Helen Mirren Talks About Kissing Stephen Colbert and Playing a Powerful ‘Eye in the Sky’

Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul. Photo ©Dorri Olds
On Wed., March 9, at the Waldorf Astoria, Dorri Olds sat down with Academy Award-winner Dame Helen Mirren. She stars in “Eye in the Sky,” a suspenseful thriller about techno warfare waged through computer screens, and drones disguised as beetles and birds.
Helen Mirren plays Colonel Catherine Powell, stationed in the UK. She is the military officer in command of a top-secret operation to capture terrorists in Kenya. When the mission escalates from “capture” to “kill,” Las Vegas-based pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul aka Jesse Pinkman in “Breaking Bad”) is tasked with aiming and firing a Hellfire missile at the target, which includes suicide bombers.
The stakes suddenly rise sky-high when nine-year-old Alia (Aisha Takow) sets up a table to sell bread directly outside the Kenyan compound. Colonel Powell must decide between saving one little girl or the lives of 80 to 100 innocent bystanders.
The choice is obvious to her: sacrifice the “collateral damage” of killing the child. But, she must get the okay from her commanding officer, Lt. General Frank Benson, played by the now-deceased and dearly missed Alan Rickman, best known as Professor Severus Snape in the “Harry Potter” franchise.
Benson must appeal to his higher ups and the chain of command keeps going up and up, because no one wants to be the one to pull the trigger that will sacrifice the girl. For some, like pilot Watts, it is an unthinkable moral catastrophe, but for others, including Mirren’s character, the stakes are higher than just one little girl.
The film is directed by Gavin Hood and based on the screenplay by Guy Hibbert. Hood also appears in the film as a Lieutenant. Academy Award-nominee Barkhad Abdi (“Captain Phillips”) stands out as the brave operative in Kenya who sends the beetle drone into the compound and heroically tries to protect the little girl. But the movie belongs to the breathtaking performances by Mirren and Paul.

Helen Mirren kisses Stephen Colbert
Helen Mirren kisses Stephen Colbert

Dorri Olds: First, I have to ask—what prompted you to plant a kiss on Stephen Colbert during his CBS show?
Helen Mirren: The thing is I’ve been deeply in love with Stephen Colbert, for real, and I think it’s always been my dream to kiss Stephen Colbert. As I was walking out [onto the show’s set that] night, I looked and I thought, you know, ‘What if I don’t take my opportunity now? I’ll never have it again.’ So I just went for it. I kissed him.
This morning as my husband was going off to work, I thought, ‘I’ve got to tell him,’ so I said, “Darling, I kissed Stephen Colbert last night.” [Laughs]
DO: Thank you for that! Now let’s move on to the film. After choosing to detonate the bomb, do you think your character slept that night?
HM: I would say, yes. I think my character would absolutely sleep well because: Job done. Terrible was the price we had to pay, but yes, she’d sleep well.
DO: Would your character gain closure if she could speak to the other military minds involved in the decision?
HM: They might, I don’t know protocol or how they’d find themselves in the same bar at the same time at any point. I think my character would say, “Next time, Lieutenant, you do what I say, when I say to do it.” Then, maybe five vodkas later, they might get into talking about the complications of the issues. I suspect people like my character have to put that behind them and carry on with what they have to deal with next. There’s possibly many more of those situations to come.
DO: This is Alan Rickman’s last film. Did you spend time together?
HM: I hardly got to see Aaron, actually. Gavin shot all of my stuff first. Then I went away, then Aaron came. We at least crossed paths for one night. Then Aaron went away, then I think the politicians came if it was in that order. Then you shot the stuff on the ground last of all. We had a director who knew exactly what he was going to do and had it very well planned so he could talk us through. I think Alan [Rickman] would be incredibly proud of this movie. I think he is very proud of this movie, let’s put it that way. I think that if he had looked at his canon of work and it’s been great work his whole life, I think if he had the choice to say I want that to be my last movie, I’m convinced he would point to this movie. What I love about it is that the Alan that you see up on the screen is Alan. He was brilliant as Snape, brilliant. And brilliant in all his character roles, he often played, but that is Alan, the elegance, the wit, the formidable nature of him, the humanity of him. We have Alan up on the screen and I think that’s such a great thing for his last movie.
DO: Do you enjoy being type cast as a strong woman? We instantly think of you as able to take charge.
HM: I love that that’s type cast, I’m going to go for that one. I’m very happy with that, thank you very much.
Helen Mirren
Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul. Photo ©Dorri Olds

