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Shanghai Festival: Helen Mirren Charms Audience by Learning to Swear in Chinese

Helen Mirren
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The British actress mesmerizes the local media in her first visit to the country.

SHANGHAI -- To Chinese audiences, Helen Mirren is best-known for playing Elizabeth II in The Queen -- so her request to learn how to say “pain in the arse” in Chinese during her first public appearance at the Shanghai International Film Festival stunned and amused the Chinese media scrum.

Her query about local slang came in response to a question about her working relationship with her director husband Taylor Hackford, with whom she worked on the 2010 film Love Ranch; she was using the phrase to describe how the pair felt about each other on set.

STORY: Helen Mirren Swears at, Silences Drummers Who Disturbed London Play

After receiving a litany of local translations from the journalists present, Mirren got one she liked, and then quickly made use of the term -- dan teng, which translates literally as “egg pain,” but is used in contexts similar to the one the actress described. She then joked that maybe this is how local people will perceive her during her whirlwind trip through the Chinese city.

She need not have feared. Wearing a belt she said she had just bought in a shop in Shanghai, Mirren -- who said she was looking forward to having dinner at a “local and funky” place rather than a grand restaurant -- was warmly received at the press conference, with one journalist praising the actress for carrying her own handbag and arriving at the event without an entourage -- something female Chinese starlets seldom do. 

“It’s my personal choice -- I don’t like to have a lot of people, so I’m fairly independent,” she said.

Mirren was in Shanghai to meet the audience at a screening of Hitchcock, in which she plays the titular British filmmaker’s long-suffering wife Alma Reville -- an overlooked individual Mirren said she could empathize with.

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“When I went to Hollywood my husband was a famous Hollywood director while I was a British theater actress nobody knew -- and people would elbow me out of the way to get to my husband,” she said.

The tables have since turned, of course -- and the dual-career drive of their relationship was put somewhat in focus in Shanghai on Wednesday, as Hackford was appearing at a competing film market panel at the very same time as Mirren’s press conference. The director is also presenting his film Parker at the festival.

The local media also asked Mirren about her voice role in Monsters University, the Pixar animation film which opened the festival on Saturday, to which she said she agreed to do the film because “she’s always wanted to be in a Pixar movie, which are going to be classics” in the future. “It’s great to be part of that library,” she added.