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Helen Mirren as Donald Trump? The Oscar-winning actress says she’d embrace the chance to play the 45th president.
“I’d be so funny as Trump,” said Mirren. “I love it. I’ve almost got the hair! I mean what a fascinating character. What an extraordinary character. I mean that’s a character isn’t it, the real thing? I would say real life is so much more interesting than anything you can make up, you know. But you know, a fantastic sort of slightly Shakespearean character. He may have a Shakespearean fall, I don’t know but you know, he is an extraordinary character.”
How would Mirren go about playing him? And would it be hard to penetrate his psychology? “I don’t think that would be too difficult to penetrate quite honestly,” she continued. “You look at the upbringing. You look at the schooling, the father, the mother. I don’t know much about Mr. Trump’s background, but if I was to play him, I would definitely start there. You have to start with the child, and the child is very much in Trump.”
Mirren was speaking last month at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & TV, where she took part in the ongoing interview series The Hollywood Masters. She also talked about the real-life woman she played in The Queen, Elizabeth II, whom she has seen in person since the 2006 film.
“I’d met the Queen before we did this, but very briefly,” she said, “and in a room with a lot of other people. I met her again afterwards, which was rather a loaded moment. She never mentioned the film to me personally. She did introduce me to someone as: ‘This is Helen Mirren. She played me, you know, in the film.’ ”
Mirren’s new film, The Leisure Seeker, opens in January after playing at the AFI Fest on November 12. In it, she plays an aging woman embarking on a final road trip with her husband (Donald Sutherland). “It was very hard,” she acknowledged. “We were shooting in the South in the summer, and it was incredibly hot. But otherwise it was fun, as a road movie. Donald and I were driving this very old camper van with no brakes. It was quite hair-raising.”
A full transcript follows.
GALLOWAY: Let’s go back to 1917.
MIRREN: What? I’m not that old. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: And you certainly don’t look it. Pyotr Vasilievich Mironov left Russia. He had been the member of the Czarist Army and came to England on a diplomatic mission. And while he was in England, the revolution took place. I don’t know if he came in February or October but he didn’t go back. Who was he? Why does he matter?
MIRREN: Well, he was my grandfather and certainly without that journey that he made, I wouldn’t be here. He brought my father, who was born in Russia but came to England when he was about two years old, grew up in England, really wanted to assimilate as much as possible, my father, not my grandfather. My grandfather really wanted to go back to Russia more than anything, but he wanted to go back to the pre-Bolshevik Revolutionary Russia which may be in a way how Russia now is. It’s gone back to the Czarist Army, hasn’t it?
GALLOWAY: I was going to say, right, yes.
MIRREN: But my father wanted to assimilate. And so as soon as he could, he changed our name from Mironov to Mirren. When I was about seven, that change happened.
GALLOWAY: You remember that change happening?
MIRREN: Vaguely, vaguely, yes.
GALLOWAY: Do you think of yourself as Mironov or Mirren?
MIRREN: No, I think of myself as Mirren, absolutely. I am a Brit, really. I mean when I go to Russia and I do have, maybe it’s a romantic fantasy. You know us actors, we’re very good at romantic fantasies. [LAUGHS].
GALLOWAY: All are good at romantic fantasies.
MIRREN: But I do feel that the landscape and the size of it and the culture of it speaks to me in some way. But at heart, I’m an English woman. But maybe I am just a mix, you know, as so many of you Americans are. And I think it’s a wonderfully creative thing to have a mix of race and your mix of culture.
GALLOWAY: When you say you’re an English woman, what does that mean?
MIRREN: I have to wonder what that means the same way as I wonder what it means when Americans say I’m an American. And I’ve always been very curious about that especially in this day and age, particularly in the last two years. What people mean when they say I’m an American, as an English person coming from a small country obviously, with a mild climate and a sort of… I can’t think of the right word but you know.
MIRREN: Well, just the culture is basically the same from one end of the country to the other. And when I came here and I saw Americans who live, I don’t know, in you know, Northwestern California as opposed to Americans who live in Louisiana, as opposed to Americans who live in the Nevada desert or the Americans who live… I couldn’t grasp what Americans meant when they said I’m American. I wondered if they meant actually they mean I’m a Californian because to me, to be British and I’m getting back to your question, to be English even is literally a picture that I have in my mind of an oak tree in the field, a single oak in a green field. And it’s that visual, that landscape that I connect with as an English person. And also when I think of my Russian roots, it’s the landscape that I connect with as more than maybe the poetry or the drama. But it’s those endless landscapes of forest.
GALLOWAY: What do you miss from England?
MIRREN: I miss the self-deprecating sense of humor.
GALLOWAY: That’s not American.
MIRREN: That’s not American at all, really. You know, I often find myself when I first came to America, making some stupid joke, you know.
GALLOWAY: Right, you used the C word as a term of affection and people are horrified.
MIRREN: Horrified, horrified. It’s become more ubiquitous now. It’s more not acceptable, it’s still not acceptable but you know, it’s out there at least. When I first came, it was just the worst thing. And in England, it’s just sort of almost a term of endearment, especially within the acting community.
GALLOWAY: Right, which was an island within another island, you know.
MIRREN: Yes, absolutely.
GALLOWAY: And there are geographical differences but there are class differences in England. Did you think of yourself as working class, lower middle class? What was your background?
MIRREN: My background financially, economically was working-class. My dad was a taxi driver, you know, the black cab. He did the knowledge and my grandfather, when he stopped being a Russian colonel in the Czarist Army, also became a taxi driver in London. But my father was very well educated and we obviously came from a sort of cultural background of quite a high level of education. So, it was a wonderful disconnect between living financially in a working-class environment and my father certainly if you like being a working-class man, but with this other level of education which translated into basically, you know, we couldn’t afford to go to theaters at all, you know, anything like that. So, it translated into basically sort of discussions over the dining room table.
GALLOWAY: It is amazing. I read your book, which I just love. I hope you can find it. It’s called In the Frame and it has got pictures galore, but the text is really interesting. And it’s amazing you grew up without a television. And your first taste of the theater was seeing Terry Scott. How do we explain Terry Scott to these foreigners?
MIRREN: Yes, what’s the equivalent American comedian…?
GALLOWAY: He’s a sort of very broad… does anybody know who Terry Scott is? No.
MIRREN: No. Look him up. He was a very broad comedian in England, mostly theater, not theater-theater but you know, variety type shows. Do any of you know who Benny Hill is? Yes. He was in the Benny Hill sort of arena of comedians. And my first experience of a theater was when I was about seven years old and I grew up in a town called Southend-on-Sea which is known for having the longest pier in the world, bigger than any pier in America. We have the longest one in the world.
GALLOWAY: This shows how Americans become because they have to be the biggest, the hugest, the…
MIRREN: It was one and a quarter miles long, stretching out into the Thames Estuary. And at the end of the pier, at that time there was a little variety theater and my parents took me to a variety show at the end of the pier and that was literally my first theatrical experience. And I was completely transported by it, by Terry Scott who made me literally fall off my seat laughing and then by the dancing girls who came on, you know, with… and it’s in my mind to this day of their blue and pink veil-y things, scarves that they have sort of floated around with. I just wanted to be one of those girls you know.
