When Helen Mirren was a leading light in the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, they used to see her roaring through Stratford-on-Avon at the wheel of her white M.G., blonde hair streaming out from under a scarf, beringed fingers firm on the wheel. They called her “Stratford’s Sex Queen,” and the headlines did nothing to disprove it. “Outrageous… provocative… outspoken…” they said, but what they really meant was that she was both classy and sexy. Her life amounted to an unrelieved diet of applause from critics, and curiosity from the gossip columns. “But really,” she says. “It’s so boring for everyone else, and it’s only interesting for me.” Not so. Her adventures are chronicled assiduously in all the popular papers and magazines, and her winning awards as an actress only adds spice to the ink. Alexander Hesketh, for instance, the Baronet of motor racing fame, has been a stage door johnny. And her former love George Galitzine, cousin of the Duke of Kent, is said to have blacked the eye of her most recent amour, photographer James Wedge.
“How on earth anyone can bother to call gossip columnists and tell them is mystifying,” says Helen but she admits in the next breath that she cant resist reading them, either. Today, at 29, she takes a different route around a different town: from her bachelor girl apartment in West London she heads nightly for Wyndham’s Theatre in Soho. There, In clinging black satin, split to the Datebook, Sunday, June 27, 1976 thigh, with stockings and suspenders to match, she twirls a microphone and sings, shouts and stomps her way through “Teeth n Smiles,” a savage satire on the decline of a girl rock singer. After years of picking the choicest plums from the cast lists at the R.S.C. Cleopatra, Cressida and Ophelia among them she has forsaken the noble ranks of classical theatre. Now she hits the coach parties for all she’s worth, and the reaction is interesting to observe. In the flesh, she is a very curious lady not quite a beauty, but with an irresistible quality that makes her intriguing. It intrigued, for one, Lord Snowdon (now, since his separation from Princess Margaret, calling himself Antony Armstrong-Jones once more), who came to her apartment to take her pictures for Vogue. “The place was full of builders, and I pleaded with the fashion editor not to send him. But they insisted and he didn’t seem to mind at all,” she says, relaxing in her dressing-room after the show. “He was very formal, very professional, and he worked so hard I was really impressed.”
She has always taken her work very seriously, from the days when she was with the National Youth Theatre onwards. She has starred in numerous TV plays, and her theatrical roles include the taxing Chekov drama “The Seagull,” and the Ben Travers farce “The Bed Before Yesterday.” In a rare movie performance, she scampered about nude on the Great Barrier Reef in “Age of Consent”… and has nothing nice to say about that film at all except that James Mason was a perfect gentleman. “I used to cringe when I read interviews I’d given,” she says now. “I just didn’t recognize myself at all. It made me withdraw for a while an identity crisis, I suppose. “Even now I hate people looking at me. If I have to have a fitting in front of three people, all of them ‘ staring at me, I really get embarrassed. I can’t wait to get it over with. “But up there on the stage, it’s ‘different. For me, that’s real. Me as a Person ” she gives it a capital letter “is something else.” It isn’t the money, she insists, that gets her out on the stage . . . and don’t they all? “No, I mean it. Money complicates everything, and I can’t work anything out at all for myself. “I’m too lazy. I’m not rich. Actors simply are not rich people until you become a super-superstar. But there’s no money in real acting”.