11:08pm PT by Scott Feinberg
'Hitchcock' Heroine Helen Mirren Says Palm Reader Predicted Her Career Spot-On (Video)
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down for an in-depth conversation with the great British actress Helen Mirren about her life and career. The radiant white-haired 67-year-old, a four-time Oscar nominee and the 2006 best actress Oscar winner, might well snag a fifth Oscar nom in January -- which would be her third for best actress -- for her portrayal of Alfred Hitchcock's wife and trusted adviser Alma Reville opposite Anthony Hopkins' Hitch in Sacha Gervasi's feature directorial debut, Hitchcock, which is now in limited release. While the film has generated only mixed reviews, nearly everyone seems to agree that its shortcomings do not include Mirren, who really is the best thing about it.
The theater, television and movies were not a part of Mirren's childhood until age 12 or 13, when she saw an amateur production of Hamlet. "That was a seminal moment in my life," she recalls. "I was just completely transported by it," she explains, "and it made me want to become an actress." It also is what led to her early interest in and lifelong affection for Shakespeare. She eventually attended the National Youth Theatre and then became a member of the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, after which she embarked on a professional career that she assumed would unfold primarily in the theater. She never imagined, she says, that she would wind up best known for her work on the small and big screens.
Mirren was always a working actress, even right out of the gate. But while still in her twenties, she felt "very fraught" with worry and -- "neurotic," she says -- about her future, and paid a visit to an Indian palm reader to inquire about her future. When she left, she remembered very little of what she had been told to write down, and decided to throw out rather than reread her notes because she didn't want to know what the future held for her. "But," she reflects, "the only thing I did remember was he said, 'You will have success in your life -- you will be very successful -- but you won't reach your pinnacle of success until later on in your life, after you're 40... and he was right... I didn't become a so-called 'household name' until I was in my forties."
After appearing in many films and television shows -- including several that garnered considerable attention, such as Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! (1973) and especially Tinto Brass' controversial Caligula (1979) -- she landed, at 46, the "perfectly timed" role of no-nonsense detective Jane Tennison in the British TV miniseries Prime Suspect. She would appear in seven Prime Suspect installments between 1991 and 2006 and says it "was the thing that really ultimately taught me about film acting." The show subsequently was included on both the British Film Institute's and Time magazine's lists of the 100 greatest TV shows of all time.
In terms of film, Mirren entered something of a "golden age" about 18 years ago and has shown no signs of slowing down. She starred as Queen Charlotte in Nicholas Hytner's The Madness of King George (1994), earning her first Oscar nomination for best supporting actress; she earned another best supporting actress nom for her portrayal of a mischievous housekeeper in Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001); she showed her raunchy side in Nigel Cole's Calendar Girls (2003); she won virtually every award under the sun, including the best actress Oscar, for her iconic portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears' The Queen (2006); she was nominated for the best actress Oscar again just three years later for playing Leo Tolstoy's wife in Michael Hoffman's The Last Station (2009); she elevated John Madden's The Debt (2010); and she helped propel Robert Schwentke's Red (2010) to nearly $200 million in worldwide ticket sales.
Which brings us to Hitchcock.
Mirren has said that she was willing to work with Gervasi, a first-time feature narrative director, for several reasons: she had enjoyed his hit doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008); she was excited about the prospect of working for the first time with Anthony Hopkins; she was impressed by Gervasi's "great confidence and great humility" and "charm and kindness," as well as his adjustments to the screenplay that John McLaughlin (Black Swan) derived from Stephen Rebello's acclaimed book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (1990); and she was fascinated by the character of Alma. "I didn't know anything about Alma until I was sent the script," she confesses. "Obviously, then I looked it up and went, 'Whoa!'"
Alma has received scant attention through the years, but the reality is that she was Hitchcock's superior when they first met, and throughout their 54-year marriage she was perhaps the only person whose counsel he sought and valued. As seen in the film, she provided him with not only a happy home, but also invaluable filmmaking advice that markedly improved many of his productions, including Psycho (1960). Mirren acknowledges that "an incredible resource" for her was the book Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man (2003), which was written by Alfred and Alma's elderly daughter Patricia Hitchcock. Mirren says she was struck by the fact that "here was the daughter of the great genius Alfred Hitchcock, and the one book she chooses to write about her family life she chooses to write about her mother."
Some have criticized the film for focusing, among other things, on the relationship between Alma and her friend/fellow writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). Mirren sees this as misguided. "We don't suggest in the film that they have an affair; we just say that they have a collegial working relationship." (Cook's own diaries suggest that they may have, in fact, had a physical relationship, but Gervasi elected not to feature that in his film.) Mirren continues, "Similarly, you don't know what the Queen said the morning that Diana died. We don't know these things; of course we don't. I think the general approach that we take -- both to Hitch and to Alma and to the people around them -- is very true and accurate." She laughs, "The details? As Hitchcock would say, 'It's only a mooovie!'"
Remarkably, Mirren, it turns out, once met with Hitchcock about the possibility of appearing in one of his later films, but their interactions didn't continue beyond that meeting. And if she had worked with him, how might it have gone? She hypothesizes, "When I was young, it would have been a disaster -- absolute disaster -- because I would have been bossy and argumentative and a real pain in the ass and basically an idiot. Now, I would love to work with him -- I would absolutely love to work with him -- because now I know enough about filmmaking to understand the greatness of that technician."