GALLOWAY: Is that when you first thought of being an actress?
MIRREN: I wasn’t aware of what an actress was at that point or that was any kind of a possibility. So, I just knew that I was very taken with the lights going down, a group of people like you guys are sort of in the dark on the stage and this transformative transporting sort of experience was very, very exciting to me.
GALLOWAY: Who did you gain that from, your mother or your father?
MIRREN: I often wonder. I mean when I started researching my Russian background, I discovered that an early ancestor of mine in Russia was a proper aristocrat with lands. And he or his family started the first… when theater started in Russia, it started as what they called serf theater which was basically the serfs, the slaves, the indentured servant workers who sort of belonged to the land owner. In the sort of late, I think in the seventeenth century, they started doing what they called serf theaters that they would have their serfs come in and give them lines to learn and they would act out a play. And that was sort of the beginnings of theater as far as I understand it in Russia. There’s probably experts among you who would say no, she is wrong about that. But as far as I understand, one of my ancestors had one of the very early serf theaters. So there was that little connection. Otherwise, honestly, I would say the most dramatic person in my family was my mother who was a real working-class Londoner from West Ham. And she left school at 14 as working-class kids did in those days, had to go to work. She was the 14th of 13… oh, sorry, the 13th of 14 children, that rather weird but yeah, exactly, very good.
GALLOWAY: That’s the definition of tragedy, to be 14th of 13. I love that scene in your book. I found your mother quite fascinating. You said she didn’t really want to be a mother.
MIRREN: No, she didn’t.
GALLOWAY: That’s not easy for a kid.
MIRREN: Well, she was a good mom. I am not saying she wasn’t. But I think she just yearned for the bright lights or for a more glamorous world than the one she lived in. She had that yearning that I had as well and that yearning sort of brought me out of my dormitory town on the outskirts of London into the big city. I think that yearning is very important. I’m sure that yearning brought all of you to this school, you know.
GALLOWAY: You all yearn? [TO STUDENTS.] Oh, yes, they do. Has what you yearned for changed over the years?
MIRREN: Yes, of course. Yes, of course because you…
GALLOWAY: What do you yearn for now?
MIRREN: You’re getting very psychological.
GALLOWAY: That’s the fun stuff.
MIRREN: I yearn for peace.
GALLOWAY: That’s a good thing to yearn for.
MIRREN: Yes, I am for peace and all kinds of ways because the total reality is that you never quite, at least in my experience, you never quite get to be peaceful in the profession that we have all chosen. It’s a constant yearning, a constant reaching out for the unreachable. And so you never quite find peace within yourself. You are always questioning yourself and challenging yourself and feeling that you would fall short, you know.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever done a role where you didn’t feel you felt short, where you felt this is it, I’ve got what I wanted completely?
MIRREN: Once in a while in the theater.
MIRREN: I’d feel, Helen, that was fucking great. But then it was gone, literally the next scene. It’s gone almost.
GALLOWAY: Kathy Bates told me a funny story. She is doing Night, Mother. And this is such a strange thing that you let go of consciousness and something else takes over. And she suddenly thought oh, my God, I’ve left the stove on back home and she’s playing. Oh, my God, my place is going to burn down. And at the end of the first act, I can’t remember who was co-stars with her who said “you were so great.”
MIRREN: You’re so great. [LAUGHS]. I can imagine. Well, that’s the weird thing. You can absolutely think two things at the same time. But one of the few times it was when I was doing Shakespeare and I had spent a lot of time and effort in trying to become a great Shakespearean actress. That was how I started my career, was in the theater doing Shakespeare. And my ambition was to be a great classical actress. That was what I wanted more than anything. So, I really pursued that in the first four years of my career. And it was an uphill struggle. It really was. Shakespeare’s difficult and Shakespeare in a big theater is even more difficult. So, anyway, it was a struggle for me. But I remember I was playing in Henry VI part two or part three, Queen Margaret, the famous Margaret speech, come set me down upon this molehill here, that something, something, at something, something. [LAUGHS.]
GALLOWAY: Don’t ask me.
MIRREN: Anyway, it’s called the molehill speech. Great speech, you know, a vicious, she’s vicious. But it’s a long speech and the thought process is complicated and you need a lot of breath but to get the meaning out and also it’s incredibly emotional because he is responsible for having murdered her son. So, she is very, very emotional, so difficult on many levels. You said did you ever feel like… once, one night. I suddenly realized I was on top of it. I always felt with Shakespeare that I was on the back of a horse that was running away with me and I couldn’t quite control it, you know. But I was sort of staying on but it was sort of running away with me. And suddenly there I’m on this stallion and I absolutely can control him. I’ve got the technique. Finally it’s arrived. And I’m a great believer in learning technique.
GALLOWAY: Even though you didn’t go to drama school —
MIRREN: I didn’t go to drama school and I’m very grateful. I’m sorry to say this. Is there drama school here? Mostly this is a film school, right?
GALLOWAY: No, both. Who are drama students here?
MIRREN: Quite a few.
GALLOWAY: Goodness, yes. Are you allowed to be here?
MIRREN: No, I didn’t go to drama school.
GALLOWAY: Why don’t you regret it?
MIRREN: Because I was very lucky. I had an equivalent in a way of drama school which was an organization called the Youth Theatre in England which allowed me to perform in a comparatively professional-ish sort of situation with a huge advantage that all the critics of the national papers came to review their production which they don’t do in drama school. So, I was very lucky in that sense that helped launch me. But the thing honestly I will say to you, my fear of drama school is that the natural extraordinary but eccentric talent sometimes can’t find its place in a drama school. And often that’s the greatest talent. And it very much depends on the drama school and how it’s run and the teachers. It’s a different thing here in America as well because so many of your great actors go to class, which is sort of we don’t do in England. We just don’t do that. We don’t go to… out of work or not out of work, you know, act as when they are not working, wouldn’t dream of going to class, you know. So, it’s a very different attitude here.
GALLOWAY: But I think we have a very strong repertory theater tradition. So, there was work that’s sort of training work that you do. You would have to do 40 weeks in rep to get your equity card and you could be in good theaters or bad theaters.
MIRREN: But you are working, but you’re doing it, you know, and that, obviously I feel that because that was how I started. But you know, doing it is and doing it professionally in front of an audience is what really ultimately trains you, or in front of a camera, but you know, having to do it.
GALLOWAY: Who taught you the most?
MIRREN: Who taught me the most?
GALLOWAY: Can I guess? I think that’s Peter Brook. Who knows who Peter Brook was?
MIRREN: Is actually, he still is, yes.
GALLOWAY: He’s really the most original and brilliant theater director maybe of the…
MIRREN: Of the 20th century.
GALLOWAY: Now he works in Paris — and Helen went from the RSC — but I thought this is the most astonishing thing to do. Here you are at the RSC. You are in your early twenties and you suddenly decide to show up in Paris and say to the Peter who’s now become a sort of experimental director, I’m here, take me, and he goes on tour in Africa.
