The Academy Award winner looks back at some of her most memorable roles, including Prime Suspect, Gosford Park, Catherine the Great and more.
“I don’t really like looking back,” Dame Helen Mirren tells EW over zoom on chilly winter afternoon. So … what did we do? We spent the next half hour making her look back. “I never keep any programs. I have no posters of myself up in my house. I just about keep my original working script. And even that, I lose, or give away, or something. I’m not one for keeping mementos of anything, honestly,” says the Oscar winner, who will accept the 2022 SAG Life Achievement Award during the Screen Actors Guild awards ceremony on Sunday. Luckily the Fast & Furious franchise star has got a memory fit for a queen, full of anecdotes from working on the stage production that kicked off her career, her time voicing the inner monologue of a Glee character, starring in Prime Suspect across 15 years, and playing approximately 972 royals.
Antony and Cleopatra (1965)
Attending drama school was “financially out of my league,” says Helen Mirren, who instead studied teaching and participated in a “summer camp of sorts” that facilitated youth productions in “proper theaters.” At 20, she played Cleopatra at the Old Vic, which led to an offer to join the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I had a terrible cold,” she recalls of the performance. “I felt awful and learned you have to go on.” I can be very self-critical. I don’t like looking at myself, and the downside of fame is having to read about yourself. There was a time when I had to read reviews of the work I’d just done, and that’s not easy. I don’t like critics—it seems like a weird thing to sit back and criticize what people are doing. Their job in life is to be critical, and I think that’s horrible. Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing how awful I was in some of the early TV work I did in England in the ’70s. [laughs] I was terrible.
The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
The 76-year-old says she’s “not one for keeping mementos” but does have the “visually stunning” French poster for this provocative cannibalistic indie hanging at home. “I was just looking at it thinking, ‘Oh, God, that was a great, wonderful, and terrible film to be a part of – an altogether wild experience,” says Mirren, who stars as the unfaithful, titular wife. “It was very low-budget. We had all this incredible food on set, which we were not allowed to eat. And then, when it was time for us all to go off and eat, there was Spam and white bread, and that was about it.”
Prime Suspect (1991–2006)
“I was so lucky to be asked,” Mirren says of playing detective Jane Tennison for over 15 years (two or three episodes at a time over seven seasons). “Often this business won’t accept a transition, but Prime Suspect allowed me to transition from being a 30-year-old to being a 40-year-old.” The series won her two Emmys, but Mirren doesn’t think she’ll return to Tennison anytime soon. “I stopped because I realized I was too connected to the role,” she says. “I thought, ‘If I get knocked over by a bus tomorrow, the headline won’t be “Helen Mirren Gets Knocked Over by a Bus.” It’ll be “Jane Tennison Gets Knocked Over by a Bus.” ‘ I had to move on.”
The Madness of King George (1994)
“I love a costume drama, I love costumes, I love getting fitted for costumes—when I see other actresses playing in costume dramas, I get jealous,” Mirren gushes when asked of starring opposite Sir Nigel Hawthorne in this George III biopic, which garnered the actress her first of four Oscar nominations. “Nigel was such an extraordinary actor and a great, great guy. To watch him do an incredible performance, and shooting in amazing castles and locations all over Britain—what beautiful memories,” she adds. “And it’s nice playing a queen because you always get great costumes.”
Gosford Park (2001)
Director Robert Altman made filming this upstairs-downstairs mystery “one of the pleasures of my life,” says Mirren, who got a second Oscar nod for playing housekeeper Mrs. Wilson. But she learned the hard way of his ability to improvise: “I had a lot of dialogue in a scene, and I prepared for a week – getting nervous and learning my lines. Finally the day arrived, and I was all ready to be the most important person, because I’ve got all the lines. And Robert goes, ‘What should we do?… Oh, let’s shoot the dog running through everyone’s legs.’ I became a voice in the background. Of course it was genius, which I rather crossly had to acknowledge.”
The Queen (2006)
“I knew I was stepping into the hornet’s nest,” the star says of signing on for The Queen, the first major onscreen depiction of Queen Elizabeth II. It wasn’t her performance that had Mirren worried, rather the press tour she would embark on during her (successful) Oscar campaign. “The British have a very conflicted relationship with the monarchy,” the actress explains. “On the one hand, they love to mock them and criticize them and give them a hard time in every possible way. And on the other hand, they have a profound love for the institution, the history—and, in particular, for the Queen.” Rather than researching present-day Elizabeth, Mirren says she prepared for director Stephen Frears’ 2006 biopic by focusing on “who she was before the mantle came and the crown descended on her head.” She also pulled from her Emmy-winning performance in HBO’s 2005 miniseries Elizabeth I. “It was interesting to find there are great equivalences between the two,” she says of portraying the distant relatives. “For an actor, it was a very fascinating journey to make.”
Catherine the Great (2019)
As for playing Russia’s final empress in HBO’s 2019 limited series Catherine the Great, Mirren says that was a horse of another color. “It’s very different when the person is alive—when people are familiar with what she looks like, sounds like, walks like. But with historical characters, you have to research in a different way, really,” says the actress, who kept her natural accent while playing the German immigrant. That focus on capturing Catherine’s essence rather than imitation has made Mirren a fan of The Great, Hulu’s irreverent dramedy starring Elle Fanning: “I think it’s fantastic. It’s not remotely historically accurate like ours—but in another way it’s very accurate, because it’s got the absurdity of the whole thing beautifully.”
When Team Glee decided to give voice to the inner monologue of Becky, Lauren Potter’s bitchy Ohio high school cheerleader, “they very sweetly thought, ‘Who would be Becky’s dream voice? Dame Helen Mirren, that would be good,’ ” says the definitively British-accented Mirren. “I think a lot of my lovely gigs like that come from people thinking, ‘Who’s the most absurd person we could think of to do this?’ ”
When Nature Calls (2021)
That same logic is likely what led to her narrating ABC’s comedic wildlife docuseries When Nature Calls with Helen Mirren last year. “I had such a blast doing that. I had to be very serious but sort of send myself up at the same time,” says the actress, who’s also done voice-over work for Monsters University, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Prince of Egypt, and even as a caller on an episode of Frasier. “I had to record my Nature lines remotely because I was filming [Shazam! Fury of the Gods] in Atlanta at the same time,” explains Mirren, whose days off from playing a villain in the DC film were spent in an at-home recording booth channeling her inner David Attenborough. “They said that the best place to make a studio is in the closet, so I sort of did that by hanging towels up and things. I was literally in the closet.”
Fast & Furious (2017, 2019, 2021)
“Most of my career has been art-house movies, and they’re the movies that I personally enjoy. But there’s this other, wonderful world of filmmaking that I didn’t know anything about,” Mirren says of what drew her to this franchise. “I’ve always loved driving in movies—and always insist on doing the driving myself—so I imagined that on a Fast & Furious film, I’d be driving,” she says. But that wasn’t the case playing Queenie (the criminal mom of Jason Statham’s Shaw) in The Fate of the Furious and Hobbs & Shaw. Thankfully, that was remedied when she returned for F9: “They very sweetly wrote a scene where I could drive. It was incredible fun.”