I first saw her across the room at a screening party for Showtime’s “Homeland’’ in New York last year.
She caught my eye because, with her long wavy blond hair and lovely curves, she looked like a shimmering mermaid. And I love mermaids.
“That’s Rupert Friend’s girlfriend,’’ someone from the show said admiringly to me. “She has no legs.”
I was stunned. The beautiful woman smiling beside Friend, the handsome British actor who stars as Peter Quinn in “Homeland,” was a literal mermaid.
I never met her that night. But in June, I visited the “Homeland” set in Berlin to trail Lesli Linka Glatter, the talented director for the show. I was doing a New York Times Magazine story on the abysmally low percentage of female directors in Hollywood.
Studio chiefs, both men and women, have a hard time visualizing a woman directing action films. But there was Glatter, stomping around in black leather jacket and motorcycle boots under a bridge in a graffiti-covered neighborhood, preparing to direct thrilling action sequences and blow up buildings.
That day’s scene was Rupert Friend’s Quinn, a C.I.A. “wet works’’ assassin, realizing he has to delay his plan to take out a female ISIS recruiter who is converting teenage girls to the cause.
A luminous blonde in skinny jeans and gray boots sidled up to me and nodded over at Friend.
“He’s not killing someone today,’’ she said, in a musical voice full of laughter. “What a relief.”
I recognized her from the party. “I’m Aimee Mullins,’’ she said.
Over coffee in paper cups, standing in gravel filled with crack vials from real-life in Berlin, Mullins offered help with my story. She told me about Glatter’s generosity training younger women who want to direct and her routine of changing footwear three times a day to get fresh energy and her feminine fetish of reapplying lipstick every 20 minutes. The mischievous Mullins even knew Glatter’s precise shade: Clinique Cranberry Cream.
Periodically, Glatter would have to stop filming while church bells pealed.
“Hazards of shooting on a Sunday morning,’’ Mullins said, laughing. During breaks, while Friend stood on his mark, she would wave at him or the two would rock in humorous harmony from opposite sides of the set.
As Mullins and I chatted, we realized our dads were born in neighboring villages in County Clare and that we both loved the Burren.
“So you have the rocks of Clare in your head, too,” I told her, using one of my mom’s expressions. "Up the Bannner" she responded, using a nickname for County Clare.
Her dad, Brendan Mullins, was from Crusheen and mine, Mike Dowd, was from Ballyvaughn, 40 kilometers away. They both left Ireland when they were teenagers and ended up emigrating to the United States and marrying American girls.
My father was a policeman in Washington, D.C. and hers was a construction worker in New York City and then Allentown, Pa., where he settled.
“My dad would give me the odd brick on which to pile plaster with a trowel – practice my technique – but he was intent on me becoming a doctor, lawyer or an engineer,’’ Mullins recalled. “I was raised to go into a room and eye a wall and see if it’s straight. I still get a thrill going into a home with plastered walls and moldings.’’
When she went to Georgetown University, she said, “I lived with a bunch of guys, but I was the only one with a toolbox. That’s one of the things Rupert and I connect on. The place he bought in East London, he learned how to do everything. He learned plumbing. He put in the wood floor. He found an old church in the north of England that was being demolished and he bought the wood from the floor so it’s been walked on for hundreds of years. When he works with wood, he’s so happy. We’re desperate to learn how to plaster.’’
She and Friend share a co-op in London housed in an old shoe factory and an apartment in downtown New York.
It turned out that we were both headed to the Cannes Lions Festival the next day to be on panels, so we made a date to have lunch on the Croisette.
Before we got together, I read up on Mullins. The 39-year-old is an athlete, actress and model renowned for her inspiring TED talks. She has been a global ambassador for L’Oréal Paris for five years and has a role in a new Netflix series called “Stranger Things.’’
She strolled the catwalk for the late Alexander McQueen, who made her prosthetics fashioned of ash wood to look like lacy high-heeled boots for his 1999 fashion show.
Her Wikipedia entry is astonishing. In high school she skied and played softball, holding the record for stolen bases. She went to Georgetown on an academic scholarship. “She competed against able-bodied athletes in NCAA Division I female,’’ Wiki said, and became “the first amputee in history, male or female, to compete in the NCAA. She was the first person in the world on the ‘Cheetah’ carbon-fiber sprinting legs and made that design iconic through her extensive global press coverage.’’ She competed in the Paralympics in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint and long-jump in 1996, setting world records in all three events.
She has been named both one of the “Coolest Girls in Sports” by Sports Illustrated and one of the world’s Most Beautiful People by People magazine.