MIRREN: Yes. We did a tour in Africa and actually here in America. I would advise especially the drama school, the drama school students among you to check up, look Peter Brook up. He is considered to be probably the most influential theater director of the 20th century. So he is pretty important. He’s done some extraordinary productions. He wrote a wonderful book about theater called The Empty Space. So, he is a very, very major figure in the world of theater in particular. And yes, I went on this journey through Africa. We were an international group. So, the theater, what we were doing was not language-based. And obviously I had come out of a majorly language-based theater in terms of Shakespeare into this non-language based. It wasn’t mime either. It was just new, just couldn’t use language because we were an international group of Africans, of Japanese, of Americans, English, French, German speakers. So, we all spoke different languages anyway. And then on top of that, we’re traveling through Africa, performing in very small villages. We never went to main towns. We were camping every night, sleeping out. It was about a three-month journey across the Sahara into Niger, and into Nigeria then back up through what is now Benin, into Mali, back across the Sahara, so across the Sahara twice. So, it was an extraordinary, extraordinary journey. You can imagine. And now we would sort of stop in very small villages, little communities, nomadic Tuareg communities or as we traveled further south, into small African communities and we just lay a carpet down, bang a few drums, to get a bit of attention. Sometimes it was literally three women and a goat, you know.
GALLOWAY: And I think you were paid with a goat.
MIRREN: Oh, yes, we were at one point.
GALLOWAY: A live goat.
MIRREN: Yes, paid with a live goat, yeah.
GALLOWAY: But you didn’t eat it.
MIRREN: No, we didn’t. We didn’t. That became a huge kerfuffle whether to eat the goat.
GALLOWAY: Were you on the we should eat the goat or we should spare the goat side?
MIRREN: I was on we should spare the goat side because we had food to eat. If we’d been starving, I would’ve said yes, let’s eat the goat. But we weren’t. [LAUGHS]. So, I thought why take a life when you didn’t need to?
GALLOWAY: That’s a good title for the next book, Spare the Goat.
MIRREN: Yes, exactly.
GALLOWAY: If not Peter Brook, who did teach you the most?
MIRREN: Just to say with Peter Brook, I was as I said earlier, I was reaching out for something that’s just unreachable. And certainly in that work with Peter Brook, I was reaching out to find who I was as an actress, apart from this intense technical development that I had been through leading to the riding the stallion. But I still didn’t quite know who I was as an actress and I wanted to find my natural call. And that was very much what Peter Brook was about in terms of acting.
GALLOWAY: What do you mean by that? And did you find your calling?
MIRREN: No, I didn’t. I didn’t feel I did but you know, that’s an ongoing process I think as an actor. It’s a weird process between… and I think it’s the same for any artist and one of my great inspirations as an artist is a book called Interviews with Francis Bacon. How many of you know who Francis Bacon is? Yeah, pretty damn good. That’s great, a great painter, now sadly dead but considered to be one of the greatest painters of you know, of many generations. And there’s a book called Interviews with Francis Bacon. And he talks about his art, his painting in that I think has such great correlations for any of us, whatever area you are in, direction or cinematography, or acting, writing. And that is to learn technique, to learn technique until you know it so well that you can throw it away and that there is the great moment for any artist, the moment of throwing away technique. But you can’t throw away technique until you’ve got it. You can’t say, “Oh, I’m not even going to bother learning it because I’m just going to throw it away in the end.” That doesn’t have to work. You have to learn it. And I’ve worked with directors like Robert Altman that understand the technique of filmmaking so well that they can afford to throw it away because they understand, “Oh, I don’t need this shot, I got this, and I got cuts with that so I’m fine.” You know, just un-know the technique. So, it’s in your blood. And the other thing Francis Bacon talks about is recognizing the good accident. So, in terms of painting he will go [MAKES NOISE] and oh, God, there’s a splosh there, damn. And then he goes no, wait a minute, actually the overall thing is quite good. I’m going to keep that. But you have to recognize the good accident because a lot of accidents are bad accidents. And you have to throw them out. But again, you can’t do that until you’ve learned technique.
GALLOWAY: You worked with Olivier on The Collection. Did he allow room for accidents at that point? Or was he so…
MIRREN: He was always… Laurence Olivier was one of our great, great actors in the English language, obviously in theater. As I was coming up in my world of dreaming of being an actress, Olivier was one of the great gods, you know, of our world. Olivier was sort of famous for was bringing naturalism into classical theater. Before him, it was all kind of declamation, very beautiful, you know, John Gielgud being one of the perfect exponents of that. But he was bringing in more of an energy and a naturalism. By the time I got to work with him, it was quite late in his career. And he was having problems remembering lines. And it was Harold Pinter. Was it Pinter?
GALLOWAY: Yes, yes.
MIRREN: Pinter, yes, and so Pinter, I don’t know if any of you have worked in a Pinter play, but you know, Pinter has written like music you cannot improvise Pinter. You know, some writers, yeah, you can kind of especially in terms of film, you can improvise around it. But Pinter has written like music like Mamet, it’s so intricately written. You really have to sort of obey the rhythms of the writing. So, he was beginning to improvise Pinter.
GALLOWAY: Oh, my God.
MIRREN: It was like the poor director was having a…
GALLOWAY: Did you like Olivier?
MIRREN: I loved him, because, like Pacino, he was an actor who loved actors. Loved acting, loved actors, found it just the most noble profession, and supported actors. So, yes, I loved him and Pacino has a very similar attitude.
GALLOWAY: You started moving into film. You did those television plays, actually last that I was watching Blue Remembered Hills again.
MIRREN: Did you watch it?
GALLOWAY: I didn’t watch it all. I watched about 30 minutes of it.
MIRREN: It’s great, isn’t it? Yes.
GALLOWAY: Which is Dennis Potter is the most wonderful, you know him, British writer. And then you moved into film.
MIRREN: We were playing seven-year-olds. That was an interesting acting exercise. We were grownups but paying seven-year-olds, dressed like seven-year-olds and playing seven-year-olds. It was a brilliant theatrical device because he was making comments on life through this device of telling a grownup story if you like but with seven-year-olds. That‘s sort of what it was, wasn’t it?
GALLOWAY: Yeah, and that’s one unbelievably difficult scene. I wonder how you did it where Helen is playing a seven-year-old, playing an adult.
MIRREN: Yes, that’s right, pretending to be an adult. Yes, a seven-year-old student.
GALLOWAY: How do you do that? Do you rehearse a lot? Do you…?
MIRREN: We regressed to seven-year-old. It was terrible. We were so terrible, all of us.
Somehow you had to, you know, we were appalling. We became appalling little group of awful little seven-year-olds. It was terrible. But…
GALLOWAY: You said you had a lot of trouble learning film acting. But you did some very good films and I want to show a clip from one. But you did several films actually shot in Ireland.
MIRREN: Yes, that’s right, yeah.
GALLOWAY: And I want to show a clip from a film called Cal for which Helen won the acting prize at the Cannes Film Festival. This is a scene in which a widowed woman is befriended by a young man and they are both other sides of the Protestant Catholic rift. And this is really lovely film acting. So, maybe that’s why I chose this scene but let’s just take a look at the scene from Cal. Here we go. It’s going to be up here.
MIRREN: OK, great.
GALLOWAY: When did you last see that?
MIRREN: Oh, dear, a long time ago.
GALLOWAY: How does it feel seeing it again?
MIRREN: It’s OK.
GALLOWAY: Do you remember doing it?
