Dame Helen Mirren is in her element. The Academy Award-winning actor has just finished filming a scene from the medieval action adventure film Inkheart at Shepperton Studios in Surrey, England, and is about to have a well-deserved cup of tea. As director Iain Softley says “Cut!” she walks over. She is wearing a camel-coloured winter coat and her hair is pulled back severely, covered by a black turban with a large bow. Her glorious red nails are so long that she is having trouble getting her fingers through the handle of her teacup.
“Welcome,” the 63-year-old star smiles as we move away from the draughty set to a small room with windows overlooking the lush countryside. The rain is beating down. “Well, this is much nicer,” Dame Helen says. “Actually, it’s all quite posh, isn’t it?” she laughs, noting the white tablecloth. “Shall we start the interview?” she asks in a direct tone as soon I put the tape recorder down. It’s not that Dame Helen (the title was bestowed on December 5, 2003) isn’t one for small talk. It’s just that you sense she wants to get to the point of things quickly and politely. When I suggest that she seems to be enjoying herself on set, she beams. “Oh, I am,” she says. “I love costumes and I love the theatre of it all. I mean, look at these things,” she says, holding out her hands to give me a close-up look at her talons. “Fake, I’m afraid,” she laughs, “but aren’t they fabulous? I love anything to do with fantasy and extravagant sets, and this role for me is just so much fun as opposed to doing something that is difficult or traumatic. This is pure fun.” Dame Helen’s role as extravagant great-aunt Elinor Loredan in Inkheart is a departure from her previous roles, such as her portrayal of the Queen in the eponymous film for which she won an Oscar for best actress in 2007, or her Emmy Award-winning performance as detective superintendent Jane Tennison in the television series Prime Suspect. Her character in Inkheart is also a huge departure from herself. “Elinor is someone who has a wonderful library,” Dame Helen says. “She’s very into books and she is living her life through that rather than through reality.”
Dame Helen doesn’t need to lose herself in books or fantasy to feel fulfilled. The life she is leading is more than enough. She was born Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov in London in 1945, however, her Russian father changed the family’s surname in the 1950s. “My mother was English and my father was Russian. I always say my bottom half is Russian. I have those peasant’s legs,” she laughs. She clearly has nothing to worry about. In July last year she proved she has an incredible physique, photographed in a red bikini in Puglia, Italy, by paparazzi while she was on holiday with her husband of 11 years, American director Taylor Hackford. Ask Dame Helen how she feels about her looks and she brushes it off, always making a joke about them or playing them down. Last year Dame Helen published her autobiography, In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures. It is filled with anecdotes and stories detailing her life, not to mention photographs. “The first part I flip to in an autobiography are the photos. I just feel there are never enough, so that’s why there are so many [in my book],” Dame Helen says. Growing up, Dame Helen attended St Bernard’s, a Catholic girls school, where she realised her ambition to become an actor. By 18 she was accepted by the acclaimed National Youth Theatre in London, and by 20 she was starring in Shakespearean productions such as Antony and Cleopatra. In her 20s, Dame Helen says, she was “a good girl who always wanted to be bad but never was quite brave enough”. When she was 25 and going through a contemplative phase, Dame Helen visited a palm reader, who said she wouldn’t achieve true fame until later in life. “He told me the height of my success would not happen until I was in my late 40s,” she recalls. Bolstered by a sense of knowing her time was yet to come, Dame Helen “just got on with it”. She worked steadily in the 1970s (O Lucky Man!, 1973; Caesar and Claretta, 1975; and Hamlet, 1976), the 1980s (Excalibur, 1981; and Heavenly Pursuits, 1985) and the 1990s (The Madness of King George, 1994, for which she received an Oscar nomination; The Snow Queen, 1995; and Some Mother’s Son, 1996).
As the palm reader predicted, Dame Helen’s career finally catapulted. Her success in the late Robert Altman’s 1930s comedy drama Gosford Park (2001) included being nominated for an Oscar for her role as Mrs Wilson and winning the Screen Actors Guild Award for best supporting actress. She later starred in the comedy Calendar Girls (2003), playing a North Yorkshire woman who encourages her friends to pose nude to raise money for leukaemia research. Over the years Dame Helen has become used to showing her skin on the big screen. She is regularly named the sexiest woman over 60 in Britain and once famously said she set her alarm clock an hour earlier so she and her husband could make love before they went to work. The couple doesn’t have children. Dame Helen has had her share of great relationships, describing herself as a “serial monogamist”, her former partners including photographer James Wedge and actor Liam Neeson. Dame Helen and Hackford met on the set of White Knights in 1985. They have a Georgian-style home in Wapping, East London, where they spend most of their time, and a home in the Hollywood Hills. No matter how much she is lauded by Hollywood, Dame Helen still describes LA as “weird”, primarily because everyone spends so much time in their cars, getting from one place to the next. Not that she doesn’t love her life or her friends in LA. They convinced her to take the part in Inkheart, which is based on the novel by Cornelia Funke. “I wasn’t aware of the book,” she says matter-of-factly. “Some American friends of mine have an eight-year-old daughter and they knew about the book so they were very excited to hear I was going to do the film. I can’t wait for them to see it.”
Dame Helen finds it hard to say no if she is inspired by a script. In the coming year she will appear in five films. In addition to Inkheart there’s State of Play, a crime drama based on the BBC TV mini-series, starring Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams. She is also teaming up with her husband in Love Ranch, based on the true story of the married couple who opened the first legal brothel in Nevada – Hackford is directing while Joe Pesci plays her character’s husband. In the Leo Tolstoy biopic, The Last Station, she plays the Russian author’s wife, while in a new version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest she is cast as Prospera. She is also gearing up to star with Australian actor Sam Worthington and New Zealander Marton Csokas in The Debt, a drama about a Nazi war criminal pursued by agents who decide to take the law into their own hands. Dame Helen laughs about her workload. As for a time when she will slow down and not be so driven, she shakes her head. “I don’t think I’m driven,” she says. “I’m the sort of person who always thinks they could do more.”
Within a second of that comment there is a knock at the door. The Inkheart director and crew need her back on set. Dame Helen picks up her teacup and heads back. A big smile spreads across her face. It’s clear she does not want to be anywhere else; she is completely at ease on a film set. I also sense that fame is not important to her, but the job she has wanted to do since she was 13, when she saw a production of Hamlet, is.
As she goes back on the opulent set, her eyes light up. “This is so fantastical,” she says. “I am very lucky.”