She is an actress as well as a film star, and there are plenty of film stars of whom that can’t be said
The business of playing queens is par for the course for a classical actress, but for Helen Mirren there is a special significance. Aged 19, she made her precocious breakthrough performance as Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s greatest female role, in a National Youth Theatre production. At 50 she won an Oscar nomination for her affecting Queen Charlotte in the film of The Madness of King George. And now aged 60 Dame Helen Mirren will soon portray Queens Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II on television. (Channel 4 will broadcast the first of two episodes of Elizabeth I next Thursday.) Although it was her performance as DS Jane Tennison in the series of Prime Suspect television dramas that made her an international success in the early 1990s, she had already had a singularly distinguished career on the English stage. Her extraordinary talents were exactly what was needed to transform women’s roles in classical acting in the 1960s and 70s.
The intelligent sensuality of her first Cleopatra that had attracted the attention of the Royal Shakespeare Company was brought to bear on many classical roles and reconfigured them for a world coming to terms with women’s liberation and the expansion of female possibility. Of her Lady Macbeth in 1974 for Trevor Nunn, the critic Benedict Nightingale observed: “Few actors now feel they can ignore … the sexual politics of the Macbeths’ dark and sinister marriage. That was largely Mirren’s achievement.” Another critic, Harold Hobson, noted: “When the stage is occupied only by Macbeth himself, Macduff and so on, I was wishing the author would get rid of them and let us see what was happening to this marvellous actress. I really do regret that Shakespeare never knew Miss Mirren. We would then have had a different play.”
She was also open to the period’s radical experimentation, sometimes silly, often self-indulgent, but on occasions brilliant. In 1972 she joined the International Centre of Theatre Research, a company founded by Peter Brook, and travelled with them through North Africa and North America seeking a pared-down, basic style of performance which could communicate to all human beings beyond a a particular culture. One night with the troupe in Minnesota, drunk on brandy, she had a native American symbol tattooed on her left hand. Mirren said recently: “I got it when only sailors and Hell’s Angels had them. I’m appalled that it’s become a middle-class thing. There’s no respect for rebellion any more.” Her life has been characterised by a mild, non-self-destructive bohemianism. Mark Rylance recalls her at a party he gave at Stratford in 1982. “We hired a bus and picked up 30 or 40 actors at the end of the night’s performances – all in costume – and asked them to stay in character and improvise. Bob Peck was there as Caliban and Sinead Cusack as Katherine and Helen Mirren as Cleopatra. The invitation said that God had decided to end the world in a couple of hours and needed to find a new Adam and Eve from the characters in Shakespeare. I was the Angel Gabriel in drag as the host and everyone got very crazy with drink and drugs and stuff.” But he remembers Mirren that evening controlling the entire party by dint of using a very quiet voice, an aspect of technique which has used to great effect at Shakespeare’s Globe.
She is entirely relaxed about her image as a sex symbol – and equally comfortable about removing her clothes on stage or screen – from her early appearance in Age of Consent in 1969 to Calendar Girls in 2003. “I have traded on it. I do the tousled thing from time to time. I can do the dirty thing. Or grubby. But at some point you decide enough of that, I had better move on.” Jane Tennison was what she moved on to. “It got rid of one sort of image and moved me on to another arena. It was playing a part that was more personality driven and wasn’t dependent on the size of my breasts. It was very valuable for me.” It was valuable, too, she suggests, for millions of women in Britain and in the other countries that Prime Suspect conquered, including the United States. Mirren is very serious on the matters of feminism and women’s place in the world. The series, she argues, especially touched professional women who had begun their careers just when the feminist movement was getting started. “They had put up with it for 20 years and none of them had been able to complain publicly about anything because it would have been death to their careers. And suddenly, there on the screen, there was a woman who was saying, ‘Screw you.’ A yell went up from all the women in all the professions, saying, ‘Yes, that is exactly what it is like for us; that is exactly what it is like.’ It articulated their frustrations.”