MIRREN: You know, yeah, of course I do, yeah. Absolutely. It was a lovely movie and it was made very much right in the middle of the troubles when the troubles were really… I did two kind of Northern Irish films. One was Some Mother’s Son many years after that. But that one was right in the middle of the troubles. And Some Mother’s Son actually was after the peace process happened then it broke down. And so I got flak for that one.
GALLOWAY: Did you get threats?
MIRREN: No, I didn’t get threats but I got criticized and attacked, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Wherever you went…
MIRREN: Not for this one because this one was very benign, you know.
GALLOWAY: You went on the Today show when you did Some Mother’s Son. They said hey, what are you doing supporting a terrorist film?
MIRREN: Yes, exactly.
GALLOWAY: Which is pretty outrageous.
MIRREN: Yes, it was because that’s… I mean it was understandable. It was about the hunger strike. And it was humanizing the enemy. And that’s always a dangerous thing and it’s what we do as artists because it’s our job as artists is to see the humanity. I don’t mean the humanity in the sense of oh, what a nice person they are. But I mean in the true sense of the depth and breadth of humanity, all the mistakes and if you like, evil and the good and all the complexity of human behavior. It’s our job as artists to reflect that and therefore to sort of present the hunger strikers in a way that we are saying look, this is who they are. This is who they are as opposed to just a cartoon figure of the enemy. Because dehumanizing the enemy is what is always done in war.
GALLOWAY: Instantly, yeah.
MIRREN: Instantly, they become gooks or they are the kraut. They become dehumanized. So, it becomes easier to kill them.
GALLOWAY: Is there anybody you would not want to humanize on screen or who should not be?
MIRREN: Well, when I say humanize, I am not saying to flatter the character. Do you know what I’m saying? I mean I think that…
GALLOWAY: I absolutely know what you mean, yeah. Hitler?
MIRREN: Well, yes, I mean the great performance of Hitler that’s endlessly sent up on YouTube but that was a great, great performance.
GALLOWAY: Yes, it is great, in Downfall.
MIRREN: Downfall, yes.
GALLOWAY: Which if you haven’t seen, yes, absolutely.
MIRREN: I mean it’s an extraordinary performance because it is. If you like, it doesn’t humanize Hitler but it does because it shows this very… it’s not a cartoon. It’s not a…
GALLOWAY: There’s a great line, one of my favorites, that William Blake said of Milton and Paradise Lost, great epic poem about Adam and Eve, you know that. And he says Milton is, because he turned Satan into his hero, he is of the devil’s party and doesn’t know it. Is there a danger that you end up justifying the unjustifiable?
MIRREN: Yes, of course there is a danger. Because film, theater, whatever is a brilliant tool for propaganda without question. It has been and is being used as such. But you know, as artists, that’s where our selection of the material we do, it is important. And the people with a sense of balance and I believe the great artists have an understanding of that.
GALLOWAY: Let me throw one at you just to make it really tough.
MIRREN: Yes, OK.
GALLOWAY: Because you’ve played men’s roles that you’ve done as a woman, Prospero you played beautifully. Would you play Trump on screen and if so, how?
MIRREN: I’d be so funny as Trump. I love it. I’ve almost got the hair. [LAUGHS]. Yes, of course, I mean what a fascinating character. What an extraordinary character. I mean that’s a character isn’t it, the real thing? I would say real life is so much more interesting than anything you can make up, you know. But you know, a fantastic sort of slightly Shakespearean character. He may have a Shakespearean fall, I don’t know but you know, he is an extraordinary character.
GALLOWAY: If one can penetrate the psychology which is difficult…?
MIRREN: I don’t think that would be too difficult to penetrate quite honestly. Honestly, I don’t.
GALLOWAY: Of the characters…
MIRREN: You just, back story, you know, you look at the upbringing. You look at the schooling, the father, the mother. I don’t know much about Mr.Trump’s background, but if I was to play him, I would definitely start there, you know.
GALLOWAY: Is that how you start with a character, you look at their background?
MIRREN: Oh, absolutely. That’s what you have to start with the child, you know, and the child is very much in Trump.
GALLOWAY: When you learn lines, I know that when you did Prime Suspect, you said, “Oh, my God, there’s so much to…” how do you go about learning them?
MIRREN: Oh, God. How do you guys learn lines? Has anyone got any ideas?
GALLOWAY: They want you to give them the tricks, is it not?
MIRREN: You know, I was told, I read somewhere and I’ve tried this, I don’t know if it works, but if you are smelling a certain smell when you are learning your lines, and then you go to bed and you put your book down and if the smell continues in the room while you are asleep, the lines will go magically into your brain.
GALLOWAY: Have you tried this?
MIRREN: I have tried it. I am that pathetic. I don’t know if it worked or not. It is quite good if you are learning lines. It’s just read through it just before you go to sleep, just read through it without trying to learn it but literally just read through the scene or the speech, whatever it is and chuck the book and go to sleep. And that does seem to go into your brain in a particular way. But it makes sense to me, the connection between smell, because of the way our memories work. And you think how incredibly evocative a smell is, isn’t it? I am sure it’s an area that really has not been researched but there is a sense there to me that it might work.
GALLOWAY: And some people are more oriented to one sense than another, smell or sound or the visual.
MIRREN: Yes, absolutely. Train journeys are great for learning lines because learning lines is sort of boring. I mean I have to watch television and learn lines because this part of my brain could be entertained while this part of my brain is doing the drudge work of learning lines or I like taking my lines when I am out shopping, supermarket or something, I’ll have them with me so I am doing something as well as learning lines.
GALLOWAY: But when you did Prime Suspect, you had folders saying this is tomorrow, this is next week.
MIRREN: Yes, absolutely, yes, yes.
GALLOWAY: And you didn’t look too far ahead or…
MIRREN: Only a week ahead. But I made sure that each week, like on a Monday of this week, I was learning next Monday’s work so I was always one week ahead of myself in the learning.
GALLOWAY: Do you like to rehearse?
MIRREN: It depends really. It depends what kind of rehearsal. I think it’s very valuable when you’re filming to have a sense of the environment especially if it’s your personal environment, it’s your apartment or your car or you know, it’s your character’s apartment, your character’s car or whatever and then to personalize that environment. So, it’s quite nice to have just an hour or something on the set and just to start staging it with a director. And it’s good for him or her because they can have a sense of what they are going to be doing the next day. It’s good for you because you can start inhabiting the space.
GALLOWAY: But that’s not like weeks of rehearsal. That’s…
MIRREN: No, that’s film. I mean you know, obviously rehearsing for theater and film are two completely different things, clearly. I like to read through. I love to read through the first read through and I really encourage the directors and actors amongst you to… and indeed the writers, even more important for the writer is to somehow get a read through together of the script before you start shooting if it’s shooting. Not always easy to do because the actors are all over the place. But even if you bring in friends just to hear the script read through, and whenever I do a read through, I go for it. I absolutely go for it and I allow my instinct to take me wherever it’s going to take me. I don’t prep. I’ll hardly have read the script before I get to the read through. It’s not like I’ve read through it and make notes, oh, I’m going to do this here and that there. No, I don’t even look at it. I just allow myself on the first day of read through, open the page, bang, let whatever happens happen, you know. I mean read where you are what’s supposed to be happening but…
GALLOWAY: What if you need to do research for a role? Do you then think more in advance or do you…?
