Helen Mirren, Taylor Hackford And 'Love Ranch'

Oscar-winner Helen Mirren and her husband — director Taylor Hackford — are collaborating on a new film called Love Ranch. It's inspired by the real-life story of the couple who ran the first legal brothel in Nevada. They talk with Michele Norris about the film's challenges.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren doesn't want to be defined by any one of her roles.

NORRIS: The problem with being very successful in any role is that suddenly, you know, you become identified with that role. For a long time, I was the tough police detective, you know, as in Jane Tennison of "Prime Suspect." And then I became the queen. And then everyone talks, oh, you're so regal and you play these regal roles, you know? And I go, well, yeah, I played the queen but you know, I've played lots of other things, too.

NORRIS: She's talking about Queen Elizabeth, the first and second, and Queen Charlotte, wife of the mad King George III. But she's also played a few strumpets: Morgana in "Excalibur," the lusty wife of a crime boss in "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife Her Lover," and now Grace Bontempo, the no-nonsense madam in a new movie, "Love Ranch."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LOVE RANCH")

NORRIS: (as Grace Bontempo) I'm fining you $500.

U: (as Character) Five hundred?

NORRIS: (as Grace Bontempo) Mm-hmm.

U: (as Character) What the (bleep) about her? I'm going to go tell Charlie.

NORRIS: (as Grace Bontempo) Go ahead. You go tell Charlie. But I'm the boss around here and don't you forget it, okay? I make the rules. You want to stay here, you obey them or you get out. You understand?

U: (as Character) She ripped my dress.

NORRIS: (as Grace Bontempo) Oh, boo-hoo. You know what? Next time I'm in Kmart, I'll buy you a new one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: (as Grace Bontempo) Come on. Go to your room.

NORRIS: Set in Nevada in the polyester-clad 1970s, "Love Ranch" is directed by Mirren's husband, Taylor Hackford, and it's inspired by the real-life story of Joe and Sally Conforte, owners of Nevada's largest bordello.

The movie focuses on the unlikely romance between the been-there-done- that madam and a beefy Argentine boxer, who's decades younger.

Hackford, whose film credits include "An Officer and a Gentleman," "Dolores Claiborne" and "Ray," says his wife is the greatest actress in the world, and he'd been looking for a joint project worthy of her talents.

NORRIS: A friend of mine, Mark Jacobson, who works for New York Magazine, and another friend, Lou DiBella, had been developing the story. I knew about the story from the mid-'70s. It was the story of the Mustang Ranch, the first legal brothel in the United States.

B: the husband and wife who founded the Mustang Ranch, Joe and Sally Conforte, and a South American boxer, Oscar Bonavena, who came to train there.

NORRIS: Wow, this could be a great role for Helen.

NORRIS: So I'm interested, Helen, in your response. In this case, Sally Conforte becomes Grace Bontempo, and she's someone who is tough when she needs to be - she'll pick up a can and hit somebody over the head - and she's someone who is a bit hardened. But she falls slowly in love with this South American boxer. Did this immediately seem appealing to you, or did you have a more complicated response?

NORRIS: No, no, immediately. I mean, absolutely immediately. I loved the idea of the milieu, if you like: a bordello in Nevada, in the '70s. You know, all of those things to me, especially as a British person, I think is incredibly - kind of exotic and extreme and fascinating.

NORRIS: Did you stay in character? I'm wondering - she's so salty. I wonder...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: ...if all of a sudden, if you found yourself as arch as she was?

NORRIS: I didn't, did I?

NORRIS: No, I think, you know, Helen is an amazing professional. The one thing that was interesting is that in this instance, Grace Bontempo is not Helen Mirren. She is very unhappy. She's been through a lot. Her world is tried and true in the sense that she's done it for so long that I think she's at this point, you know, past the point of having any, you know, dreams.

And also, when she has to go in there and wade into a situation - and it's fascinating; these are the things that I researched. You know, if something goes wrong in one of those rooms, there's a panic button. And the girls press it and you would think, oh, if there's something wrong, they're going to send the bouncer down there. Never - a madam goes.

Because a man confronted by another man is going to get into a fight. It's the madam who tries to talk - and 95 percent of the time, she's able to talk him down and take him down the hall like a puppy dog, and buy him a drink and send him on his way.

The point is that Grace Bontempo has been through all of this. And when she needs to apply discipline or deal with a situation, she's plenty tough. That's not my wife. My wife is strong. She's got strong character. But I wouldn't call her, you know, hardened tough madam as Grace is, so I had to encourage her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LOVE RANCH")

NORRIS: (as Grace Bontempo) That doctor said you could have died fighting in that ring. Why did you do that?

NORRIS: (as Armando Bruza) Grace, I'm a fighter, so I fight.

NORRIS: (as Grace Bontempo) Don't give me that macho (bleep). He said you could die at any time.

NORRIS: (as Armando Bruza) I wanted to see you. I wanted to see you.

NORRIS: Helen, a lot of times when people fall in love on film, it's explosive. There are fireworks and violins in the background, and it seems to happen all at once. In this case, it was very slow in the evolving. She's resisting it. There are small things that happened, but she's fighting it every step along the way.

NORRIS: Yes. Yes, that's true. And I think it's only when she realizes, you know, that time is running out for both of them, that maybe they only have a week more, you know; maybe only a few days. She just says, let's take that time.

Anyone can find love anywhere at any time between the most unexpected of people. You know, sure, hot guy meets hot girl, you know, they fall in lust and then they fall in love. Great. But that's not the only way that love happens. Love happens in many, many, many different, random, strange, wonderful, peculiar ways. And I've completely forgotten what I was going to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: I do think the other part of it is, you know, people can look at something like this and go, oh, come on, give me a break.

NORRIS: Oh, yeah, that was what I was going to say.

NORRIS: Could this ever happen? It actually happened.

NORRIS: Yeah, that's exactly what I was going to say, Taylor, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: Yeah. The fact is that, you know, truth is oftentimes - in fact most of the time - much more a fantasmic oracle, much more interesting than fiction. And if you had taken this story, which is rather operatic, and written it as fiction, people would go: Give me a break. That could have never happened, especially in that situation, especially among these three people.

But in fact, it did. And it erupted into kind of fantastic passion and, you know, a crime of passion.

NORRIS: Any plans to work together again sometime soon, perhaps on stage?

NORRIS: I would love to work with my wife again. I mean, when you have a chance to work with Helen Mirren, you're given a huge gift. And the great thing is that we made it. You know, who knows what could have happened? After 25 years, you know, it was great when we first met, but this time, it could have blown up on our face.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: And it didn't and at this point, I relish the opportunity. But what I do understand is that I won't seduce her unless I've got a great role.

NORRIS: It's been great to talk to both of you. Thank you so much.

NORRIS: Thank you.

NORRIS: Thanks.

NORRIS: That's the actress Helen Mirren and the director Taylor Hackford. The husband-and-wife team collaborated on the new film "Love Ranch."

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer) (Singing) Hold on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ON, I'M COMING")

NORRIS: Perfect, perfect.

NORRIS: I love it. We're a husband-and-wife team now.

NORRIS: That's right. Good.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: I should say the wife-and-husband team.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: No, no, husband and wife is fine by me. No, no, I'm not saying that. I just like the fact of us being a team. It's great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ON, I'M COMING")

NORRIS: Hold on. Don't you ever be sad. Lean on me when times get bad. When the day comes and you're down, in a river of trouble and about to drown. Just hold on.

NORRIS: It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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