Monte Carlo TV Festival: Helen Mirren on Feminism, Rise of Television

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Helen Mirren

"There is a pressure mounting behind a dam, and I hope that that dam is finally bursting in terms of women directors and women-led dramas," she says.

Oscar winner Helen Mirren built her career on British television before Prime Suspect made her into a household name — and earned her the first four of 10 Emmy nominations. 

On Tuesday night, she is receiving a career honor, the Crystal Nymph award, for her small-screen work at the Monte Carlo TV Festival. It will join an ever-growing collection of accolades that includes Emmys, Golden Globes and, of course, her Oscar.

“They seem to be gathering here in London for some reason,” she says. “It will be a lovely addition.” Also on that shelf is a best actress prize from Monte Carlo for Elizabeth I a decade ago. 

Mirren spoke with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of her return to the festival Tuesday night about the Monte Carlo event, her TV work and feminism.

What are your memories of the Monte Carlo TV Festival?

Monte Carlo is such an extraordinary place. Obviously, you have the huge Cannes Film Festival happening just down the road earlier in the year — it’s very wise of Monte Carlo to specifically deal with television. It’s now burgeoned into quite an important television festival, especially nowadays because so much really great work in writing, in acting, in production values is actually happening on television. There’s been an extraordinary change just in the last 10 years when you think of the incredible work you now see on television. It’s quite a long time since I’ve been there. But I did meet the Prince [Albert II].

Your role on Prime Suspect was groundbreaking for its depiction of its female lead at the time. Do you think a lot has changed for women in television since that role?

Hugely. In the last 10 years — or really the last three or four years — things have changed substantially. There is a pressure mounting behind a dam, and I hope that that dam is finally bursting in terms of women directors and women-led dramas. When I first did Prime Suspect they were not at all sure that a female-led drama would be acceptable to the public. So that’s how much things have changed since we first began Prime Suspect. It’s changed hugely.

Do you think the dam is bursting, a bit cracked or are we still just hitting on that wall?

The wall will continue to be hit for some time, absolutely. But I think there is a very substantial change in attitudes. I think it’s becoming embarrassing to turn someone down because they’re female. The mind-set has changed. Unfortunately there are dinosaurs, and there are some dinosaurs that are 50 instead of 80. A lot of males over the age of 50 are locked in a past world really, and we just have to let them pass through the system and get them out the other end, if you like, for things to really change. That’s a very generalized statement, so maybe I should stop right there.

You’ve also done work with this year’s Pirelli calendar to challenge the ideas of beauty and age. Is that also changing?

I think there’s been a shift there. I think that’s a lot to do with the fact that the box office or the consumption is now an older demographic. The baby boomers are a large segment of the population and as they move through the ages, you see their economic effect happening. We’re seeing that in film and television. But film and television should be for all ages — it should be for the young because the young are there creating the world that the next generation is going to live in. So I think it’s important for them to be active, I think that’s incredibly important.

Have you seen Wonder Woman?

Not yet, I haven’t.

There’s been a lot of hype around it having a female director, but some reviewers have criticized it as "tokenism."

I hate that. Of course there is such a thing as tokenism and it does exist, but tokenism is just the first step. Then the next step after tokenism is that there is one woman, and then there are three women and then there are five women, I hope.

You recently gave a graduation speech at Tulane University, in which you said you didn’t define yourself as a feminist until recently. What changed for you?

I always was a feminist, and I did identify as a feminist, but what I was saying is that in the early days of feminism — the late '60s, early '70s — there was a political ferocity about feminism that I couldn’t identify with, but now in retrospect I understand how important that ferocity was. Because until you’re very vocal and very annoying people don’t listen, so I’m very grateful to those feminists of the late '60s and early '70s.

I’ve always lived my life as a feminist, I’ve always believed in all the theory of feminism without a doubt — it wasn’t like I changed my mind in that direction, I’m just saying that I wasn’t the kind of person who went on marches. I loved people like Germaine Greer and I loved what they were saying, but I was the kind of feminist that wanted to wear high heels and lipstick and that wasn’t on in the late '60s. You couldn’t be a feminist and do that kind of thing. Well you can nowadays, so I’m a modern feminist.

Most people think of your film career, but you’ve had so many TV roles and been nominated for several Emmys. Not for the awards, but looking back, what was the role that impacted you the most?

I was always very proud of my work, I hate that sort of phrase, but I was. I did have a piece called The Passion of Ayn Rand — I felt my work in it was very good. It wasn’t like I loved Ayn Rand, I don’t particularly, but I loved the piece about how we all fool ourselves — even the smartest, most intelligent people fool themselves when it comes to love.

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