Helen Mirren is a woman of many monikers. There’s “dame,” of course, which she was officially named by Queen Elizabeth II 15 years ago, for an acting career that has spanned more than five decades, starting with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late 1960s.
There’s “Oscar winner.” That happened in 2007 for playing Queen Elizabeth in The Queen. (Don’t forget: She has a Tony, an Olivier, and several Emmys too.) There’s also “sexpot,” a sobriquet that refers back to early, occasionally barely clothed performances in movies like Caligula (1979) and Age of Consent (1969) and still trails Mirren today, at the spry age of 73. And many would consider her something of a no-nonsense ballbuster. There were her many seasons as the tough-as-nails detective chief inspector on Prime Suspect, way before A-list actors doing television was supercool. She continues on that tough-as-nails path this month as the villain in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a Disney fantasy film based on an E.T.A. Hoffmann story. And for more evidence, there’s a recently resurfaced clip that racked up 13 million views on Facebook in which Mirren cut down a sexist British talk-show host for calling into question whether her physical attributes got in the way of her acting talents. This was in 1975. Talk about a nutcracker.
But here’s a description of Oscar-winning sexpot Dame Helen Mirren you probably didn’t imagine you’d ever hear: “scaredy-cat.” And it’s actually Mirren’s own. “I consider myself a scaredy cat,” she says. This during a moment of unpacking in the Lake Tahoe home she and her husband, filmmaker Taylor Hackford, just moved into as a break from “the intensity of Los Angeles life.” Oscar-winning sexpot Dame Helen Mirren? One of the greatest, boldest, fiercest, smartest performers of her generation is a scaredy-cat? Impossible. “Yes, oh, yes. I’m constantly nervous,” she continues. “I’m always worried that I’m not going to do it right. But you have to just jump and then the adrenaline kicks in.”
Take, for instance, the role that Mirren is about to inhabit. Next year, she’ll play Catherine the Great, in an HBO limited series that’s filming in Lithuania, opposite Jason Clarke as her younger lover, Grigory Potemkin. “I’m scared of Catherine,” she explains. “It’s a big responsibility. She’s not an easy character to find.” That said, Mirren has always been drawn to a challenge. During a career that has spanned movies (from period pieces like The Madness of King George to action thrillers like RED), television and theater (pretty much everything, up to her Tony- and Olivier-winning turn as Queen Elizabeth, once again, in The Audience), she’s often been asked if there were any characters she’d like to play.
“I’m always worried that I’m not going to do it right. But you have to just jump and then the adrenaline kicks in.” “This one time I offhandedly said I’d like to play Catherine the Great of Russia. And that was my doom. Because someone else said, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea,’ and they got busy.” Mirren didn’t have a lot of background knowledge about the 18th-century empress. “I sort of knew she was Russian and powerful and had big hair and big dresses. I’m a bit of a lover of big hair and big dresses.” So she spent most of her break in Tahoe not only organizing her new home but also reading biographies of Catherine and perusing her letters to understand her voice. “What else is there, really? Thank God for YouTube, but you can’t go there for this,” says Mirren. “I love the research. There’s a sense of detective work.” “Obviously I play her at the height of her power,” Mirren goes on, “but she was very straightforward, a very clever and ambitious person. And of course Russia at that time was this amazingly complex, violent, and difficult country to govern. But she felt she could handle it.”
She is also intrigued by Catherine’s sexuality. “In our slightly puritanical, Protestant world, it’s shocking the way she behaved. It was extraordinary for that era. She had four children by four different men.” Mirren got another opportunity to indulge her penchant for big hair and big dresses when she took on the role of Mother Ginger in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,which also stars Keira Knightley and Morgan Freeman.
Women get to play much cooler villains these days.
“The costumes! My God! Every costume is a complete work of art,” says Mirren. “I’m eternally fascinated and impressed by the artisanal craftsmen behind the camera. You walk into the studio and you’re in a forest. It smells like a forest. It looks like a forest. It’s extraordinary. I was just dying to take photographs. But Disney is very, very secretive, and you can’t take photographs.” Because of spoilers, she can’t talk much about the role, but Mirren was excited to play a villain. “She’s fabulous and funny, and becomes bitter and angry.” Women, she adds, “get to play much cooler villains these days. But I’ve always had a secret ambition to play a villain in a James Bond movie.” Maybe just saying it will make it so? After all, it worked for Catherine the Great. “No, I’m not very proactive in that way,” she says. “James Bond is such a well-oiled machine. It’s hard to put a spoke in that wheel.”
Despite many years playing the queen of England, Mirren says she watched the recent royal wedding (on set of the upcoming The Good Liar with friend and costar Ian McKellen), but “I don’t care that much, though I do watch The Crown. I just think it’s beautifully realized.” It’s more the queen who captivates her. The queen occasionally invites her to events, and they ran into each other recently “at a horse thing,” Mirren says. “I was in the paddock. In her old age, she has that indomitable spirit. I love her. I’m not a royalist; I’m a queenist.”