As we sat by the ocean on the Côte d’Azur, the breeze blowing, she told me that she has 15 pairs of prosthetic legs, some for high heels, some for flats and some that can make her a few inches taller for modeling. At lunch, she looks Cannes-chic in a black-and-white print silk jumpsuit. Her toenails, painted dark red, peep out from her sandal-clad faux feet.
“But if I want to go in the ocean, I have to bring a suitcase with my swimming legs,’’ she explained, adding that those have holes drilled in the sockets to let the water run through so they don’t get moldy.
For hiking, walking and spin classes in New York, she uses a vertical shock prosthesis with a shock absorber and spring and a general shin-and-foot shape. “They have shock absorbers with carbon fiber,’’ she said. “It’s full-on Robocop. You see little boys who get so excited. It’s the coolest thing.’’
Aimee was born without fibula so her legs weren’t fully formed, her feet were turned in and toes were missing. The doctor broke the news to her parents that she would never walk or have mobility and she would never be able to live independently.
(“You’ve been making a liar out of me ever since,’’ that doctor told her a few years ago when he ran into her in Allentown.)
At age one, Mullins was amputated at the knees.
“Fibula are not weight-bearing bones so I don’t know why they had to amputate,’’ she mused. “Today, they might be able to bolster the legs.’’
Her mother had been a Franciscan nun who left the convent after five years, and there was “baggage” about that, a feeling that Aimee’s woes might be “God’s punishment.”
“I’m sure that led to some of my natural defiance,’’ Mullins said.
Many surgeries followed until she was eight and she spent a lot of time in the hospital. “Not having an ankle is annoying,’’ she said. “Not having an ankle and a knee is hard. Growing up with wooden legs, with every step I made, the energy was dissipated into the ground. The first time I put on carbon fiber feet, it was like walking on clouds.
“My parents were like parents in the 30s, not parents in the 80s. They were like, ‘Get on with it.’ There was some bullying in school and it was like, ‘You deal with it.’ I was an easy target. I had this one girl make my life a living hell. It’s funny, one of the very first ‘Friend’ requests I got when Facebook started was from her. And I remember, I literally had this feeling of a sword running through me.’’
She had a “juvenile moment of revenge’’ when she was named one of People’s Most Beautiful, hoping the bully would see the magazine at the checkout counter.
I had been fretting over some work problems but as I talked to Mullins, I felt sheepish in the face of her indomitable spirit. She has a low-key charm, golden-mossy green eyes and an incandescent smile that makes everyone from harried waitresses to snotty French concierges melt. As she breezily talked about her challenges, ordinary problems seemed like small potatoes.
As Glatter told me, “Every time I talk to Aimee, I’m inspired again to be more, do more than I ever thought possible, because she does, because she leads by graceful example.’’
But just as I am feeling all inspired over our rosé and fish, Mullins waves off any shows of sentimentality.
“I remember being really annoyed with people finding ways to describe me and using the hackneyed go-to phrase of ‘You’re inspirational and fearless,’’’ she said. “It drives me crazy because fear is a very natural emotional state and a good thing to have. It’s what makes you look before you step off the curb.”
In one of her TED talks, Mullins disparaged the pejorative Webster definitions for the word “disabled,” such as “crippled,’’ “mangled,’’ and “useless,’’ noting “The question isn’t whether you’re going to meet adversity but how you’re going to meet it.’’
She also mocked the word “normal.’’ “Who’s normal?’’ she asked. “Would you want to meet that poor beige person? I don’t think so.’’
She shakes her head when people tell her she looks “beautiful and not disabled or anything.’’
“I didn’t affiliate with the tribe of amputees any more than I did with blondes,’’ she told me. “Journalists would ask me, `So why sprinting?’ and I was like, ‘Why not?’ They’d say, ‘Well, you don’t have feet.’ And I’d explain that the Cheetah legs hurt in the same way that high heels hurt until you get used to it. I’m used to it.’’
She said the first evening with Friend – who had previously had a long relationship with Keira Knightly – was about a project he wrote and is directing. They met at a little place in the East Village at 6 p.m. and were just about the only two people in the bar.
