Helen Mirren has carved out a unique niche for herself as the thinking man’s pin-up girl. A dynamic actress of incredible range and intelligence, Mirren was born Ilynea Lydia Mironoff July 26, 1945 in London to a Russian-born father and English mother. After cutting her teeth as a child in Britain’s National Youth Theater, Helen went on to train at the legendary Royal Shakespeare Company, before landing her first film role in 1967’s Herostratus, followed in quick succession by Sir Peter Hall’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968) and Michael Powell’s Age of Consent (1969). Memorable turns followed in diverse fare such as Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973), followed by a great deal of TV and stage work, but Mirren really came into her own around the time she appeared in Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione’s notorious epic Caligula in 1980: as Bob Hoskins’ upper-crust gangster’s moll in the British mob classic The Long Good Friday, and a memorably sensual Morgana Le Fay in John Boorman’s masterful King Arthur adaptation Excalibur (1981).
Helen Mirren gradually became a household name on both sides of the pond, as her appearances on-screen became more prolific: she was heart-breaking as the policeman’s widow who unwittingly has an affair with the young IRA recruit in Cal (1984), appeared in Peter Hyams’ underrated 2001 sequel 2010 as a Russian cosmonaut, was fine again drawing on her Russian ancestry as Mikhail Baryshnikov’s former lover in White Nights (1985, where she also met her husband, director Taylor Hackford), gave a mutli-dimensional turn as Harrison Ford’s saintly wife in Peter Weir’s excellent The Mosquito Coast (1986), and an no-holds-barred, uninhibited performance in Peter Greenaway’s scathing, scatological The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989).
1991 brought about the birth of the character Mirren has become most identified with: police inspector Jane Tennison in the Prime Suspect series, of which there have been six installments, with a seventh, and final episode to air later this year. Among her many accolades, Helen has been nominated for two Academy Awards (The Madness of King George in 1995, and for Robert Altman’s masterful ensemble drama Gosford Park in 2002), and won three BAFTA awards for her work in Prime Suspect. She has twice won the Best Actress prize at Cannes ( Cal and The Madness of King George) and has also captured two Emmys (Prime Suspect 4, 1995, and The Passion of Ayn Rand, 1999).
Helen Mirren graces the big and small screen in two very different films: HBO’s Elizabeth I is a gritty, literate look at the life of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I, AKA “The Virgin Queen,” one of history’s first liberated female leaders, who ruled England during the particularly bloody period of 1558-1603, also referred to as the Elizabethan Period or The Golden Age, when English influence and power was marked worldwide. Co-starring with the great Jeremy Irons, Hugh Dancy and Toby Jones, Elizabeth I is a pinnacle in Helen Mirren’s already-illustrious career. It premieres on HBO April 22. Also set for release is Lee Daniels’ Shadowboxer, which Helen co-stars with Cuba Gooding, Jr. as a deadly assassin. It is set for limited release in May.
Helen Mirren sat down recently over lunch at photographer Jeff Dunas’ studio to discuss her latest work, and her remarkable career.
VENICE: You have two very different movies coming out: Elizabeth and Shadowboxer.
Helen Mirren: I also did a film about the other Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth II, which will be coming out later in the year. It’s a Stephen Frears film.
I saw that the director of Elizabeth I, Tom Hooper, directed the last episode of Prime Suspect. You must’ve worked well together.
Yes, we enjoy working together very much. I suggested him for this project because he’s this wonderful combination of young and hungry, but also quite experienced. He’s done a lot of big TV stuff, which in a way is more demanding than doing a movie, because the turnover is so much faster. To do something like Elizabeth, you’ve got to have someone who has the strength to hold on and sort of get through it.
The thing I liked about it was it reminded me of the stuff people like Tony Richardson and Franco Zefferelli did in the 60s: there’s a classical element to it, but also a “kitchen sink” element, that brought grit and realism to the table.
We had the best Steadycam operator in the world working for us, which was amazing. Almost the whole thing was shot on SteadyCam, which is technically difficult but it gave the film an immediacy which it needed. So often you feel as if you’re outside watching this pageant take place which is gorgeous, but it doesn’t put you into it. We wanted to drag the audience into it.