MIRREN: Research is different. You know, that stuff absolutely… because usually the read through of a film script is like in the first weeks, before you start shooting so you don’t have a lot of time. So, if it’s a role that requires research, you absolutely have to have that under your belt before you get to the read through, a certain amount of it.
GALLOWAY: I want you to tell us about somebody you just mentioned, working with him, Robert Altman, because he had his own idiosyncratic way of working. So, let’s just take a look at a clip from a film I hope you all know, Gosford Park. Does anybody not know it? So, this is the clip from, right of the answer, here is essentially a murder mystery set in a British country house when we discover who the killer and it is Dame Helen. So, here’s Gosford Park. It’s a very brief scene.
GALLOWAY: Tell us about Altman.
MIRREN: Well, my big scene, I mean this is Altman. I mean there was so much I learned from him, really so much in terms of filming. He was just so as I said earlier on, he understood the technique of filming so well. And also the interesting thing with Altman is every single actor in the scene, whether you are in the scene or even off the scene or in the far back, everyone’s got a mic on.
GALLOWAY: Oh, wow.
MIRREN: Every single character has a mic on and every single character is being recorded. So, I mean amazing sound.
GALLOWAY: But what about image?
MIRREN: Didn’t really matter if you were onscreen or off screen or if you’re in focus or out of focus. Every single actor, you know, there could be 12 actors on set. They’ve all got a mic and they’re all being recorded for the whole take which means a sound recordist normally as you know… Do we have sound people studying sound here?
MIRREN: One at the back, I’m glad it’s a girl. Is it a girl? No, it’s a guy, sorry, guy with long hair. [LAUGHS]. Sorry.
GALLOWAY: It’s all right.
MIRREN: Because of his ponytail. But you know, the sound, normally you would have the main track of the main person in close-up, whatever. And then guide tracks for everybody else. Here, everybody is full sound. So, he’s got this, and that’s the identifying marker of Altman’s movies is this amazing sound tapestry that happens as you watch the movie. So, he’s got all these tracks that he can play with so you’ll suddenly hear a laugh off screen or a little bit of a whisper so he can build as well as a visual image, he’s building this sound story.
GALLOWAY: And he has two cameras moving at all times or…?
MIRREN: Often two cameras, one running up and down this way and another running up and down this way. Which I’ve never seen before, you know, I was like how is that going to cut? I can’t imagine.
GALLOWAY: Or be lit because it’s beautifully lit, yeah.
MIRREN: Or be lit, and that’s another obviously a big, we had a great cinematographer.
GALLOWAY: Did you like him?
MIRREN: I loved Altman. I loved him. I loved him for many reasons, not least because you know, I don’t know if I spoke about this in the book or not but there was a scene in this, a long scene like a two-page scene between my character and Kelly Macdonald’s character. And when working with Altman, you didn’t really do a lot of rehearsal. So, being a lot of British actors, we would all get together and rehearse our scenes if it was coming up like in a couple of days’ time, we get together in the trailer and read through the scene together and sort of do a little bit of rehearsal. So, Kelly and I were doing this on the scene. It was coming up in a couple of days’ time. And we sort of read through the scene and we sort of looked at each other and I said, “I don’t know what this is about, Kelly.” Do you? And she said, “No. I don’t, no, really don’t know.” She’s Scottish, you know.
GALLOWAY: Yes, she is actually Scottish in real life, is she?
MIRREN: Oh, yes, very Scottish girl.
GALLOWAY: Very Scottish. [LAUGHS].
MIRREN: Oh, yes. She’s Scottish. So, neither of us really sort of understood what the scene was. So, two days on, we go to the set. We’re going to shoot the scene and Robert says to us what do you think this scene is about? And we both sort of looked at each other and go we don’t really know what it’s about. And then I took my courage into my hands and I said, “I don’t think we really need this scene, Bob. It doesn’t add anything to my character. Kelly doesn’t feel she adds anything to her character. It certainly doesn’t add anything to the story. So, I don’t know why this scene’s in there.” He said, “You’re right. Let’s cut it.” Which is sort of unheard of really when you’re on the set about to shoot the scene.
MIRREN: You didn’t have to call the writer, the producer, the distributor. He said you’re right, let’s cut it.
GALLOWAY: Do we have the… oh, we do. Let me ask one thing first. He was very famously cantankerous. Was he with the actors?
MIRREN: No, not that I know, not at all. But the end of this particular story is that there was a scene that I felt for my character and indeed for the overall story, I would never have suggested it was just for my character. But I really did feel for the story to have an end, there was a scene that was missing. So, having got rid of the scene, well, you know, not shot the scene that I don’t think… I now have the ability to go to Bob and say, “I think there’s a scene missing and I think it’s the scene between the two sisters about the boy”, which didn’t exist in the original. And it was weirdly truncated that story. So…
GALLOWAY: Because they weren’t sisters in the original.
MIRREN: No, in the original, they weren’t sisters either. That happened halfway through the shooting as well. So, he said, “Okay, why don’t you go and write it.” So, Eileen and I went off and wrote this scene because I don’t know, he just said why don’t you go and write it and show me what you mean. And we did that and came back like we went off and improvised, wrote for like a couple of hours. We weren’t working. We brought the scene back. He said, “Yeah, we’re going to shoot it.” And it was great. And I swear to God that was why I got the nomination for an Oscar was because of that scene probably.
GALLOWAY: I mean the ability to direct and improvise like that, when you have you know…
MIRREN: When it’s so technical.
MIRREN: And there is so much money and you know, the producers, it’s fantastic to have that freedom and very, very rare. I mean only on very low budget movies where it’s like guerilla filming, you know, you can afford that kind of loosey-gooseyness. But it’s a courageous filmmaker who would do that. 99 percent they would say no, let’s shoot it anyway. You know, just in case I need it, they wouldn’t have the courage to make that decision there and then.
GALLOWAY: Let’s watch this scene.
GALLOWAY: It’s a lovely scene, lovely film, and seeing it again, I actually thought it was better than when it first came out. There’s beautiful scenes in it…
MIRREN: It was a funny… it didn’t quite work, the movie, because it was like two different movies and the writer went on to write Downton Abbey, massively successful, sort of really using the same understanding of that particular life. But there was this weird disconnect between that sort of social comment and some murder mystery. It didn’t totally work as a movie but it had some great moments in it.
GALLOWAY: I thought it was pretty good, you know, so does everybody else. How did you prepare for that character?
MIRREN: That’s a good question. You know, research, finding out what, what the world was and the film in general was very well researched and we had an advisor on set all the time to, you know, to tell us about who did what job. And it’s extraordinary that it was actually such a short time ago really and what a completely different world it was.
GALLOWAY: It was, yeah.
MIRREN: And the people who lived and worked downstairs, there were certain people who lived and worked downstairs who never ever went upstairs, ever. Only a certain number of the people who were downstairs went upstairs.
GALLOWAY: What surprised you about that world that you didn’t know?