The critic John Lahr observes: “To be the kind of actress she is, she has had to fight a lot of battles. And in Prime Suspect she has to be smart and ballsy and resourceful. The character is isolated by her intelligence, by her commitment to doing the job well. It’s great that Mirren has had a part that allows her to bring all these things out of herself. She’s full of passion, but she makes the passion articulate.” Like many actors who become identified with a particular role she has been ambivalent about it. “I don’t want to get knocked over by a car and have my obituary just talk about Prime Suspect.” But Prime Suspect 7 will be filming this autumn to appear in the new year. She has said this will definitely be the last. Her £750,000 fee for playing Jane Tennison has made her the best-paid actor ever on British television. At a read-through for the latest Prime Suspect, Andy Harries, Granada Television’s controller of drama, sat in. He watched with interest as other members of the cast and production team arrived. “As they filed in, and saw her sitting there, they all gave her this little deferential nod. And I remember thinking ‘blimey, she’s like the Queen’. Which she is – she’s the reigning queen of British drama. And a little light went on in my head. We’d just filmed The Deal, about the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and I’d found it incredibly exciting to do a drama about real people, a real event. I was wondering what we could do next, and the idea took root in that room.”
Which is how Mirren comes to be playing Queen Elizabeth II in a film co-produced by ITV and Pathé about the traumatic week following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Filming is taking place now, under the direction of Stephen Frears and a theatrical release this winter. Mirren’s grandfather was a Russian aristocrat stranded in London when the 1917 Bolshevik revolution took place. Born Ilyena Lydia Mironoff to a Russian father and English mother, she was brought up in Southend, “feeling like an immigrant”. At school, she has said, “I was always frightened of other people. Then when I started acting I worried that I wasn’t doing it well enough. Later my anxiety was more in the social sense. It sounds a terrible thing for a strong feminist woman to say, but I’ve always needed a guy to hide behind who could be the strong person at a party.” She had wanted to be an actress from an early age and acted at school. She says by 13 she was obsessed with Shakespeare, having been drawn to him by the character of Joan of Arc in Henry VI. “She was portrayed as the wicked witch. I loved her for that.” Her parents did not think acting was a suitable career and encouraged her to enrol at teacher training college, which she did. But having auditioned for the National Youth Theatre, she was taken on and, in 1965, made her sensational debut at the Old Vic as Cleopatra.
For years Mirren scorned marriage – “a personal preference, not a political statement”. And she never wanted children. The men in Mirren’s life have included Warren Beatty, a Russian art dealer and Liam Neeson. She met the Hollywood director Taylor Hackford when auditioning for his 1984 film White Nights, and has been with him ever since. She moved in with him in Los Angeles and established a Hollywood career, but comes back to work in Europe. There was no sign that Hackford was to remain anything other than her lover when, to Mirren’s friends’ surprise, they married in 1997, with a wedding in the Scottish Highlands. “It was fantastic,” Mirren has said. “It was so romantic: a feeling of being not owned but possessed, which I’d never had before.” She does not confine herself to acting. She has used her position as a public figure to campaign for Amnesty International and Oxfam, and in the run-up to the 1997 general election could be seen playing off her Prime Suspect role by accompanying Tony Blair around a Middlesbrough police station.But it is her greatness as an actress for which she is respected. “There are not many sex symbols who can really act,” says the actress Samantha Bond. “But Helen is definitely one of them.” The playwright Alan Bennett, author of The Madness of George III, says she is “very good because she is an actress as well as a film star, and there are plenty of film stars of whom that can’t be said”. Fortunately for us she shows no sign of retiring and seems eager to keep up her considerable amount of work on stage and screen. She once revealed the source of her relaxed attitude to ageing: “My mother told me an amazingly wise thing, which is that you should never worry about getting older. Because as you reach each age you find, like a miracle, you’ve got the weapons or tools to deal with it.”
A Life in Brief
BORN 26 July 1945.
EDUCATION St Bernard’s High School for Girls, Westcliff-on-Sea.
FAMILY Daughter of Basil and Kit Mironoff. He was the son of a Russian aristocrat; she was a butcher’s daughter from Pimlico, London.
CAREER Debut in 1965 aged 19 as Cleopatra in a National Youth Theatre production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Old Vic. Joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967. Played Morgana Le Fay in John Boorman’s Excalibur in 1981. First played Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect in 1991. Nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George in 1994. Made a Dame in 2003.
SHE SAYS “All you have to do is look like crap on film and everyone thinks you’re a brilliant actress. Actually, all you’ve done is look like crap.”
THEY SAY “An increase to our delight is the civilised, controlled, intelligent and irresistible sexuality of Helen Mirren’s Lady Macbeth. It would be mere male chauvinism to deny that Miss Mirren plays everyone else off the stage.” Harold Hobson, theatre critic.