Her grandfather traded guns and her father fought Mosley’s Black Shirts. She likes strong roles and nights out in LA’s gangland. Strange, then, that Helen Mirren doesn’t believe she’s tough
Helen Mirren comes breezing in to the chic New York brasserie where we meet, dressed, looking and smiling like an attractive 40-year-old. It is only on second glance that it becomes clear she is the 56-year-old who had her first acting role at the Old Vic four decades ago – inimitably striking, every real woman’s (and any sensible man’s) favourite actress. She was Cleopatra then and has played two Cleopatras since (as well as two Lady Macbeths, and the heroine of such films as The Long Good Friday, The Comfort of Strangers and The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover), but her aura hasn’t really changed since that first. The passion is either heated or ice cold; there’s that look, distant but full of guile, which can switch from apparent distraction to a devouring, lustful concentration – not only between parts but in the same moment. When she leaves, two hours later, it turns out that a friend of mine has been watching us talk, unbeknownto me, from beside the cafe window. ‘That’s not just a movie star,’ she says, ‘that’s Helen Mirren.’ Mirren has been showered with awards, and a Golden Globe nomination, for her role in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, which opens in the UK next week. The film is like an opera – even the dialogue is a tapestry sewn together like an overlapping Mozartian ensemble. Indeed, the theme is a nasty twist on Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, in which a Count renounces his droit de seigneur over his female servants’ bodies, making the guileful Susanna, not Figaro, the central figure of the opera.
Gosford Park is set in England in 1932, when a group of aristocrats and an American visitor gather for a shooting party, attended by their valets and the domestic staff of Sir William McCordle. But, unlike Mozart’s Count, William does deploy his droit, impregnating the maids downstairs, and the story tells what happens when he is forced to reap what he sows. The modernity of Altman’s film is that it appears to have no central character – but it does: Mrs Wilson, foremost among the female servants and among William’s victims, the tragic ‘Susanna’ played by Helen Mirren. Mirren’s lines are few, but in a film of few sharp edges, the intensity of her taut control, giving way to an outpouring of grief at the end, gives her the commanding role. She punctures the idle pointlessness of ‘upstairs’ and the subservient apathy of ‘downstairs’ first by withholding passion and then by unleashing it.
Our discussion of the role brings Mirren to what seems to be her favourite subject: parents and origins, and politics. ‘My mother came from that world of upstairs, downstairs,’ she says. ‘She wasn’t in domestic service herself, but she narrowly escaped it, and that’s partly why I wanted to do this film. To show the world of “upstairs” through the eyes of “downstairs” – in the film, you never see the posh characters relate to each other without the servants’ eyes on them.’
Mirren’s mother was ‘pure Pimlico,’ she says, ‘as in Passport to Pimlico , when it was still a poor working-class area. There was some gypsy in her – she came from a family of butchers, and the claim to fame was that her grandfather had been a butcher to Queen Victoria. She was the last of 13 children.’ Helen Mirren’s real name is Ilyena Lydia Mironoff; she is half Russian. ‘My grandfather,’ she says, ‘was what you might call a White Russian who came to England when my father was two years old, to do an arms deal I thought had associations with the Revolution, but was actually to do with the Russo-Japanese war.’ Before Helen was born (in 1945), her parents moved to Ilford, Essex, and worked together in the Jacquard fabric shop. But fabrics were not her father’s main interest. ‘He was a socialist about to become a communist, fighting the Black Shirts in the East End at that time when there was a lot to look forward to, in the 1930s and 1940s. He was never a card-carrying member, but later I think he suffered a great deal from bitter and terrible disillusionment with Stalin and Russia.’ It was Joan of Arc who first drew Helen Mirren into the world of theatre. Neither because of martyrdom, nor on stage, she says, but because Saint Joan was ‘portrayed as the wicked witch’ in Shakespeare’s Henry VI – ‘I loved her for that. I became obsessed by Shakespeare when I was about 13, especially The Tempest, Ariel and Caliban’ (she played the latter in a school production).
Mirren never went to the movies, but decided she wanted to act. ‘However, my parents persuaded me, very wisely indeed, that a career in theatre was a bad idea and a non-starter and encouraged me to become a teacher.’ But an audition with the National Youth Theatre for Antony and Cleopatra led to her role as the Egyptian queen in 1965, and she had joined the RSC by the age of 20. ‘When I was about 25,’ she says, ‘I was really depressed and fucked up. I went to a hand-reader, this Indian guy in a funky neighbourhood. He said: “the height of your success won’t happen until you’re in your late forties”. From that moment on, I felt much better because I realised I didn’t want to know what was going to happen, I just wanted to get on with it.’ So she continued to ignore her father’s advice about the teaching profession, if not his politics. ‘I’m not a communist, of course,’ she says. ‘But I do think that everything is down to economics. Capitalism doesn’t change. Look at this Enron thing. It’s about pure greed and fuck the others – it’s ours and we can do what we like with it.’ We are used to the ‘Hollywood Left’, that favourite bogey of American right-wing talk radio, always on about Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg and their friends in the ‘liberal media’. But while most Hollywood champagne socialists do actually live much like Enron executives, a glimpse into the private life of Helen Mirren – as I happened to see it a while back in Los Angeles – shows that she doesn’t quite fit the Hollywood bill.
