With a starring role on Dickinson, Ella Hunt is no stranger to getting all dolled up. The British actress plays Sue Gilbert, the best friend turned lover of Emily Dickinson on the 1800s-set Apple TV+ series. And her larger-than-life costumes are the picture of elegance — petticoats, corsets, and all.
Off-camera, Hunt opts for looks from Dior and Saint Laurent (when she’s not wearing sweats for Zoom calls, that is). But given her career trajectory so far, it comes as no surprise that when seeking style inspiration, she looks to a legendary actress — and fellow Brit! — who always kills it on the red carpet and has worn her own fair share of fabulously over-the-top costumes onscreen.
We’re talking about Helen Mirren, of course. So, for our March Style Crush chat, we connected Hunt with Mirren so she could ask the icon her most burning fashion questions. And in her signature candid way, the Dame held nothing back, dishing on everything from red carpet mishaps and corset woes to the time Meryl Streep stitched her up in the bathroom at the Golden Globes (yes, really).
Read an extended version of their chat, below. And for more stories like this, pick up the March 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download now.
Ella Hunt: Helen, I don’t know if you remember this, but we met once at an Oscars party. I was 16, and my best friend, Daisy Edgar-Jones, and I had this fantasy of one day being our generation’s Dame Helen Mirren and Dame Judi Dench. We went up to you, and you were so sweet. I find big events stressful, but you made my night.
Helen Mirren: Oh, good! You learn to love those events. I like to sit in a corner and watch the amazing parade of personalities and clothes. I don’t care if anyone comes over to talk to me. [laughs]
EH: I have such admiration for how sassy and free and playful you are on red carpets. Have you always been so comfortable with the press?
HM: I've never been afraid of the press, really. I've occasionally gotten into a little bit of hot water by being misunderstood or saying something really stupid. But it’s important not to take yourself too seriously or feel too devastated when something like that happens. You have to just remember that people's memories are really short. The internet, unfortunately, keeps things hanging around for much longer than they used to, but at the same time, in the larger scale of things, it’s really comparatively small. It’s not going to make or break you.
EH: Does the way you dress affect how you feel?
HM: Definitely. I sound so fuddy-duddy when I say this, but I’ve learned that comfort is so important. That way you can breathe, sit, and move your arms without thinking that your breasts are going to fall out. You can be beautiful and sexy or whatever, but when you’re comfortable, that’s when you can enjoy yourself.
EH: For my first big première, I wore a fabulous dress that was slightly too long. When I picked it up, I basically showed the cameras my underwear, and that picture ran everywhere. Do you think only about how you’ll feel in an outfit, or do you also think about how it will translate in a photograph?
HM: You can do both. But don’t worry about those moments — we’ve all been there. A couture house once made me a beautiful dress in less than a week for the Golden Globes. It survived the red carpet, but when I sat down, the thing started to completely fall apart. I was fortunate to be at a table with Meryl Streep, who is the loveliest person, and she said, “Come on, let’s go deal with your dress.” We went off to the ladies’ room and there was Meryl Streep, sewing my dress back onto me.
EH: If there’s anybody in the world you’d want to fix your dress at the Golden Globes, I think it should be Meryl Streep.
EH: For the Dickinson season one premiere, I wore a beautiful Oscar De La Renta dress. I was having such a great time getting ready with my hair and makeup team though, that I didn’t realize time was flying by. I threw the dress on, got in the car, and we got stuck in traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. I was the last person to get to the red carpet, and right away I realized that there was something going on between my butt cheeks. I didn’t know what, but I knew it was uncomfortable. I couldn’t do anything about it in front of the fans and photographers, though.
HM: Oh, no. Once you’re out of the car, you’re on show.
EH: Right! As soon as I could, I went to the bathroom and discovered that the inner corset zipper of the dress had gotten caught in my bottom. Now I know that you always have to check how you feel in your dress before you get out of the car.
HM: Yes. That way you have time to get whatever's in the butt cheeks out. Another important lesson I learned is to try on your outfit at least 20 minutes before you have to get ready. A shop in New York once sent me a look for a big event, and the zipper was stuck. I was running late and panicked. I pulled a red sheath dress out of my closet that still had the tags—I’d bought it on sale at an outlet store for $39.99. People on the carpet asked who my dress was by, and I said, “Jacques Sepenier.” No one had heard of him. I said, “It’s J.C. Penney!” I still made the best-dressed lists. It’s all smoke and mirrors, really.
EH: Each outfit is a learning curve. By the way, I’ll never forget when you showed up to Cannes with pink hair.
HM: Oh, yes—that was a quick in-and-out job! It was my natural color at 5 o’clock in the evening, pink by eight, and back to my color again at 11 that night.
EH: Wow. I cut my hair off recently. I have a buzzcut now!
HM: I’ve gone the other way — I’ve got COVID hair that’s gotten longer and longer. But I’m actually quite enjoying it for a change. I can't wait to have a look in the newspapers and see a picture of you with your short hair, though. What a liberation!
EH: It is! I'm leaning into sexiness in more of an androgynous way than I ever felt confident doing with long hair. Has your style changed over time?
HM: I don’t think I’ve had an evolution of style. I like color, but it’s also great going back to black-and-white. The whole thing is very random — there’s nothing remotely calculated or thought-out about what I wear. I know my body now, so I’m quick. I can go through racks of clothes in under five minutes and say, “That’s the one.”
EH: Which red-carpet look have you loved most?
HM: My dress for the Academy Awards  was an incredible personal moment. It was designed for me by Christian Lacroix, one of the great and imaginative French couture houses that is no more, so it has become even more important to me.
EH: You’ve had so many costumes made for you too — I’m sure you’ve worked on many pieces in a corset. I work on a show where I’m laced up so intensely every morning that I get strange marks on my body where the corset bone sits.
HM: Oh, you have to have an opera corset! It has elasticized panels in it so you can breathe. Demand it, darling. Also, ask the carpenters to make you a leaning board. It’s a board that you literally lean against to rest your bum when you’re in a heavy costume.
EH: I’m writing this down. Have you ever kept a favorite item of clothing from a set?
HM: That's a good question. I haven't, really. If it's modern clothes, and I know they've got a few copies of something that I really like, I'll ask the produce if it's possible to keep a pair. But these beautifully made, period costumes, they're one-of-a-kind.
EH: They're meant for museums. They're not meant for our cupboard.
HM: No, they're not. They're absolutely spectacular and beautifully-made, and they're wonderful things to wear. I absolutely love costume — period costume, especially.
EH: Do you have an all-time favorite costume you’ve ever worn?
HM: I did a series called Cousin Bette [in 1971] and wore a wonderfully complicated Victorian-style dress that I’ve never forgotten. I also worked with Jean Paul Gaultier for the  film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and he made me a dress that was so ahead of its time. I loved it.
EH: He’s just extraordinary. Who are your go-to designers now?
HM: Dolce & Gabbana mixes fun with sophistication and sexiness in a way that only Italian designers can do, and I think they do it best. I also try to find local up-and-coming designers when I’m somewhere like France or Berlin or London for an event. It’s always exciting for me to see what the next wave is — especially in Britain.
EH: I’m still at the beginning of my fashion journey, and I’m amazed every time I get to wear a fashion house like Dior, Chanel, or Yves Saint Laurent. But my next season of press is all on Zoom, so on the bottom, I’m definitely going to be in Uggs and pajamas. [laughs]
HM: Isn’t it bizarre? Just remember that lighting is incredibly important. Buy yourself a ring light!
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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