“When I was very young, someone told me, ‘Oh, you’ll never be an actress—you’ll get married and have children.’”
“I don’t know anything about acting,” Helen Mirren says, improbably. That may be hard to believe coming from Mirren, the Emmy, Oscar, and Tony award winner, but in this case, she’s talking about her recent turn as a teacher for the online education platform Master Class—the rare job she wasn’t sure she was going to be able to ace. Luckily with the help of the right director (her husband, the filmmaker Taylor Hackford, signed on for the gig) and a little last-minute cramming (“I ran out and bought Stanislavski,” she says, “because I’d never read it”) the experience turned out to be one Mirren not only survived, but enjoyed. “I sat down in the chair and started talking, and all of these things I didn’t realize I knew just flowed out of me,” she says. “I thought, my God, I had no idea that I knew all of this stuff!”
She might be the only one who was surprised. After all, Mirren’s had a five-decade career that began at the Royal Shakespeare Company and hasn’t slowed down since. She’s played everything from Queen Elizabeth II to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, gun heiress Sarah Winchester, and, in an upcoming series, Catherine the Great. In fact, her body of work is so impressive that on April 30 she’s receiving the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Chaplin Award, in honor of her contributions to the arts and exceedingly impressive oeuvre. And while Mirren’s no stranger to winning awards, she says this time feels just a bit different. “As an artist, I know how difficult it is to say, ‘This performance is better than that performance,’ so I’m always honored to receive awards [for a specific role], but do take it with a grain of salt,” she says. “However, to be recognized for all of your work—that’s a very different thing, and quite affecting, really.”
So, yes, it is a lifetime of work that has landed Mirren the award—whose previous recipients include Robert DeNiro, Barbra Streisand, and Morgan Freeman—but when pressed to identify a role that might best express what she thinks she does well, she doesn’t hesitate. “It’s Elizabeth I. I did win a Golden Globe for that, but when I look at it now, I see it as possibly some of the best work I’ve ever done.” (It’s worth noting that Mirren, who was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2003, doesn’t stick only to serious roles. “I love heavy, European dramas,” she says, “but I also love popcorn movies. Two of my top 10 movies are This Is Spinal Tap and Dodgeball.”) It’s especially hard to say for certain what Mirren’s best work has been when she’s still working so very much. In addition to her Catherine the Great series and turn teaching with Master Class, upcoming projects include the fantasy film The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a role opposite Ian McKellen in the con-man drama The Good Liar, a part in the Luc Besson thriller Anna, and a collection of shorts called Berlin, I Love You—and that’s just what’s happening at the moment.
If Mirren had taken the wrong counsel, however, she says it’s possible she might never have worked at all. “The worst advice I’ve ever gotten was when I was very young, and someone told me, ‘Oh, you’ll never be an actress—you’ll get married and have children,’” she says now. “I’m always open to advice, but some I know not to listen to.” Or, at least to ignore. Mirren goes on, “I have a listening face, where it looks like I’m listening to what a person is saying, but actually I’m not even hearing it; some things you don’t even want to go into your brain.” Just because Mirren’s tuned out here and there doesn’t mean she hasn’t been observing keenly. When pressed to identify what’s changed in the industry over the course of her career, she doesn’t hesitate. “Well, it’s not so sexist—that’s changed a lot,” she says. “In the material that’s available and in the general attitude; there’s been an enormous change there. Actors have taken control of their own craft much more. When I was young, you got a job, and then you went home, and waited for your next job—now actors are much more proactive.”
While Mirren doesn’t seem to have the itch to try on too many other hats herself—“you can be Reese Witherspoon and do absolutely everything,” she says, “but I don’t have that gene in me, I’m afraid”—she’s thrilled to see where the changes in Hollywood will go. “I applaud the movement in that direction, and I would hope to see more of it,” she says. “For so many years of my life, I had to just watch dramas about men, because there were no dramas about women—about who they were, about their stories, about their struggles, about what their dreams or fears were—and that’s really changing.” Changing no doubt in part thanks to the work of people like Mirren, which is why she says the Chaplin Award is so important to her. She jokes a bit about the friends and contemporaries who’ll be honoring her—a group that includes Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jeremy Irons, and Vin Diesel—saying, “I’m never going to pay off the debt. From now on, anything they ask me to do, I’m going have to say yes,” but then pauses a moment to get serious. “I’m absolutely blown away; I have to say, it makes you feel inordinately proud.”