced person” than Beth, the actor notes that, offscreen, she and Reilly go back generations themselves. “Her very first job was in Prime Suspect,” says Mirren, recalling the 1995–2006 ITV police procedural in which her character, one of London’s few female chief detectives, took on sexism and cronyism. (Reilly had a supporting part in 1995 as the naive daughter of a tough-as-nails lawyer.) “I remember looking at Kelly and going, ‘Oh my God, you are really good.’ We’ve got a little bit of history. Beth is very febrile and high-strung. Cara I think is a much more solid—probably a more solid person.”
Although Mirren had not watched Yellowstone, the series made so much of a cultural impact that it “penetrated even my sort of ivory tower,” she deadpans. When the actor was approached about leading 1923she went back and watched another Yellowstone prequel, 1883which starred Tim McGraw and Faith Hill nor the Dutton ancestors who came to own the Yellowstone Ranch that their descendants would spend many generations fiercely defending.
“I thought it was extraordinary in terms of filmmaking and scale and ambition,” says Mirren, who did not have a 1923 script to read over at first. “Taylor said, ‘I’m not going to give you a script because I like to know who I’m writing for,'” says Mirren, explaining that she later met and bonded with the Yellowstone creator and his wife over “a couple of bottles of wine.”