The prolific actress looks back on her 50-year career, and looks forward to receiving the SAG Life Achievement Award for her work.
When you’re young, you don’t think about where you’ll be in your 70s. You can’t imagine it, really. You just go from day to day, month to month, year to year. But I was obsessive and completely one-dimensional about the fact that all I wanted to do was act. I didn’t want to get married; my private life was completely secondary to my professional life. There was never any question in my mind about that.
I remember thinking it must be so incredible to have a script, go to the park, and learn your lines. That was my fantasy of being an actress — how unbelievable it would be if somebody employed me to learn lines. Of course, I eventually did have a script under my arm. And now I hate learning lines. [laughs]
In the last 10 to 15 years, I’ve found I have a certain power [in choosing my roles]. The British TV show Prime Suspect started me on that trajectory, and I’ve produced some of the projects I’ve worked on since. But I much prefer when someone thinks of me for a part. I don’t like generating stuff for myself — the most fun roles are the ones that come out of left field. I also go back to do theater work every few years. That’s what keeps you on your toes, and I like to shake things up. I never want to be stuck.
I’m not surprised by where I’m at now, but in some ways it’s still surprising to me that anyone would know who I am. I don’t think it has quite dawned on me that I’m being honored with the SAG Life Achievement Award. Recognition is a funny thing because on the one hand, you absolutely want to be recognized for your work. But on the other hand, being recognized doesn’t mean you’ve achieved everything you set out to achieve. The challenge is what drives you forward, and sometimes you need that self-criticism and the feeling of “Oh, I can do better.”
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.
Sometimes I do take myself by surprise, though. I recently saw a film I did called The Duke, which comes out [March 25] this year, and that’s definitely one of my favorites. I also just finished [playing former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in] Golda, which was hugely challenging. It’s dangerous too, because you know you’re putting yourself up in a shooting gallery doing something [controversial] like that. But it’s the things that scare the shit out of you that you really should do. Then the other things you can do for pure fun.
From job to job, I deliberately try to do something with different energy from what I’ve just done. And I always love the costume fittings — that’s where art meets artisan. It was fantastic to work with Jean Paul Gaultier on the costumes for [1990’s] The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Those were the early days of Gaultier, and he was right up my alley.
I also loved the work of Christian Lacroix, who made my  Oscars dress (above). This might be a terrible confession, but a few months ago, my house near Lake Tahoe was threatened by fire. My husband and I weren’t there, so our neighbors offered to go in and get what we wanted. I had to think, “If I can only take one thing, what do I take?” [laughs] I chose a gorgeous little Christian Lacroix evening purse.
Mirren will be honored with the SAG Life Achievement Award at the 2022 Screen Actors Guild Awardrds, which you can watch live Sunday, Feb. 27 at 8 p.m. ET on TNT & TBS, and stream on Feb. 28 on HBO Max.