Yeah, it had a real griminess to it. Nobody looked like a shirt model. You could believe that they bathed once or twice a month and their teeth were bad.
(laughs) That’s probably thanks to being shot in Lithuania. We shot it all there.
What were your impressions of the country?
It’s extraordinary. Very beautiful and rather magical. At the same time, it was a little frightening, which many of those northern European countries are. A lot of dark things have happened there over the centuries and you can’t get away from that fact. The extras all had these very real, almost medeival looking faces. Lithuania is probably very close to what the English countryside looked in those days: heavily wooded and undeveloped. It’s very forested in Lithuania, very undeveloped. So they used a certain amount of digital effects, to put bits of London in there, but they also built these amazing sets out of wood that were very authentic.
What were you impressions of Elizabeth herself?
She was fascinating, an amazing character. The only sadness about playing someone like that is you only have access to them through doing a huge amount of research, the type of which will allow you to only get so close to who they were. The accounts of her that were written at the time were, of course, very tempered because the writers were frightened that if they displeased her, they’d get their heads chopped off! (laughs) So the only truthful accounts you have of her are from foreign ambassadors who didn’t have the necessity to be polite. All of them were absolutely fascinated by her. She was incredibly powerful, often foolish, but whether deliberately or just by instinct, an absolutely superb politician. Obviously she was very bright: spoke several languages fluently, but obviously a fool in love, as well. That’s what was great about her. She wasn’t just this cold fish. She was incredibly emotional and passionate. And since she was the queen, her emotions were allowed to rage. She’s so unlike Queen Elizabeth II, whose emotions are completely controlled and pulled in. There are so many similarities between Elizabeth the I and II, but also they are polar opposites in just as many areas.
One reason Elizabeth I was so hugely emotional was the fact that she never consummated any of her relationships. Why do you think that was?
It was incredibly dangerous for her, physically. Pregnancy was a very dangerous thing for a woman in those days. So many women died in childbirth, it was very, very common. Politically it was very dangerous, as well. To get pregnant by someone, and it was impossible to hide since she was constantly surrounded by people all the time. They lived a very public life in those days. People slept in their rooms with them. So they couldn’t get away with anything. Plus there were so many people whose interests would have been served had she been disgraced. She came to the throne as a bastard. Henry VIII never took away her status as a bastard after declaring her to such, even though he put her second in line to the throne after her sister. So her claim to the throne was always very precarious. So that was another fear of getting married.
Henry VIII was a Protestant also, right?
Yes. Henry created the Church of England after he wanted to get divorced, and threw out Roman Catholicism.
You know who I kept thinking of while I was watching you: Hillary Clinton. As the English weren’t ready for Elizabeth I, I don’t think the United States is ready for Hillary yet.
(laughs) She’s an extraordinary woman, and I agree with you. But it’s coming. It’s very interesting that people are even talking about it, because ten years ago, they wouldn’t have even talked about it. At least now, the thought is out there in the ether.
I don’t know. I think ten years ago we would have been ready for a woman or a minority, but since the current administration took office, I think this country has de-volved three or four decades. I think we’ve gone back to the 1950s.
And in a far more dangerous way than in the 1950s, because the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world now that the threat from the east is gone, and also because you have corporate globalization, development that’s gone so far beyond anything that existed in the 50s. There’s such unbelievable economic power out there. It’s almost a return to Feudalism, in a way. The peasants are sort of kept quiet with celebrity gossip magazines and Big Brother.
And in this case Big Brother is in the form of the leaders of our government who invoke the name of Jesus Christ to shut the peasants up.
Right, fundamentalist religion.
Which is what they did back in the day, as well. If you look at the history of both the Protestant and Catholic churches, when their officials ran the world, their doctrines were designed to keep the masses opiated.
Do you think Elizabeth would have been more comfortable as a modern woman, in this century?
No, she would have hated it! I think if you took Elizabeth out of her environment and plopped her into this one, it wouldn’t have worked, because she was a dictator, really. She was a Saddam Hussein, or she had the power of one. She could put anyone into prison, torture them, have them executed.
