After a triumphant year playing two of England’s most formidable queens, Helen Mirren pauses to reflect on a life of exceeding expectations—even her own.
Helen Mirren kicks off her leopard ballet flats, pulls up her knees, and lies back on a sumptuous sofa in the living room of her Georgian-style East London home. On this brilliant winter Saturday, cobblestone streets and the river Thames are visible outside her window. “Could I have my cappuccino, please?” she asks her guest, with the kind of perfect diction that sounds like an elocution lesson. Mirren is not being a diva; it’s just that her back has gone into spasm after a week of long hours on a cold, rainy film set outside London, where she’s acting in a children’s movie called Inkheart. “I took major muscle relaxants yesterday, but I haven’t taken any today,” she says, wincing as she adjusts pillows to get more comfortable. “Once I’m lying down, I’m fine.” Mirren’s face is strong and marvelously malleable when she speaks, her expressions cycling from imperious to amused to empathetic. She is petite, with lush curves and a slight haughtiness that is dispelled by her earthy laugh. In her slim brown pants, a T-shirt, and good jewelry she might be mistaken for the type of moneyed matron one sees shopping in Harrods, if her blood-red fingernails and two tiny crosses tattooed near her left thumb didn’t hint at untamed passions, perhaps even a wild past.
“The mesmerizing thing about Helen is that beneath the totally convincing façade of a perfectly bred English lady of a certain age, there still lurks a coiled animal waiting to spring,” says British film director Jon Amiel (Sommersby), who has been courting her for a World War I-era future film project. Most strikingly, she seems confident and comfortable with who she is, which may explain how she can play queens and other formidable figures with such verisimilitude: she utterly vanishes into them. The year 2006 was Mirren’s incandescent year: at age 61 she came into her own as an international star, an actress of astonishing power and versatility who joins the pantheon of great British leading ladies that includes Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Vanessa Redgrave. Mirren achieved this with three triumphant screen performances: the relentless police detective Jane Tennison in the riveting, bleak, final installments of the PBS series Prime Suspect; an operatic interpretation of what she calls “the best role I will ever have in my life”—the title character in HBO’s miniseries Elizabeth I; and a nuanced, wickedly witty rendering of the reigning Queen Elizabeth in director Stephen Frears’s film The Queen.
Well before Christmas 2006, Hollywood insiders had already tagged Mirren as a shoo-in for the best-actress Oscar (at press time, nominations were not yet announced), and she has received a cascade of critics’-group honors and three Golden Globe nominations. But while she is animated when discussing the psychologies of Queens She Has Played, questions regarding her new white-hot celebrity seem to curdle her mood. “I am not a movie star, and I never will be,” she says tartly. “It just happened that I had an incredibly intense and demanding year of work.” Like it or not, however, Mirren’s rare accomplishments, combined with her platinum-blond glamour, are a “You go, girl” inspiration for mature women. Film fans in this country have long savored Mirren’s vivid appearances, sometimes unclothed and audaciously sexual, in art movies such as Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), in which she played the savage wife. She earned supporting-actress Oscar nominations as sweet, sad Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George (1994) and as the dour housekeeper with a secret in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001). But considering her proven ability to carry a movie, she has been underused by mainstream Hollywood, where she has generally been asked to show up and make a male star look good. She played Harrison Ford’s wife in The Mosquito Coast (1986) and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s love interest in White Nights (1985); on the latter set she fell in love with the director, Taylor Hackford (Ray), and the couple have been together ever since (they married in 1997).
In Great Britain, however, Mirren is renowned as a masterful stage actress with a long résumé of Shakespearean and other classical leading roles. So much so, in fact, that she was granted a coveted knighthood and the title of “Dame” for her contribution to the culture. She has played Cleopatra three times, first seducing Antony before a live audience at the age of 19. As a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in the late ’60s and early ’70s, her daringly sensual portrayals earned her press notices as “the sex queen of Stratford” who “put the bawd into the Bard.” Legend has it that all of Mirren’s leading men fall for her, and she has returned the affections of a few; she lived with Liam Neeson for four years after they met making Excalibur (1981). “Helen is extraordinary, and very sexy,” says Jeremy Irons, who played Mirren’s suitor the Earl of Leicester in Elizabeth I and is quick to stipulate that all romance was confined to their performances. “Beauty is what has lived in you, and it shows in your face. A great thing about Helen is that she hasn’t tried to make her face look any different. She has great inner vibrancy and inner energy. Working with Helen is like watching a Bentley purr on the road: you know if you put your foot down, there’s going to be a lot of power.”
To be a great actress has been Mirren’s lifelong ambition. Ilynea Lydia Mironoff grew up the middle child of three in the working-class London suburb of Leigh-on-Sea. Her father’s father, a csarist colonel, was in London making an arms deal during the Bolshevik Revolution and could never return home. Helen’s father, Basil, played viola in the London Philharmonic before World War II and later drove a cab. “My father was a left-wing socialist, the kind of guy who in America, if he’d been remotely successful, would have been hauled up before McCarthy in disgrace,” she says. The family lived in genteel poverty, without television, heat, or a washing machine but with stimulating dinner-table conversation about life and art. Determined to assimilate, her parents changed the family name to Mirren, sacrificed to give their two daughters elocution training, and stressed education and financial independence.