MIRREN: I think… I don’t think anything surprised me too much quite honestly. It was just sort of painful to visit a world where people were so abused, especially women. It was a very, very tough world for women and so many of those characters, like my character, the Kelly MacDonald character would have been sent out to work at the age of twelve. A brutal world for women. And the whole story is about women in that situation being sexually abused, used, and then their children being taken away from them. And they were so powerless, they were so powerless, you know, no contraception, and incredible disgust and disdain if you got pregnant and if you were raped, it’s your fault and, you know, endless litany of things that women went through.
GALLOWAY: Do you find that England still has some of that? When you moved to America, and partly because you fell in love, which is a good reason to move with the great Taylor Hackford, but you said you felt that there was more personal freedom here. Has that changed in England?
MIRREN: Did I say that?
GALLOWAY: Someone did.
MIRREN: The thing that always takes us by surprise and excites us as Europeans in America is that feeling, especially here in California and especially here in Los Angeles, actually is that feeling that anything is possible. And that-that feeling of optimism and positiveness that can be misleading and sometimes take you out the garden path. But I love that sort of yeah, that’s great, oh, she’s great. That sort of positiveness and it’s rather, and you said, you know, as I was saying earlier on self-deprecating humor but in England, in Britain, it’s sort of the other side of the coin is oh, you know, “Look at her, who does she think she is. Oh, that will never happen.” You know, it’s that sort of attitude.
GALLOWAY: It also percolates to film because there’s a freedom to imagine big things in America. You couldn’t… it would’ve been very interesting but for instance, you couldn’t imagine E.T. being set in Scarborough, you know, that somehow people’s imaginations wouldn’t… do you agree?
MIRREN: Yes, I do, I do and I feel that the character of a nation is very much made by their landscape and I was talking about that funny enough earlier on but I do believe Americans are an imagination of Americans and the ambitions of Americans and the fortitude and the energy of Americans is created by the landscape that they live in.
GALLOWAY: On the other hand, British theater and television have created much better roles for women, especially over the age of 40.
MIRREN: Well, in the past, yes, not now.
GALLOWAY: Is that true?
MIRREN: Yes, I think that’s absolutely true, yes
MIRREN: I don’t know. Now American television is absolutely the best in the world without question.
GALLOWAY: Yeah, we are in that golden age.
MIRREN: Absolutely amazing, amazing writing, the acting, the production values, the cinematography, it’s mind blowing.
GALLOWAY: You had an extraordinary break in television when you got the first series of Prime Suspect and I want to show… this is actually from the sixth season but this is extraordinary because you played it from ’91 to 2006.
MIRREN: Yeah, probably.
GALLOWAY: So, you evolved over six or seven seasons with this character which very few actors get the chance to do as an intermittent thing. So, let’s take a look from a clip. I love the acting in this. Here’s a clip from the just astonishing Prime Suspect.
MIRREN: That’s a very good script. That particular one was a great script, great story. I think it’s one of the best.
GALLOWAY: Oh, yeah. And by the way, to edit that is tough because to know when to cut between two people. Was it Tom who… or another director?
MIRREN: Yes, I think that one was Tom, yes.
GALLOWAY: So, I can imagine saying, “I know I’ve got it, I don’t need more.” It’s just him and her, between the two. That acting is magnificent.
MIRREN: Yes, he was a wonderful actor, Russian actor.
GALLOWAY: Your acting is magnificent, you know.
MIRREN: There’s some great actors in the Eastern Europe in general.
GALLOWAY: How did you create that character? You are playing…
GALLOWAY: Yeah, Jane Tennison, fabulously named Jane Tennison, spelt slightly differently.
MIRREN: Yeah, right.
GALLOWAY: Do you… who knows who Tennison was? Nobody? How did you go by… I know you had a meeting with a police …
MIRREN: I had a meeting… I had a very tight schedule. I just finished on a film called Where Angels Fear to Tread and I literally had to leave the set, be driven across Italy, get on a plane, be taken to Manchester and I was on set the next day to start Prime Suspect. So, I had no prep time really. I had to prep… I had my hair cut the morning of my first day shoot. So, I was scrambling after myself with the preparation for that. It was based on a real-life character but she was very gay and she was out and she, you know, she was a, you know, proud gay lesbian woman and also an alcoholic at the time. So, she was very different from the Jane Tennison that we sort of created. But I did, obviously — I started doing research and talking to policewomen, finding various… as much out as I could. But also I was working on instinct, honestly. I was just having to… and it’s not such a bad thing sometimes to be thrown on to your instinct, to have to let it happen.
GALLOWAY: I mean, do you just like wrap the blankets over your head and think, think, think, or do you just wait until you are on the set and how do you get the instinctive part?
MIRREN: Well, different strokes for different folks if you like. I mean different prep for different roles. Obviously playing something like the queen, you’ve got to do major research, major preparation. Other pieces, it’s going to be what you make of it. So, the trick or the thing there is to allow yourself to… and going back to what I was trying to learn with Peter Brook, allowing to let yourself create a character, if you know what I mean. But with Jane Tennison, as you said, I did it over a long period of time but it wasn’t like a normal American type series. I did 2 months and then I would have 18 months off and then another 2 or 2 to 3 months during the four-hour story. And then another 18 months off. So, and then once a year or something like that, prime suspect would come out.
GALLOWAY: I always think that would make it harder to recapture the character. I mean, you see some great TV characters…
MIRREN: No, it wasn’t and it was weird. I never thought about it, I just put the costume on and bang, I was back there and it was sort of like… it was just so familiar to me, I guess.
GALLOWAY: Did you like her?
MIRREN: Yes, I did like… yeah, I did. I did. What I did with Prime Suspect is I allowed each time we came to do another four-hour story, it was with a different writer and I always said to the writer beforehand take this wherever you want it to go, you make this story your story. I don’t want you to ever think oh, would she do this, would she do that, let me look at what happened before. Make it your own, make it an individual story, no Prime Suspect has ever been made before this, no one will ever be made after it, it’s yours, make it yours. Because I do believe writers do their best work when they are writing personally, when it’s a personal thing. And I thought that was successful because it meant that each four-hour piece was written very passionately by each writer. They were never doing a sort of, you know, hack workman like sort of job.
GALLOWAY: In the middle of this, you played two queens and both queen Elizabeth.
MIRREN: Yeah, in the same year, yeah.
GALLOWAY: So, I’m going to show the most famous scene from The Queen, where Tony Blair, newly elected prime minister of England, is brought to see the Queen and taught what he must say before he meets her.
GALLOWAY: Did you meet the Queen in the end?
MIRREN: Well, I’d met the Queen before we did this but very briefly, very briefly, you know, and in a room with a lot of other people. I met her again afterwards, you know, which was a bit [LAUGHS] rather loaded moment.
GALLOWAY: What did she say?
MIRREN: She never mentioned the film to me personally. She did introduce me to someone as: this is Helen Mirren, she played me, you know, in the film.
GALLOWAY: Oh. She should’ve said she played “us” in the film.
MIRREN: Yes, but apart from that, she’s never mentioned it. But she has invited me to various functions. So, I take that as some sort of a tick, you know.
GALLOWAY: You worked with a voice coach?
MIRREN: I did, yes, absolutely.
GALLOWAY: Does that teach you actually about the character, finding the right voice?