Although in terms of the manners and mores of the time, she didn’t strike me as being a demagogue.
No, that’s true. She wasn’t out of control, relatively speaking. And whenever she could, she tended towards leniency, and towards forgiveness.
The entire film, parts I and II, deals with her relationships with these two men, played by Jeremy Irons and Hugh Dancy. Had you worked with Jeremy previously?
No, never. I’ve known him for many years, but never had the great pleasure to work with him, and he was so wonderful to work with. He was born to play that role.
The older he gets, the more he reminds me of Laurence Olivier. He has the same kind of carriage.
That’s interesting. He’s a superb film actor, isn’t he? He’s also a brilliant stage actor and great comedian, which many people don’t realize.
How about Hugh Dancy?
How lucky can a woman get? (laughs) Hugh and I started at the beginning of the piece doing all our scenes together. Every scene we did I had to kiss him or he, poor kid, had to kiss me. And all the girls on the set are just looking at me with envy, saying “I can’t believe how lucky you are!”
Tell us about Shadow Boxer. Have you seen it yet?
No, I haven’t. I tend to sort of avoid seeing films that I’m in. Lee Daniels, who directed it, is such a great guy. He calls it “Homo-Euro-Ghetto.” (laughs) Which I think is sort of a great mixture of things. And that’s probably exactly what it is. It was great fun to do it. You don’t often get to be in pieces like that, so I was very glad to do it. Most girls don’t get to run around with guns and be assassins.
I read that your father wound up in the UK under very unusual circumstances.
My father was born in Russia. He came to England when he was two years old. His family was upper military class. They were a form of aristocracy, I suppose.
Wasn’t your grandfather in London brokering an arms deal with the British government when the revolution in Russia took place?
Yes, he was, and he was stuck there. He was very loyal to the czarist system, and just happened to have brought his family with him on this trip because it was taking such a long time, which was very lucky. He left his sisters and his mother behind, however. I just recently had their letters to him translated, which I’ve been carrying around for years, and that was an incredible experience for me, to lift the curtain on their lives. In fact, I think we’re going to do a piece on the radio, in England, based on the letters.
What did your grandfather and father wind up doing in England?
They both ultimately became taxi drivers.
So they had to become working class. What was that like for them?
I have no idea, and I can’t imagine what it must have been like, especially for my grandfather. It taught me one thing though, and that’s nothing is permanent. And no matter how established you think you are, nothing is permanent. And you have people who say “Oh well my family goes back 500 years…”
(laughs) Yes, exactly! Whose doesn’t? And on that level it seems the most aristocratic people in America are the black people, because we know all their families go back two or three hundred years.
Where do you think your artistic side came from?
I suspect it came much more from my English mother than my Russian father. My father was very intelligent and an intellectual, and was a classical musician before he became a taxi driver. My mother was working class London, from the East End. She had pretensions not to be working class, and she was very dramatic, my mother, so I suspect that’s where much of my acting bug came from. Although, two of the greatest actors that Russia ever had, had my family name, which is Mironoff. There was a man who died five or six years ago who was like the Olivier of Russia whose last name was Mironoff, so I think there must be a relation somewhere in there.
You started acting very young. When did you know you were an actor?
Well you don’t really know, do you? You kind of wish, or hope for, or dream. You never quite know. Certainly my parents were not of the “you must follow you dream” kind of attitude. They were much more “Don’t be stupid. You’ve got to be secure,” which I love in retrospect, because I think all that “you must follow your dream” nonsense, especially in those TV shows like American Idol, is so dangerous, because it’s a cruel world. So you must do both: you must follow your dream and be practical and realistic. But yes, fairly young, I loved the process of imaginatively going into another world. And I did do the pragmatic thing and go to teachers’ college for three years in London, which was really a complete waste of time. Also, I didn’t have any money to go to drama school. Plus, I just didn’t know how you became an actor then, so my options were limited.
You got your start at the Royal Shakespeare Company. What was RSC like?
