The Oscar winner is of course wrong about that, as she’s proven over four seasons of Documentary Now!
It’s been five months since I spoke with Helen Mirren about hosting the IFC spoof series Documentary Now!, and I still haven’t gotten over her saying that she doesn’t think she’s funny. “I’m never comfortable with comedy,” she says, to be exact. “I’m so out of my depth with comedy. The only way I can deal with it is to be as serious as I possibly can be, if you know what I mean. I think if I was ever a part of a comedy team, I would definitely be the straight man. I wouldn’t be the funny one. I would be the one to set the joke up.” It’s an opinion that comes from her deep respect for the genre: “I think much too seriously so I love watching comedy. I’m very admiring, especially on film, comedy is very difficult. I’m very admiring of people who do comedy well on film. I think it’s easier to do it live because film is so technical to maintain the timing and the lightness of improvisational quality on film, it’s very difficult. But no, I’m not very good at comedy.”
Not wanting to argue with Queen Elizabeth II/DCI Jane Tennison/Magdalene “Queenie” Shaw, I gently point out that she seemed very comfortable working on this show, given her talent for deadpan. “And that was the nice thing,” she says. “When they asked me originally to do the presentation for this, [I knew] this needed to be played completely straight and very very serious, like Masterpiece Theater. So I knew that I could do that.” Mirren has been an integral part of Documentary Now! from the beginning of the series, which launched in 2015 with eerily accurate parodies of/homages to classic documentaries like Grey Gardens and Jiro Dreams of Sushi. So this June, I spoke with her in a trailer parked outside a Los Angeles soundstage, where she had just finished shooting her scenes for the upcoming season. The process took about two days, with her filming not just the opening and closing monologues for the series, but additional promotional material, like introductions for a recent series of screenings held at the IFC Center. Arriving early that afternoon meant I got to observe the filming process, and it’s a pretty pleasant way to spend a hot afternoon in Los Angeles, sitting in a director’s chair in a dark air-conditioned studio while, through a headset, you can hear Mirren’s calm clear voice as she works her way through each speech.
Praise Be to the Teleprompter
Hopefully it doesn’t ruin the magic to reveal that in her introductions, she’s reading those speeches via teleprompter, something she’s confident was a part of the conversation when it came to her initially taking the Documentary Now! job: “I’m sure it was an ‘And there will be a prompter, won’t there?’ sort of thing, absolutely. They’re pretty ubiquitous now.” Otherwise, she adds, “It would take me months to learn it. Well I say that, but actually, once you’ve done it a couple of times, if you’ve just done it, you can remember it. You’re not saying it ten minutes later — but you can remember it right there and then.”
Gentle reader, if you’ve never done it before, it’s worth noting that performing with the assistance of a teleprompter is actually not the easiest thing to do — it takes some time to master reading one’s lines as they move across a screen, while simultaneously saying them out loud in a natural way. Mirren doesn’t remember the first time she ever had to try it, but she’s now a fan. “So many award shows and things like that, you have a prompter,” she says. “I love a prompter. So I can’t remember the first time, but it’s very useful.” This leads her to a story about watching Barack Obama’s original 2008 run for President: “When Obama was running for office, he was so impressive, but he’d be making a speech to a camera, but in a room full of people, and his speech was being recorded and he obviously had telepromoters, you know those secret ones that they have, I’ve worked with them and they’re great as well.” But, she says, he was “forgetting that down the camera was 50 million people — he was only thinking about the people in the room, he wasn’t playing to the camera.”
So, Mirren took action: “I wrote a letter to the Obama campaign saying, ‘Look, he’s brilliant and he’s wonderful and what an amazing politician and incredible person, but teach him to do the lines,’ because you can read them and say it and then you can remember it enough to say it to the camera. They never wrote back — all they did was write back and ask me for money! But he continued doing that, and I’m saying, ‘Good heavens, he’s got the most important job in the world, learn how to use the camera!’”