“At some point,’’ she remembered, “the bartender said ‘I’m sorry but I’m going to have to ask you guys to leave.’ And we looked up at him and said ‘Why?’ and he answered ‘Because it’s 4:30 a.m. and we closed an hour ago.’ We had no idea. We hadn’t even had dinner. We weren’t aware of anyone or anything else the whole evening, and it was just wonderful, scintillating conversation, on so many different topics, between two intensely curious minds. I don’t even remember thinking that he was cute! But he wrote me a few times the next day and insisted that we had to see each other again a.s.a.p. and we met for dinner at 6 p.m. the night after that and that dinner went on until 5:30 a.m., walking down the block to find any place that was still open. We couldn’t seem to part from one another. And it’s been like that every day since the first of May 2013. He proposed, quite unexpectedly, the following May when we were in the South China Sea for one night as a quick escape from where he was shooting a film in Singapore.’’
She shows me her large, unusual engagement ring, a pale green stone with the image of a goddess carved into it. She said she had always bought her own “stuff” so she didn’t really think she needed a ring.
“And my father said ‘No ring, no engagement.’ And poor Rupert said ‘Do you feel that way?’ and I said, ‘Of course I don’t feel that way.’’’
But Rupert followed Brendan Mullins’s orders and chose a ring from Armenian Turkish jeweler Sevan Bicakci as unique and beautiful as Aimee herself.
“Rupert loved two things about it,’’ she said. “The color of the stone that looked like my eyes, and that it looked like a Viking shield. When I wear jewelry, I like it to have a story. Rupert looked up the story of the goddess Cybele carved in it and it was a woman who’s a foreign, mysterious figure who arrives in her chariot drawn by two lions and she’s followed by a carousing drunken, singing band of people.
“Singing, dancing, carousing and drunk – that just made me so happy,’’ Rupert told Aimee. “That’s so you.’’
They have not yet set a date. “I think we’re going to be scandalous and elope as the idea of planning any kind of wedding makes me break out in hives,’’ she said. “We get to play dress-up all the time so I don’t need the whole dress/cake /event aspect of it and thankfully neither does my intended.
“We take honeymoons all the time! So far this year, we’ve had honeymoons in Sicily, Sardegna, Prague, the Hudson Valley, the North Fork, Paris, the Shenandoah Valley and Oxfordshire. We’re very good at taking time with each other, away from everything else. But we have both always dreamt of going on horseback over the Andes from Argentina to Peru. We very nearly did a ride through Namibia to the Skeleton Coast this year but dates with ‘Homeland’ conflicted with the trip, so maybe next year.’’
She has not yet taken Friend to Ireland to see her family’s property. (Mullins has an Irish passport as well as an American one.)
“But a perfect pint of Guinness awaits him at Fogarty’s pub, my granddad’s old local hang out, and another one at Linnane’s pub on Galway Bay, one of my favorite spots, more of a drive so it was something I’d often do alone, as Crusheen locals wouldn’t see the point of driving somewhere when you can get a perfectly good pint down the lane.
“Guinness and oysters and then buy fresh lobsters from the boatmen coming in right behind the pub and take them up the winding road to a friends’ place in the Burren, fire up the grill and dig up a few potatoes from the garden! Heaven, that part of the world, overlooking the sea. I’m getting hungry and teary just thinking about it.”
“Her cousin now lives in the house her granddad, Thomas – who died at aged 94 in 2005 – built. And her father built a house of his own about 15 years ago down the road on family land. Her bedroom in the house looks out on the Burren.
“My dad is retired so he spends about a quarter or more of the year there now and my mother comes for about three weeks of that,’’ she said. “She just retired this year and I think hasn’t quite come to terms with the fact that she can actually leave the U.S. for longer stretches of time.
“One of the incredible things about that culture, the essential Irishness, is its staying power, sticking power,’’ she marveled. “The whole storytelling culture. You think about a country the size of the state of Maine, a few million people, and the output of musicians and poets and writers, lyricists and artists. Pride is really a key to the Irish. It’s a culture that is internal and has music in the language. They start words inside their mouths and finish outside. I think that’s telling. They have a confidence in knowing that they’re good at storytelling. I think that is why somebody’s great-great-grandmother being Irish has some sort of relevance.’’
(Later, when we learned of Maureen O’Hara’s death, Mullins emailed me: “She was major. My father’s going to be in mourning today. She and Sean Connery were my two childhood icons of Celtic perfection. ‘Yes, I can, I will and I DO!’ – my favorite line of Mary Kate Danaher in ‘The Quiet Man.’’’ Of course, it is.)
At the end of our Cannes lunch, I thanked Mullins for shooing away my funk. Though she doesn’t like to give herself credit for inspiring, she has that gift.
“Sometimes it’s more of a fight to make life fun,’’ she said, offering me that magical mermaid smile. “But that is my natural bent.’’