For her film parts, stage plays and roles in British TV dramas, Dame Helen Mirren has met critical acclaim – and has proved to be particularly good at queens
The prospect of interviewing Dame Helen Mirren is a particularly nerve-wracking one. Perhaps it’s her reputation for straight talking (‘The Oscars are the crème de la crème of bullshit’) or her razor-sharp intellect. Then again, it could be her sex-symbol status and the fact that it doesn’t impress her all that much. This, after all, is a woman who has been one of the nation’s most successful serious actresses for over four decades, and yet can’t seem to get away from the ‘doesn’t she look great for her age?’ brigade. I make a note to self: ‘Don’t mention age, appearance or ask what it was like to go out with Liam Neeson.’
As it turns out, I needn’t have bothered. Mirren is everything I thought she wouldn’t be: warm, witty and – excuse the expression – very down-to-earth. She answers my questions thoughtfully and at length, and isn’t above poking fun at herself. ‘I don’t avoid Hollywood. It’s more that Hollywood avoids me!’ she laughs at one point. Except for Liam Neeson, I think but don’t say.
It seems entirely appropriate that Mirren should be the only actress ever to have played both Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II. There is a certain regality about her, in the way she holds her ash-blonde head high and never has a hair out of place. Her inner stillness is coupled with an outer charm, and yet she never seems to give much away. She may not be as petrifying as I first feared, but that isn’t to say I don’t mind my Ps and Qs when I’m speaking to her.
In August , Mirren won a Best Actress Emmy Award for her portrayal of Elizabeth I in the television mini-series about the Virgin Queen. And if the rumour mill is to be believed, she is to be nominated [she won!] for an Oscar for her turn as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen, a film that centres on the tumultuous week following Princess Diana’s death in 1997.
For Mirren, the part was more daunting than any she has ever taken on. ‘You are in a no-win situation if you play someone iconic,’ she insists, ‘because you can never be even as quarter as great as the original, and you are setting yourself up for an awful lot of criticism for that reason.’ Undeterred, however, Mirren ‘took her courage in her hands and decided to go for it’ and the more she got to know her character, the more Mirren found she admired her. ‘I used to think she was terribly cold and grumpy,’ she explains. ‘“Oh, give us a smile, ma’am,” I used to think. But now I realise that her silence has something much deeper and more important behind it.’ Just thinking about the Queen seeing her performance makes Mirren very nervous. ‘I would be devastated if I thought she didn’t like it or had been upset by it,’ she admits.
When she was in her mid-twenties, Mirren went to a palm reader who told her that she wouldn’t find professional success until she was in her forties. Sure enough, when she was 46, she landed the part of DCI Jane Tennison in a television series by Lynda LaPlante called Prime Suspect. It was to change her life. One of the highest-rated series of all times, Prime Suspect brought its opinionated, exasperated, chain-smoking heroine into the living rooms – and into the hearts – of millions of viewers. Then, in 1996, after five instalments in as many years (and three consecutive BAFTA awards between 1991 and 1993), Mirren decided enough was enough.
During a seven-year hiatus, she played some of her most memorable parts, both on stage and screen. She got rave reviews from the London critics for performances in Orpheus Descending at the Donmar Warehouse in 2000 and Mourning Becomes Electra at the National Theatre in 2003, both of which earned her Olivier Award nominations. Meanwhile, she built on credibility gained by an Oscar-nominated performance in The Madness of King George in 1994 with a number of film roles, including most notably that of housekeeper Mrs Wilson in Robert Altman’s highly-acclaimed Gosford Park. Mirren’s controlled but deeply felt performance was impeccable and earned her another Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in 2001. Just two years later, she found herself back on the red carpet (a place she describes as ‘unutterably surreal’) when she was nominated for her performance in Calendar Girls, a British comedy about a group of middle-aged women who strip off for charity.
Mirren herself has never been averse to baring all for a good cause – namely, her art. That said, the fact that you wouldn’t catch DCI Tennison showing off her assets is proof of the fact that Mirren is much more than an actress who relies on her looks. It is for this very reason that Mirren feels so professionally indebted to her ice-cold alter-ego. ‘Jane was a brilliant move for me,’ she remembers. ‘It got rid of one sort of image and moved me on to another arena. It meant playing a part that was personality-driven and wasn’t dependent on the size of my breasts, which was very valuable.’
Mirren is genuinely fond of Tennison. It was for this reason, as much as anything else, that she decided to play her in a sixth series in 2003. The response was very positive and viewing figures once again went through the roof. She is shortly to make her seventh and final appearance. Mirren remains tight-lipped about how it all ends up, but she is sure of one thing. ‘It’s definitive,’ she concedes, fuelling rumours of Tennison’s demise. Why, I can’t help but wonder, did she decide to play the part again? ‘Playing her is like bumping into a very old friend,’ Mirren says fondly. ‘You might not have seen them for years, but it feels just like yesterday and it leaves a smile on your face.’
She might recently have turned 60, but Mirren has no plans for retirement. ‘I have just made four films back to back and I seem to have more work now than I ever did,’ she sighs happily. ‘There are so many roles out there I’d love to play,’ she adds, with characteristic defiance, ‘I just don’t know what they are yet. If someone had told me five years ago that I would end up playing the Queen, I would never have believed them. And yet, it has been one of my favourite roles to play. Why would I stop now? I feel like I’m on a roll.’
In the meantime, she hopes to return to the stage and is also enjoying the financial perks that come with her success. ‘The thing I am most proud of is that I am economically independent,’ says the woman who shares three homes – one in Los Angeles, one in London and one in the South of France – with Taylor Hackford, her producer-director husband of nine years (they have been together since they met on a film 22 years ago). As well as sharing each other’s professional successes (Mirren was beaming by Hackford’s side on the red carpet last year when his Ray Charles biopic, Ray, was the toast of the town), the pair – who she describes as ‘very fortunate to still find each other fun and interesting’ – also share a lust for life. ‘I don’t want a Lamborghini,’ says Mirren. ‘But I do want to experience life in all its colours.’