MIRREN: Yes, of course, in that sort of context, very much so. I mean that was just the beginning of all kinds of things to learn about that… someone who lives in that world. But yes, very important and I’ve had the great advantage of working with two or three really wonderful voice coaches and they cannot just literally in terms of the sounds that they make but, you know, you do go into an accent. It is very informative of character the way an accent is… works, you know. Yorkshire is a very down to earth kind of thing, you know, you go down like that.
MIRREN: And so…
GALLOWAY: That is excellent.
MIRREN: [LAUGHS] I know, not that. Are you from Yorkshire?
GALLOWAY: I was born in Manchester.
MIRREN: That very down to earth thing is a marker of a particular kind of character. So, accents have developed over many years because of characteristics of human beings.
GALLOWAY: And the way even the world speaks English has changed massively in the post Diana era which also says a lot.
MIRREN: Yes, absolutely. It’s amazing to hear the queen, as I did, obviously in my research looking at the way she spoke when she was young. Absolutely incredibly like this. I mean it was so cut glass like unbelievable and now it’s more relaxed.
GALLOWAY: But your voice has also changed over the years.
MIRREN: Yes, one gets older.
GALLOWAY: Yeah, it deepens. It’s still good.
MIRREN: Everything changes. [LAUGHS].
GALLOWAY: What surprised you about the Queen as you did the research for that?
MIRREN: Well, just her sweetness, I think. And her humor and her… I think she’s quite acerbic. She probably gets that from her mother, who I think was very acerbic. It was a very interesting journey to enter into her world and her history and everything, you know. I never thought about it. She was always there. I would say she was like Big Ben, you know, in London. You drive by, you know it’s there, you recognize it, you don’t really pay attention to it, how does it work, what’s the mechanism inside, how is it built, what… So, I had to think about all those things for the first time. And, you know, that was quite a little journey for me considering she’d been in my life for my whole life, you know, she’s been in my life as long as my sister has. She was there when I was born, you know.
GALLOWAY: Would you ever want to live that life?
MIRREN: Because it’s so limiting. It is a prison. And she knew that when she was going into it, she knew what she was taking on. Unlike Elizabeth I, I think she took it on in full consciousness and duty and responsibility and really has been extraordinarily committed, has never let go of that. And when you think about it, she never got fat. She never got thin. She never… she was a little tiddly occasionally is, slight tiddly. She never became an addict, she never… you know, she just stayed steady. And just doing that alone, I think is an extraordinary achievement.
GALLOWAY: There’s an irony that when you’re younger, you were extremely anti-monarchist.
MIRREN: Yes, my parents were Republicans, yeah.
GALLOWAY: I think you ran for the Equity council as a member of the Socialist Workers party.
MIRREN: Yes, it is true, knowing that I wouldn’t be elected. But I was, like you, I was brought up in a very left-wing household.
GALLOWAY: Yeah. Are you still?
MIRREN: No, no and… no, I’m not and you know, the… I mean, yes, I’m still a European socialist, yes, I am but I mean am I… my father was maybe like your parents, more than socialists, they were, you know, communists before the understanding of the reality of communism became clear with Stalin and the rest of it.
GALLOWAY: But there is an irony that this young rebel, Helen Mirren, created a film which in a way redeemed the image of the royal family. Do you think that’s true?
MIRREN: No, I think it’s to do, again, as I said earlier on about humanity. I mean, you just… it’s not redeeming or not redeeming, it’s just saying this is maybe the reality of it, without taking a political stance. I mean, I’ve done agitprop theater. I’ve done it with Peter Brook. I was on the Viva La Huelga, on the lines with Cesar Chavez in the San Bernardino Valley, you know. So, I’ve done that kind of theater and that’s a different kind of theater, it’s obviously totally about politics. You’re making political statements in your work. But the theater that I prefer and the theater of the drama that I want to be a part of is apolitical. It’s about holding a mirror up to nature, you know.
GALLOWAY: I think Kazan said… he spoke of directing was the same with acting that it’s psychology in action, you know. I want to talk a bit about the film that you have coming up and while this clip plays from The Leisure Seeker, both of you have questions, can we get them to the mic? Excellent. So, this is a very brief clip because this is all they send us. I just love the new film with Helen and Donald Sutherland playing an older couple beginning to have some mental health issues who escape on the final road trip. Here’s a clip from The Leisure Seeker. Here we go.
GALLOWAY: How do you play old?
MIRREN: Oh, thank you so much.
GALLOWAY: [LAUGHS] But that’s a different person from…
MIRREN: Lot of makeup. [LAUGHS]. No, it’s not, it’s just me in a different circumstance, really. I wasn’t playing old. I was just playing me in a different circumstance.
GALLOWAY: How did that movie come about?
MIRREN: Well, in the normal way, it was sort of sent. It was an Italian filmmaker, Paolo Virzi. And my whole inspiration to become an actress actually, film actress, was through Italian film which I’ve always loved Italian film and the Italian… and my great goddess of acting is Anna Magnani. So, to this day, she is my goddess of acting. But also, you know, Sophia Loren, Monica Vitti and the whole sort of Italian movie world, I loved and I still do. So, I’ve always wanted to be in an Italian movie. And Paolo Virzi who has mostly done… it’s his first English language film in fact. And he did a wonderful film called Human Capital which I do advise you is an Italian movie but it’s a lovely, lovely movie and I loved the humor in it and the humanity in it was very beautiful. And so, this was my opportunity to work for an Italian film director.
GALLOWAY: Was it a difficult film to shoot?
MIRREN: It was pretty hard. It was very hard, we were shooting in the south in the summer, and it was incredibly hot. But otherwise it was fun, you know, as a road movie. Donald and I were hours, you know, driving this very old camper van with no brakes. It was quite hair raising from time to time.
GALLOWAY: Did you work with a coach with a southern accent?
MIRREN: I did, yes, yes.
GALLOWAY: And do you then choose a very specific place?
MIRREN: Yes, it was supposed to be South Carolina. How close I got to that is questionable but, you know, I gave it a go. Yeah.
GALLOWAY: OK, we’re going to turn to questions.
QUESTION: I’m a marketing major and this question is as an aspiring talent agent. From an agent’s perspective, what do you think are some of the most important qualities to ensure an actor’s career longevity?
GALLOWAY: You had a manager at the beginning, Al Parker, for a long time?
MIRREN: Yes. No, not a manager, he was my agent.
GALLOWAY: And how do you choose an agent? How do you know if they’re doing a good job?
MIRREN: Well, you don’t really choose an agent. You hope to, you know, when you are starting out, you know, if you’re in a very luxurious position, which actually I did happen to be in, to choose an agent out of a few people who want to because they have seen something. But that’s very rare. Normally, you know, you’re out looking for an agent and one really nice person says okay, I’ll take you on. I would say listen to your client. Don’t push them into things that… well, it’s difficult because sometimes you do want your agent to push you into something. My agent very much pushed me towards doing Woman in Gold which turned out to be a very good film. And I was resistant to it and I can’t remember why but I was. Likewise Calendar Girls, I did not want to do Calendar Girls. But it turned out to be a good… a nice film to do. So, you know, you have the courage of your conviction as an agent, I just feel this is going to be good for you. But don’t make… encourage, I think, your clients into variety because I think it’s very easy, okay, you’ve got a client, they do this role and they are successful and now they want them to do that same role in this thing and the same role in that thing and the same role in that thing. And before you know where you are, you are trapped in this world that you can’t get out of and then it’s really difficult to get out of that world. So, I would say encourage variety and say to your client, you know, you did that. Now, let’s look at something completely different for you to do.