It was a wonderful experience because it’s ensemble theater, for lack of a better word. You’re working with a huge group of actors, all of whom do very divergent roles and things in different plays. You’re all rehearsing together. You’re all getting drunk together. It was very communal, and very educative on that level, in terms of how to work with people, and how to be a gypsy. And the grander your level as an actor, the more of a gypsy you become.
Your first film, Age of Consent, was directed by the great Michael Powell.
That was an amazing experience, very surreal! (laughs) I’d hardly been on an airplane before doing that film, and here I was in the first class compartment of a Qantas airliner on this long plane ride to Australia. Then we filmed on this tiny island, called Dunk Island near the Great Barrier Reef. And I was running around, hardly wearing anything and working with the great James Mason, who was very kind. So it was a completely wonderful, very strange, very surreal experience. It all seems a bit like a dream now. Michael was very kind to me, although he could be a bit of a martinet to others. I was very inexperienced, so he was very patient, as was James, who sort of guided me around.
Another great film you did a few years later was O Lucky Man! with Malcolm McDowell and Lindsay Anderson.
Yes, that is a wonderful film, and very much locked in its era in terms of the music and everything, but in terms of what it was saying about the world, it was very advanced, very ahead of its time. Lindsay had an extraordinary personality…maybe I just attract these weird directors. They seem to be the only ones who like me.
Why do you say “weird”?
Well you know, Peter Greenaway, and Lindsay, they’re very, very distinctive personalities. Visionaries, really. But Lindsay was very private, and yet intensely loyal to his actors. Very serious, and yet always you felt he was laughing at himself and everything else. He always seemed to be having this very dark internal laugh at the whole thing. He really put his inner being into his movies, I think. He really loved humanity, in a very Platonic way. He didn’t strike me as being very sexual, and he would seem to have this sort of Platonic love for the men he worked with, but also for a number of women. He adored Celia Johnson, for example.
What happened with Caligula? You had this script by Gore Vidal, and this dream cast, and it ended up being an epic porn movie. I know that Malcolm McDowell is ashamed of it, to this day.
Yes, I guess it did end up being that. Malcolm shouldn’t be ashamed of it. He’s wonderful in it! I’m certainly not ashamed of Caligula. In fact, I’ve always been very proud of it. Within its form, there’s a really great movie about Rome in there. The fact is, Gore took his name off it, but we made Gore’s movie. We really did stick to the script, and he wrote a really full-on, “out there” movie. It’s funny, when we all met together for the first time and Bob Guccione gave us lunch, and he stood up and said “This is going to be the greatest film because we’ve got the best actors, and the best director, and the best writer…and kept going on and on. And the director, Tinto Brass, was sitting next to me as Bob was talking and whispered “The best people, to make the worst movie!” (laughs) Tinto and I became great friends and we still are. He’s very devil-may-care, and there’s a wonderful excessiveness about him that appeals to me. Caligula may have been excessive, but it was never boring. I saw some of it recently again. Plus, it’s two different movies: there’s the version we shot, then there’s a great deal of hardcore sex footage that Guccione put in later. It didn’t need it, because what we had was quite enough! (laughs)
You did one of the great gangster films around this time, as well: The Long Good Friday.
It was one of those scripts that just leapt off the page at you, where you went “God! This is just fantastic!” The one thing that was a problem, was my character Victoria, who was a terrible character, as written. I became a real thorn in the side of our director, John Mackenzie, in trying to flesh her out. But Bob Hoskins was incredibly supportive, which was great. So I was constantly trying to pull the character into the story. I’m glad that I made such a fuss about it, because I think it enriched the film. You’ve got to have something you can hold your head up about later on in life. But I was a bit of a pain for John, I think.
Right after Long Good Friday, you played Morgana Le Fay in John Boorman’s great King Arthur film, Excalibur, in an adaptation that I think is worthy of Shakespeare.
Yes, that was tricky on the page, actually. That one didn’t leap off the page. It was quite difficult to follow and I think it was very much to John Boorman’s credit that he crafted this very magical world out of what could have been a real mess! (laughs) Some of those scenes when we read them during rehearsal sounded absolutely embarrassing! We were all like “My God, how can we say these lines?” (laughs) But with all the other elements, it all started falling into place, especially the lighting and the beauty of the film.
