Helen Mirren made her name as a Shakespearan actress with the RSC and then went on to do films: with Ken Russell (Savage Messiah) and Lindsay Anderson (O Lucky Man!). She talked to Ray Connolly.
“I don’t think many stage actors make good film actors,” said Helen Mirren dismissively. She added: “But when they do, they’re brilliant.” We were talking about “Miss Julie”, Strindberg’s play about an upper-class woman who becomes mentally and sexually dominated by her manservant. Helen Mirren first played the part on stage aat The Place in London, for three months in 1971. Then the production was filmed and the film was brough by BBCtv.
“I like working in films,” she said, “although it’s much harder than acting on the stage. You can’t put yourself over a camera the way you can to a theatre audience. We did Miss Julie at The Place with the audience all round us, so really the process was filmic to start with – as though the audience were spies, looking in as we were acting. That’s what a camera is really – a spy. I don’t think we could have done it on film unless we’d had the three months on stage with it first. It was filmed by a special process, where you do everything on videotape, which then gets translated onto film. It means that you have to make everything as accurate as you can: you can’t afford to shoot more than half-an-inch of tape too much. So every tiny move has to be planned, and done accurately. “Miss Julie” was filmed in only a week, and as well as the technical demands on the actors, there were heavy emotional demands as well. I found I was putting so much of myself into the character, it was exhausting. Like going to a psychiatrist.”
Helen Mirren, brought up and convent-educated in Southend, decided to become an actress at 18. After astonishing our theatre critics with the grandeur of her bosom in the National Youth Theatre’s production of “Antony and Cleopatra”, she spent six months in rep at Manchester before joining the RSC. She quickly created a considerable reputation for herself by playing of Cressida, Hermia (in Peter Hall’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and Ophelia.
“You know all the best parts for women are in the classics,” she said. “It’s because women were then in repressed situations, and had to be very strong and determined t fight against the repression. All the good, human, dramatic parts were written before the suffragettes came along.”
During the past year, Helen Mirren has spent much of her time living abroad. Two years ago, she left the RSC and later joined Peter Brook’s International Centre of Theatre Research in Paris. She went with the company on a trek to bring experimental theatre to remote African villages. “We went in four Land Rovers, and whenever we came to a village Peter thought would be all right, we put our carpets down and did a performance. It was all very improvised. We didn’t use language, just sounds, and in particular vowel sounds, and we had a lot of music. We crossed the Sahara twice and went right down into Black Africa, as far as Dahomey. Generally, I think the Africans thought we were crazy. They’d never seen anything like us before, because as well as being a lot of freaks, we were an international group – Americans, Japanese, Europeans. But we were always greeted incredibly politely.”