GALLOWAY: Yeah, don’t be afraid to take the risk.
MIRREN: Don’t be afraid to take the risk, absolutely.
GALLOWAY: And somebody gave you a great piece of advice in the convent school you went to, beware of fear.
MIRREN: Yes, don’t be afraid to, I mean, beware of fear. Fear is a very… can be a very destructive thing. Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi, I’m a screenwriting major in LMU and my question is as an aspiring writer, I always want to know ways to improve my writing and I’m always curious to find out about it from an actor’s perspective. As an actress, what do you wish us as writers do more to our script?
MIRREN: First off, don’t make every character speak with the same voice which is basically your voice. This is very difficult for writers. But the great writers, the very good ones, you know, the characters speak with different voices. Sometimes you read a wonderful script but you realize that all the characters are actually speaking with the same vocabulary, the same language, the same sentence structure as each other, and it becomes very bland, you know. I think about a simple trick when I open the script and if all the speeches are this long, that’s not a good script, you know, you can tell within two pages. And look at Shakespeare, you have got a script, a speech like this one line, two lines, then you got a speech this long and then you got like, you know, it’s broken up like rhythmically. So, remember to write rhythmically, remember. Study the Japanese understanding of drama which is jo-ha-kyu. Do any of you know what jo-ha-kyu is?
MIRREN: Jo-ha-kyu is the Japanese understanding of drama. So, you can have a slow jo, a quick ha, and a kyu. It’s a sense of rhythm. Or you can have a jo, ha, kyu. But remember act one, act two, act three or even speech to speech to speech, scene to scene to scene, remember the rhythm. It can’t just be blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, scene, dah, dah, dah, dah, now that scene. Remember the rhythm in your writing. And I would say listen, really just listen to people, you know, take buses. It’s a difficult thing to do or sit in a Starbucks and just listen to the way people talk. Even surreptitiously record it just to hear the amazing weird wonderful way people speak. And also beware of stage directions. A lot of actors, me included, take a thick black pen and just cross out all the stage directions because you don’t want that to mess with your mind. There are other great stage directions in Tennessee Williams for example. I read the stage directions like a hawk or indeed Eugene O’Neill, same thing, probably Arthur Miller. I haven’t done a lot of Arthur Miller but the great writers write great stage directions. Shakespeare used no stage directions whatsoever. But beware of stage direction. Also really beware of if you are writing a script, think about the film director and don’t try to do the film director’s job. Don’t say extreme close-up. She goes white and then blushes, no actor could never do that and no director wants to know when to use a close-up. So, when you use stage directions, just give the general feeling that you want, you know. You know, the street is busy, maybe it’s going to rain, people running for home, trying to get out of the rain, that sort of stage direction is great. Just give… you know who’s great? I don’t know if any of you… if any of you have the opportunity to read a script by Tony Gilroy who’s a very good screenwriter and just read his stage directions and he is wonderful at not telling the director what to do but just giving a sense of the atmosphere of the scene.
QUESTION: Hello, my name is Marissa and I’m a screenwriting major. I was curious what do you look for within a character to ensure that it presents you with a challenge, a new challenge as an actress?
MIRREN: God, that’s a tough one because it always… the challenges always take me by surprise and it’s never anything that sort of worked out in my head, you know. But obviously you want a rich character. This can’t be the case for every character in a script but if you want, try to give your main characters a really good last scene. I always read my scripts backwards.
GALLOWAY: No [LAUGHS].
MIRREN: I do. I see if my character’s on the last page and if she’s on the last page, it’s probably a good role.
MIRREN: And if she’s not on the last page, I go backwards until the last… I read the script backwards. To see the last time this character appears. And if it’s a great scene, even if it’s quite afar back, if it’s a great scene, she leaves the film in a fantastic way, that’s a good role. But if the character just disappears, it’s not worth reading it from the front. So, if you want to attract…
GALLOWAY: This is cheating.
MIRREN: Yes, this is cheating but I like cheating. Cheating is good, yeah. [LAUGHTER].
GALLOWAY: This is the anarchist coming out of you. I’m going to read your script backwards.
MIRREN: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
QUESTION: Hello, my name’s Michaela Gingry and I’m a screenwriting major.
MIRREN: Gosh, we got all the writers. I want one actor.
QUESTION: So, if you had the chance to go back to when you first began your career, what is one piece of advice that you’d want to give to your younger self?
MIRREN: You know, I’m often asked this and I always say but it’s not true necessarily. I don’t know. I often say I wish I’d say fuck off more often.
MIRREN: But that’s not very helpful really. Well, you know, I guess don’t angst so much. Don’t torture yourself so much but then that’s a natural state as a young person, that’s what you do, isn’t it? If you are an aspiring artist or an aspiring anything, really. You know, you do torture yourself. So, maybe that’s a necessary part of the process.
GALLOWAY: Don’t you still?
MIRREN: Yes, I do. — I would always say be on time and don’t be an asshole. But I always was on time and I very rarely was an asshole. So, you know, I wouldn’t say that to my younger self. Yes, thank you, darling.
GALLOWAY: I want to just ask very briefly, you have another film coming out, Winchester. Tell us briefly about that.
MIRREN: Yes, that’s a ghost story. But kind of based on a true story of the based around the Winchester house in San Jose, I don’t know if any of you visited it but it’s amazing and this woman Sarah Winchester who inherited a portion of the fortune made by the Winchester rifle. The theory is she built this house like 24 hours a day, seven days a week for something like 30 years. So, adding bits and taking other bits down and adding other bits. So, it’s quite crazy. And one of the theories is that she was trying to placate the ghosts of the people killed by the Winchester rifle. So, that’s kind of we have taken that story. There is a little nub of truth in there, it’s arguable whether Sarah Winchester was but she was obviously a very sweet person and a peaceful person. She wasn’t and I think she did feel a weight of guilt about this enormous amount of money she had through basically people being killed.
GALLOWAY: My very last question. You have a tattoo.
MIRREN: I do, yes.
GALLOWAY: And you had your tattoo before all these guys even thought of having tattoos.
MIRREN: Who’s got tattoos here?
GALLOWAY: Oh, not that many.
MIRREN: Not that many but a few. When I got my tattoo, not one of you would have put your hands up. Yeah [LAUGHS].
GALLOWAY: Where is it and tell us what it means.
MIRREN: Well, my tattoo that I got on an American Indian reservation when I was working with Peter Brook actually so, it was a long time ago.
GALLOWAY: Is it still there?
MIRREN: And the Native Americans tattoo themselves quite casually and quite frequently. Do we have any Native American people here? No. Next year, please [LAUGH]. But anyway, we were working with an American Indian theater group and I drunk a bottle of brandy. And I finished that with my tattoo that means equal and opposite which is sort of… there’s a phrase which is a South American, I think Mayan, concept of it’s kind of Yin and Yang but not really. It’s that something or someone or whatever can be as different from you as you can possibly imagine but have equal value as you have.
GALLOWAY: I love that.
MIRREN: Yeah, it’s a good thing to remind myself of.
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