” ‘Have your own money, darling’ is what my mum always used to say,” Mirren recalls. “There was never a suggestion in my household that you didn’t have to earn your own money because you would get married. To that extent I guess my mother was a feminist.” Helen inherited from her mother, Kathleen, an intense imagination and a tempestuous nature. Although her parents hoped she would become a teacher, at 18 Mirren was accepted at the National Youth Theatre and went on to perform her fiery Cleopatra at the Old Vic Theatre. Two years later she was asked to join the RSC and cemented her status as a leading young player with a glowing (and nearly naked) incarnation as Cressida in Troilus and Cressida. Anatomy is destiny for young actresses, and as an ingénue Mirren was inevitably cast as the sexy young thing despite her serious intentions. Eager for all kinds of experience, she got naked on the Great Barrier Reef in one of her first film roles, Age of Consent, an erotic comedy with James Mason. She danced provocatively in a cone bra in the soft-porn cult classic Caligula, in the company of such distinguished colleagues as John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole. In a behind-the-scenes archival interview on the film’s DVD she is asked why she chose to do the film. “It was an irresistible mix of art and genitals,” she says, with deadpan chutzpah. When this remark is repeated to her today, she laughs delightedly: “My big mouth!”
Mirren harbors neither embarrassment nor regret over youthful follies. “I was very grateful to Caligula in many ways,” she says. “It taught me about filmmaking, and it bought me my first house.” If she has never run from her sexy image, she was nevertheless frustrated at the one-dimensionality of available film roles. “It wasn’t like I’d had breast augmentation, but I happened to have a curvy figure and naturally blond hair,” she says. “Inside was a very fierce and thoughtful person, which is me. But it wasn’t allowed to—if it was recognized, it was sort of a scary proposition. It scared people.” Mirren might have had a more lucrative career in Hollywood, but she stayed in London, where she felt it was more likely she would find challenging work. Though she worked steadily in film and television throughout the 1980s, it wasn’t until 1991 that Mirren was given a screen role expansive enough for her talent: Jane Tennison, the flawed, foulmouthed detective superintendent in the gritty PBS series Prime Suspect, which ended its 15-year run last year. (Although set in London, the series was filmed in Manchester, England.) “Prime Suspect was an incredible thing for me because it allowed me to segue out of that sexy thing into something else and show the reality about me that was not related to the immediate outward look of me,” she says. As Tennison she ruled her male-dominated police precinct with hard-boiled élan, having an affair with a subordinate and messing up her personal relationships. Ardent fans on both sides of the Atlantic were dismayed to see Tennison’s pathetic slide into alcoholism in the final episodes, but Mirren was typically unsentimental. “I thought it was realistic,” she says.
‘I am not a movie star, and I never will be.’
In the end it would be love, not work, that would entice her to make a home in Los Angeles. Her first meeting with her future husband, Hackford, was not promising. He kept her waiting to audition for White Nights, and she was icy. “It was a strange way to meet Helen, because she is a lovely person,” says Hackford, “but she didn’t hold back her fury.” Obviously their relationship improved once they were working together, and they discovered they shared a working-class background, a love of adventure travel, and a dedication to telling thrilling stories on film. Although she had never wanted children of her own, Mirren became a friend and supporter to Hackford’s two young sons from previous marriages. “I have to say that the thing I loved most about Taylor was his absolute, total commitment to his children,” she says. As a young woman Mirren had vowed never to marry. But after 12 years together she and Hackford wed. She was 52. “I still sort of don’t believe in marriage,” she says, “but that’s not to say I’m not incredibly happy to be married. And the one thing I thought I’d hate”—lots of girlish emphasis here—“which was ‘my husband,’ I say all the time. I can’t wait for an opportunity to say it…you know: ‘My husband is over there at the moment.’ I absolutely love it.” Mirren and Hackford divide their time between London and their hacienda high in the Hollywood Hills, buffered from the madness below by acres of tropical trees and gardens they both love to tend. They keep a low profile when in Los Angeles, with Mirren playing the role of bemused observer; they rarely go to parties.
Back in London she contributes money and makes appearances for a private advocacy group called Help the Aged, which aids underprivileged retirees. “I call the generation in Britain that went through the deprivation of the Second World War the noble generation,” she says. “To see those people struggling and suffering is unbearable.”
‘I always say what I want to play is the next thing that comes along.’
It’s an exceptional actress who portrays even one Queen Elizabeth in a year. Helen Mirren is the only actress who has played them both.
