On Love

13 years in: Helen Mirren and husband Taylor Hackford explore dynamic of midlife romance

COLLABORATING: Mirren and Hackford at the
COLLABORATING: Mirren and Hackford at the "Love Ranch" premiere. (Kevin Winter/getty Images)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2010

When Taylor Hackford met Helen Mirren, directing the actress on the set of "White Nights" in 1984, he'd been divorced twice, with a kid from each marriage. Needless to say, his understanding of romance had shifted.

"I think when you're young you tend to idealize the love relationship," the 65-year-old director says. "You're looking for the perfect combination. Unfortunately, I don't think that happens."

His connection with Mirren was "chemical," he says, but tempered by past experiences. "When you meet each other and get together in midlife, a lot of things are set," he says.

It took them a while, but eventually they married, in 1997.

Midlife romance is a dynamic the couple explored in the new movie "Love Ranch," the first project they have worked on together since "White Nights." The film reconstructs a love triangle that developed at a Reno brothel in the 1970s involving the aging madam (Mirren), her flashy, philandering husband (Joe Pesci) and a young prize fighter brought in to make money for the ranch (Sergio Peris-Mencheta).

"These three people, when they meet, have no romantic illusions left in them. They're all past it," Hackford says. As the story develops, each is ignited -- either by passion, love or jealousy.

"I think it sends an interesting message about life," he says. "That there's always a possibility. You can get surprised at any moment."

Hackford, who directed "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Ray," had been looking for a movie to do with Mirren. The "Love Ranch" script appealed to him, but Hackford says he wouldn't have done it if his Oscar-winning wife hadn't signed on.

"I'm married to, in my mind, the greatest actress in the world," he says. "I wanted to work with her."

But the experience was different than it was a quarter-century ago. She knows all his tricks now. More than once he gave her a direction that seemed to go in one ear and out the other. "When you live with somebody for 26 years, there's that thing in your head where you're saying, 'I'm switching this off. I've heard this one before.' "

Hackford slipped up, too, taking his on-set frustrations out on his wife. "That's what happens when you're very close. And I did it a couple times, and it was wrong," he says. "You don't vent on the star of your movie when they don't deserve it."

Still, collaborating again was a delight, he says, not least because they could go to sleep in the same bed. Most of their relationship has been a series of departures and reunions, depending on their filming schedules. But it has worked, he says, because neither resents the other's career.

"But part and parcel with that is that we're separated a lot," he says. "And that can be frustrating because I love to be with her. But it also can be quite exciting when you come back together."

They were together again recently when Mirren's topless photo spread came out in New York magazine. He'd known she did a shoot but didn't realize quite how much she'd taken off. "But listen, she's a person who's very open and free and strong and brave about her own life and sexuality," he says. "It's not as though I've seen my wife as some prude. Long before I met her, I knew who she was and her kind of free and strong perspective of herself. And I champion that."

And after 26 years together, their chemical connection still exists, he says. They talk on the phone two or three times a day and have a relationship based as much on respect as romance.

But you won't find him doling out pearls of marital wisdom.

"I'll be the last person to give advice," he says. "I look at this as fate and luck, and I'm very pleased that I had both of those."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company