The first thing that crosses your mind when you meet Helen Mirren is that she looks fantastic. Not just fantastic for her age (65), or pretty good for a senior citizen. She looks as if she could take on the world and be barely winded. And anybody who has seen that photo of her in a red bikini taken on an Italian beach two years ago, or any image of her lighting up the red carpet in a figure-hugging crimson gown (red is really her colour) knows that Mirren has an admirable shape and an alluring self- confidence to match.
In the film industry, where ageing - especially for women - is usually viewed as some kind of moral failure, and Botox, fillers, chemical peels and surgery are as de rigueur as acting coaches and savvy publicists, ageing gracefully may seem like an oxymoron. Like Mirren, Meryl Streep, 61 (who is about to play Margaret Thatcher in a forthcoming biopic and who last year earned an Oscar nomination as Julia Child), looks beautiful without appearing to have done anything drastic to freeze out Father Time. Ditto Annette Bening (52). While these actresses have clearly had some cosmetic work, it's been executed with skill and a light hand. Are you listening, Meg Ryan and Nicole Kidman?
When I meet her, Mirren, an Oscar winner (for The Queen) and a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, is lean yet curvaceous in a black-and-white print dress and a snowy cardigan, her grey-blonde hair in a fashionable chin-length bob offset by feathery bangs. Even in the unforgiving bright light of a late-summer afternoon in a Toronto hotel room, her gently lined skin looks fresh and her eyes sparkle despite being bracketed with deep smile lines.
Mirren doesn't look like she's trying to be 40 (or, like so many others in Hollywood, 20). There's nothing artificial looking about her. She looks healthy, strong and - emphatically - fantastic for her age. She's one of the busiest actresses around. I interview Mirren at the Toronto International Film Festival, where she is promoting the thrillers Brighton Rock and The Debt. Later this month, she's in RED, brandishing a machine gun as part of a group of ex-CIA agents led by Bruce Willis. In December, she stars as Prospera in Julie Taymor's version of Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Of course, the bulk of our interview is about her work and her thoughts on the challenging role she plays in The Debt as a former Mossad agent faced with a devastating choice made while chasing down a Nazi war criminal in 1965 East Berlin. (Jessica Chastain plays the young version of Mirren's character). There are already Oscar whispers around the role and the movie doesn't even open in North America until December.
As we talk about the physical requirements of her part, including a knock-down-drag-out knife-fight scene, choreographed by the same person who did the jaw-dropping steam-room brawl with Viggo Mortensen and Russian baddies in Eastern Promises, who could resist the chance to ask Mirren how she stays in such enviable shape? "I eat a few of those," she says, gesturing to a tray of croissants and French pastries.
Really? If there's one thing you notice when spending time around actresses (and actors) it's how rarely they eat. Nibbling is more like it. I once interviewed an Oscar-nominated actress who confessed to being "starving" and asked if I'd mind if she ate during our interview. "Of course not," I replied. She munched a thin slice of pineapple and one of melon and then pushed the plate away. But not Mirren.
"The first thing I did this morning, I walked into my TV interview with a pastry in my hand," she says. "And there were witnesses!" What about exercise? Does she run for miles, lift weights or work with a trainer? "I do occasionally get guilty and I start exercising in a mild, lazy sort of way and sometimes I get quite into it and I go to the gym three times a week. I don't kill myself." The secret, adds Mirren, is moderation.
"I don't eat loads, I don't overeat," she says gently. And as if to make her point, she gets up and cuts a small piece of flaky pastry glistening with fresh apricots. "I'm not doing this just because you're here," she adds with a smile as she lifts the plate. Similarly, the British actress Miranda Richardson, 52, who is at the Toronto film fest for the comedy Made In Dagenham, about East London female Ford workers' battle for equal pay in the 1960s, sips hot water with lemon during our interview.
Despite having just got off a plane from London and darting directly to a screening the evening before, the blue-eyed blonde looks rested, pretty and natural, with a gorgeous peaches-and-cream complexion. "The hot water and lemon helps hydrate," she says. "I drink it constantly." A make-up artist working with Richardson that day, handling her touch-ups between interviews, tells her, "You have better skin than some 20-year-olds I work on."
The two-time Oscar nominee reveals her secret: avoid the sun and wear sunscreen. Perhaps women such as Streep, Mirren and Richardson are more realistic role models for the rest of us to follow? Indeed, there seems to have been a backlash in Hollywood of late, an aversion to plasticised, lookalike actresses. Last autumn when casting began for the fourth instalment in the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise, the studio had a requirement for any woman who wanted to audition: no breast implants. Only natural beauties need apply.
Such as Mirren and Richardson, for example.