There is a hydraulic gateway on the drive leading to her house, but it is not at all in the ‘right’ bit of Hollywood: ‘Hardly Beverly Hills or the full works,’ says Mirren, ‘It was once the dangerous bit where most film industry people wouldn’t dare to go. Now it’s become the younger part of town.’ Then there’s the fact that Helen Mirren has for 17 years lived with – and now married – Taylor Hackford. Hackford is a successful Los Angeles producer-director, so this could look like one of those movie-land matches. ‘He’s a chain smoker,’ offers Mirren by way of a mitigating circumstance, ‘which is very un-Californian.’ And then some: Hackford was raised on the wrong side of the tracks in Santa Barbara by a mother struggling against poverty, abandonment by her husband and, later, breast cancer. Hackford’s elder brother was killed in an industrial accident – but Taylor made it to Hollywood and became one of the few producers to take on and beat Warner Brothers. The night I met them, we sped into the depths of East LA’s gangland to ‘some joint I know’, as Hackford put it. The couple were duly feted with Dos Equis beer and tortillas in a place any other Hollywood luvvie would fear to tread, while Hackford explained the significance of various teardrop tattoos among different Latino gangs.
The (gratifying) problem in conversing with Helen Mirren is getting her to ‘give an interview’ by talking about Helen Mirren, because she is so endlessly interested in everything else around her, from President Bush’s current scandal with the Enron energy corporation to the root causes of fundamentalist Islam. She was embarking on Strindberg’s Dance of Death – in which she stars opposite Ian McKellen, and which has defied this season’s disastrous ticket sales on Broadway – just as al-Qaeda’s planes slammed into the World Trade Centre. ‘The attacks came just as we were going into the theatre for tech week rehearsal,’ she recalls. ‘We wondered what to do, and decided to carry on – that this was the best way of saying “fuck you”‘.
Strindberg’s play is about a captain in the military coast guard, Edgar, and his wife Alice, who live on an small island its inhabitants call ‘Little Hell’. Mirren says Alice is one of the most taxing parts she has played: ‘not because of the energy required to be mean and nasty, but because of the mad psychological underpinning Strindberg puts beneath every line, just like real conversation’.
Although claustrophobia and barbed warfare are the forces that bind this apparently doomed marriage, Alice and Edgar decide to remain entwined once faced with the Captain’s death. ‘This is not optimism,’ says Mirren, ‘it’s much better than that. This is real life, this is human beings and it is what happens. Life must go on. And it does. It takes a long time, as they say in the play to ‘X things out’ and carry on. But that is exactly what people do, and what New York is doing after 11 September. Mirren is one of few to offer the heretical, oft-thought but little spoken view of the city since that fateful day when, like the hero of Strindberg’s play, it met death face to face. ‘It has changed, and to be honest I sort of hope it doesn’t recover. New York is wiser, more generous, more serious and more cohesive. It’s everything they say about London after the Blitz. It shows those people that a bloody campaign never achieves what it sets out to do – just like Israel is also finding out – you just bind together the people you attack more closely.’ The granddaughter of an arms dealer is now making headlines in America by campaigning against the country’s favourite toy: guns. Mirren has become an active campaigner internationally in support of Oxfam’s crusade against the small arms trade. ‘It started from being in America. It’s a great country for all its faults – bold, brilliant – but there is this cancer, the accessibility of guns, which kill thousands of potentially great Americans. Then Oxfam approached me and told me about the situation internationally. And I think it just struck me that the underlying cause – or one of them – of so much of the misery is the unstoppable availability to any group of a flow of guns from Britain, France, Russia, China or wherever. The people are hungry, the NGOs get the food, but they can’t deliver it because of people with guns – how many times have we heard this?’
According to Mirren, she is three years off being ‘an old bird’ – she’s in ‘that difficult period between 54 and 58’ when ‘you’re no longer a mature good-looking woman’ and not yet the old bird. ‘After that,’ she says, ‘it’s fine.’ So what worries Helen Mirren? ‘Time. There is not a lot of time in the world, and my worry is that I’m basically quite lazy’ (she says, as someone from whom one might get an electric shock of un-laziness if she came too close). Mirren has been reading a book about the dancer Josephine Baker, ‘not exactly a role model but it’s that energy I admire. I think of myself as being a bit of a wimp deep down – a bourgeois wimp – and I’m fighting that. I think all Brits are, maybe. ‘So I’ve decided that people need energy in this world more than they need talent. That’s the greatest gift the birth fairy can give you. My worry is that I need to try and put more energy into my life and work.’ Helen Mirren on a shot of the birth fairy’s natural amphetamine: it’s a pretty terrifying thought.
Gosford Park opens on 1 February