What drew you towards this film in terms of your feelings about what’s happening in the real world?
HM: It was an amazing script; the film is so true to filmmaking. If it’s on the page, it’s on the screen. With this movie, it was absolutely on the page. It was a beautifully written, constructed, and interesting issue dealt with in a very interesting and humane way. Like Aaron, I didn’t really know much about drone warfare, but we’re all on a learning curve with this one. With the research that Gavin had done, we all learned a lot.
DO: What did you learn?
HM: What the technology is. I had no idea of the technology. I had no idea that these kinds of operations are conducted in the way that they are with all of these checks and balances. You know what? That’s a good advertisement for democracy. It’s not bad that people go into these operations with consciousness and an awareness of legality and political issues. I thought that was fascinating—the way so many voices are involved in an operation and that every second counts. That’s why our film ratchets up the tension.
DO: Do you think there is a huge refugee problem in the UK?
HM: It’s a problem in many people’s minds. Whether it actually is a problem is another matter. For billions of years people have been traversing the globe and finding … that is the absolute natural human thing to do. We’re just obeying our perfectly natural, human instincts and animal instinct if you like. It seems to me that that is the history of human life. Find safety. Move to whatever it is. I’m part Viking, I’m half Russian. All of us, are mixes and that’s the brilliance of DNA isn’t it? That you can find, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got a little bit of Chinese in me, billions of years.’ I think it’s exciting. I think it’s wonderful. I know it comes out of tragedy and horror and that’s something else.
DO: Why did Gavin Hood bring in a female character for Colonel Powell?
HM: I think Gavin’s point was to become broader [by including] a woman. It’s not that he was saying, “Would a woman make those decisions?” That’s not the discussion. It’s more that we are all in this together so, us women can’t sit back and say [that’s just] typical men. I think it’s a very good device to broaden the discussion and bring us all into it.
Helen Mirren
Alan Rickman, Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul in’ Eye in the Sky’

DO: How did you prepare for playing a female colonel?
HM: I didn’t meet up with an actual female colonel, but we had a [male] military advisor on the set. He was with us all the time and he was absolutely invaluable. The thing that surprised me the most was how obsessed they are with what they’re wearing. Your belt buckle has to be here, not here. Your cap has to folded exactly like this. They’re absolutely obsessed with the things they wear.
DO: Did your initial reaction to the moral dilemma change throughout the filming process?
HM: Not change, but became deeper. It did become a deeper understanding of it, definitely. I think when I first read it it was a bit, ‘Oh, that’s tough.’ When I first read it, I kind of saw the colonel as the villain of the piece and she may be, but not from her point of view. As I got deeper into it, and started really understanding the issues and the more global understanding of it, my attitude changed. I think now, I would say that she did the right thing. It’s a terrible thing to say. The appalling decisions that have to be made, but I’m talking about the world.
In many ways this film reminded me of a courtroom drama, only the audience acts as the jury. You are all the jury sitting in the audience, then when you come out of the cinema, hopefully, you go and have dinner or you go to a bar and discuss it. You talk about strategy, “Is it correct? Is it incorrect? Should we? Shouldn’t we?” The film throws it out to the audience. What I love about the film is that it makes no decisions for you. It puts decisions in your lap.
DO: Did anything surprise you when you saw the final cut of the film?
HM: The thing that surprised me was the wit, the funniness. I thought it was brilliant of Gavin, that is also what makes the film ultimately palatable, watchable, because it’s tough [and] difficult subject. It’s very tense and that also makes it watchable, but the wit in it and the funniness is fantastic. In terms of motivation, I never really think of motivation, honestly. I’m not a motivated sort of person. It’s, like, if it’s on the page, I do it.
“Eye in the Sky” is a thrilling political drama. Rated R. 102 min.