I heard that Boorman cast you and Nicol Williamson, who played Merlin, because the two of you didn’t get along, and it generated a very specific kind of tension on-screen.
We had done a production of MacBeth prior to that, and our relationship was horrendous. Nicol is a very brilliant, but very dark, troubled man. He has so much talent in so many different directions, but he just…he couldn’t bear me, and was very nasty to me. I don’t think I was nasty to him at all, but he just hated me. When I went to see John about the film, he said “I’m thinking about Nicol for Merlin,” I said I didn’t think I could do it then, because we had this horrible relationship. John convinced me that he would help to make it work, and of course, being greedy and wanting the role, I said ‘Fuck it. I’ll just put up with it.’ In fact, Nicol and I wound up becoming very good friends on it! (laughs) We were finally free of that play, and I’m sure the play had a lot to do with it. So I finished up loving him.
Let’s talk about Prime Suspect and DCI Jane Tennison.
Jane is a great character. I’m doing just one more, which we start shooting this year. That was a gift of a role, that just landed in my lap. Of course at the time, you don’t know that. I thought it was a lovely script, but you never start our realizing how much it’s going to affect your life at the time. But I had the great luxury with Prime Suspect of only doing one about every eighteen months, so I was never trapped into doing a TV series full time, and could always go off and do other things, movie and theater, in between.
In addition to being a great character study, the series has also been a real metaphor for how English society is changing.
Yes, and as it’s progressed, I’ve been able to be more involved in the actual storylines, with the writers, and so forth. I always loved it best when the stories were contemporary as possible, and relevant to the world we all live in, rather than a sort of generic murder mystery.
It seems that from the beginning, you’ve always been very uninhibited and have never had a problem doing nudity on film.
Oh, that’s not true. I’ve always had a problem doing nudity. I hated it! I hated the fact that I hated it, however. It’s never a comfortable thing. It was quite nice in Australia, because one was out with nature, and Michael Powell was very sweet. But I’ve never enjoyed it, ever. It’s always mortifying. But I always felt it was something I should get over, as well. I might seem uninhibited, but believe me I’m not! (laughs) I’ve just never thought it was necessary, ever. My taste in movies tends toward the European, and I think when sex and nudity is dealt with in an adult or poetic way, it’s wonderful. It’s great. It’s a great extra tool in all those dramatic tools we have. But I didn’t want to be uptight, and I also always told myself ‘It’s okay, because you work in the theater, so you’re not going to get stuck with it.’ But of course, I have gotten stuck with it, in a way! (laughs)
You have to tell us about working with Brother Bob Altman in Gosford Park.
Oh, God! Genius! Most directors basically do it the same way. They’re great, and many are great visionaries. But they basically set the scene up the same way and shoot the same way. Robert Altman is completely different. You never know if you’re on the screen or not, which is great, so you’ve all got to be “on it” all the time. There’s no such thing as “having your moment” with Altman. You look at your role, see that you have this big speech, show up on the set, and realize that the whole scene is about this dog running around the people in the scene, all of whom are having their big speech! (laughs) He’s the only guy who will start with what’s happening in the background, and then the main actors find their place within that. That’s why his screen is always so full of detail, because those details haven’t been put in at the last minute by the 1st A.D. He will very carefully set up, rehearse, and have all those elements in place before he shoots. But in a way, the background actors are more important than you are. Then he’ll have two cameras: one on tracks over here, then another on tracks opposite, constantly moving around the scene. I’ve never seen another director who does that. It’s great. He’s one of the great visionary American directors, without a doubt.
Any final thoughts?
Well, it’s been very interesting, you taking me through my whole career like this, and it’s gotten me thinking: I was very conscious during Elizabeth that this will probably be the best role I will ever have in my life. I was thinking ‘It absolutely doesn’t get any better than this, Helen. You might as well just go for it, and give it your all,’ and I think I did. Women’s roles don’t come along that often, anyway, so to play one like this, I never forget how lucky I am.