The Virgin Queen came first. As she typically does, Mirren prepared by immersing herself in historical research, and she discovered a monarch who veered between shrewd political strategist and flamboyant fool in love. “When Helen first came in,” recalls Nigel Williams, the screenwriter for the miniseries, “she said, ‘This is all to do with chamber pots.’ She was talking about how the Elizabethans lived, about the characters being flesh and blood. Helen is extremely precise about very small bits of behavior, about details of gesture and voice. So her performances are perfect on the outside and also felt from the inside. That’s very unusual in an actor.”
Mirren’s collaborators say that during the grueling shoot in Lithuania she never complained about the back pain that plagued her from the heavy costumes. “I read an interview with Vivien Leigh in which she said that when she made Gone With the Wind, she felt that she would never have a role that great again. And I felt like that with Elizabeth. I just told myself, ‘You absolutely do this full on, full out, all the time. It doesn’t matter how you feel, how tired you are, how much pain you are in.’ I gave it everything that I had.” The character of Queen Elizabeth II—as dutiful and restrained as Elizabeth I was histrionic—presented Mirren with a different set of challenges. When she first read Peter Morgan’s script for The Queen, a film about the dramatic week following Princess Diana’s death, “there was no way I wasn’t going to do it—the people involved were so great,” Mirren says. “And yet it was very, very scary.” All British subjects are so intimately familiar with their queen of 55 years—her gait, her dowdy getups, her clipped cadence—that Mirren knew she would have to hit a bull’s-eye for audiences to accept her. “Every British person knows how to send up the queen’s voice, so to find that voice and make it sound real and natural was going to be hard,” she says. “And also knowing it would be under incredible press scrutiny in Britain, because it hadn’t really been done before.”
Mirren had once met Queen Elizabeth briefly at a tea reception following a polo match. “The queen was absolutely charming,” she recalls. “I had heard people say, ‘Ooh, I was so scared to meet the queen, and she was so luv-ly!’ and I would say, ‘Oh, you arse-lickers.’ And I came away saying exactly the same thing: ‘She was so luv-ly!’ “The truth is, she was—she was smiley and sparkly, not grumpy queen at all,” Mirren adds. “I think people now misread a sense of serious dignity with grumpiness.” With hips padded under tweed skirts, Mirren practiced the monarch’s purposeful stride. As she perfected Elizabeth’s outward appearance, she searched for the key to her inner life. She immersed herself in books and newsreel footage, and at first it felt like flying blind. But something clicked after she was moved to seek out painted portraits of the queen. “I suddenly thought, ‘That’s it: you are just doing a portrait,’” she says. “‘It’s never a perfect reproduction; it’s a perception. You are like a portrait painter.’” The movie humanizes Elizabeth by revealing how hard it had been for her to watch her father, King George VI, suffer when his brother abdicated, making George the king. Elizabeth was crowned queen at age 25, after her father’s death. “She wasn’t born to be queen, and she had absolutely no choice—it was ‘You will do this.’ And the way she took that on board is remarkable,” Mirren says. “She was a little girl who was full of a sense of order and duty and self-discipline. We are all of us the young person we once were. Now, when I see a picture of her, I always go, ‘There’s my girl.’ ”
On the day when critical scenes between Elizabeth and Prime Minister Tony Blair were filmed on a set of Buckingham Palace, notes Michael Sheen, who played Blair, the entire cast and crew were intimidated when Mirren stepped onto the set in full queen regalia. “Jolly frightening, isn’t she?” muttered Frears in his ear. Mirren says she does not dream of any roles she has yet to conquer. “I’ve never wanted to play anything, really,” she says. “I always say what I want to play is the next thing that comes along, and it’s always surprising.” She earned one Tony nomination in 1995 for Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country and another in 2002 for August Strindberg’s Dance of Death, and she says she’d be pleased if the future brought her back to Broadway again. In recent years she has earned raves for London stage performances as Lady Torrance in Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending and as Christine in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. “It’s tragic that a larger audience didn’t see those performances,” says Taylor Hackford. “But that’s what happens on stage. It’s combustible, it’s about getting up every day and going out and doing it, and Helen loves that.”
As for contemporary roles, screenwriters take note: Mirren jokes that she is fascinated by the notion of playing the much vilified “other woman”—Prince Charles’s wife, the former Camilla Parker Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall. She admires Camilla’s loyalty to Prince Charles and her self-sacrifice in the face of public scorn: “It made me ashamed for my country that people could be so venal and nasty.” In the short-term future Mirren will probably be attending lots of awards ceremonies. Does she fantasize about winning? “Fantasize is not quite the right word,” she says dryly. “I’ve not won different awards, many many times—so luckily I’ve practiced that. Whenever you are nominated for anything, you enter into this marvelous, fantabulous bubble called the bubble of nomination. The minute the envelope is opened and your name isn’t called out, the bubble bursts. And no one calls you up the next day to say, ‘So sorry you didn’t win,’ or ‘You looked gorgeous’—nothing.
“If you win, you get about another 24 hours in that lovely bubble,” she adds. “And then, pop—you are slightly wet all over from the bubble and realize that you have to get on with real life.”