The Host With the Most
One of Documentary Now!‘s ongoing jokes is that the show is currently on “Season 53,” with Mirren only being the most recent host of the decades-long series. But Mirren doesn’t have any personal mythology for who hosted the show before her: “Never crossed my mind. Obviously in the Documentary Now! universe, it’s been going on for a really long time, but I’ve never thought about that. Probably sort of an early David Attenborough or someone.” A few months after my set visit, during a virtual panel at the Television Critics Association press tour, I put the same question to executive producers Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, Alex Buono, and Rhys Thomas, and they had their own answers (likely made up on the spot): “Who was the Masterpiece Theater guy, Alistair Cooke?” Meyers says. “I feel like he did it first and then Masterpiece Theater stole him. Like, they saw him doing Documentary Now! and they were like… It’s still a touchy subject.”
“I think there was that Ben Kingsley era too. He did it for a few years,” Buono suggests. “But that was transitional,” Thomas adds. “Helen’s been doing it for a while.” During that TCA panel, Meyers went on to reflect on her original casting for “Season 50” (otherwise known as Season 1), because “talk about buy-in. Helen Mirren had to agree to do this with no sense of what it was.” What helped seal the deal, though, was Fred Armisen. “I saw her somewhere, and she said, ‘The next time you see Fred, will you tell him how much we love Portlandia?’” Meyers says. “And I said, ‘If you love it, we have something we need you to do.’ And she fully bought in based on the fact that she had such trust and confidence in Fred.”
According to Buono, when they shoot her stand-ups, “and the big screens are behind her, she’ll turn around and she’ll find [Armisen], and she’ll walk over to the screen and kiss the screen. One hundred percent true.” “That’s the best. It’s so sweet,” Armisen says. Adds Meyers, “I’m calling HR.”
I didn’t witness her doing this during my time on set, but Mirren did say that when she sees the pictures on those screens, “every time I see Fred’s face, my heart melts because he’s so lovely and so funny. They’re the nicest group of people. Some comedians have a reputation for not being very nice, but in my experience, the people that I’ve worked with on SNL are all just the nicest people. When I did SNL, they were amazingly welcoming and lovely. I’d love to be their best friend, but the fact is that you go off and do other things.”
What About the Future?
Given the pace at which Documentary Now! shoots (there was a three-year gap between both Seasons 2 and 3 and Seasons 3 and 4, due to the busy lives of the producers), it may be a while before Mirren is called again to work on the show. But she’s already embarked upon her next project — the Yellowstone spinoff 1923, in which she stars with Harrison Ford. “That will take all my time for the next six months,” she says. “It’s exciting and very nerve-wracking and intimidating, and I’ve always operated on the things that scare me the most are the things that I really should do, so it’s way out of my comfort zone. At the same time, I think the people that are the creators are very welcoming and creative, for lack of a better word, so hopefully, it’ll work out. We’ll see.”
During the time I spent listening in on the day’s shooting, one of the best parts was getting to hear Mirren gently curse her way through flubs and occasionally slip in ad libs, like referring to herself as a “sexy young thing.” Mirren says she likes ad-libbing, though “I realized that they don’t really want me to do that. I do it for my own fun, and they’re very patient with me and they let me do my thing and then they very politely cut it out.” An ambition of hers remains actually getting to play a role in one of the parody docs — something which still hasn’t happened yet. “I got close this time but the scheduling didn’t work out, unfortunately,” she says — while production on “Season 53” was actually located in the U.K. this time, she was stuck in the United States.
But, on set, while they were finishing her scenes, she mentioned one way she could finally make it into the show on another level, pitching the producers an idea where the series finale of Documentary Now! would be a documentary about Documentary Now! “I could be in [that one], playing myself playing myself. It would be very meta, wouldn’t it?” she says later, in the trailer. “Do you have any idea what that Helen Mirren would be like?” I ask. “Oh yes,” she says. “Quite elegant and a little bit demanding. In a very polite way. ‘Lovely, darling, you’ve made my tea, but it’s not quite piping hot, do you mind making it again?’”
I laugh at the joke, the way her voice drops a bit lower as this imaginary Helen Mirren. Because, to be clear about this, she’s pretty damn funny.
Documentary Now! “Season 53” premiers Wednesday, October 19th at 10:00 p.m. ET on IFC, with three episodes available on AMC+.