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“It was a curiosity, it was interesting, but it really wasn’t my passion,” Helen Mirren says of screen acting as we sit down at Cut Beverly Hills to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “I just wanted to be a stage actor, and I wanted to be a Shakespearean actor, and I wanted to be a classical actor,” the 71-year-old continues. “And then, about six years into my career, maybe less, I suddenly realized that there was this whole world that I knew nothing about, that wonderful world of film acting. And so I sort of deliberately moved away from theater — stopped engaging myself for six or nine months — and let myself be open to working on camera.” All these years later, an Oscar, a Tony and four Emmys suggest she made the right move by keeping a foot in both worlds.
(Click above to listen to this episode now or here to access all of our 90+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet and Michael Moore.)
Mirren was born into a working-class London family and fell in love with performance at a young age, when she attended a performance on a local pier and later an amateur production of Hamlet, which sparked a lifelong fascination with Shakespeare. She began performing while in school, then was accepted at the National Youth Theatre, landed an agent and ultimately “was very lucky that I was invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company very early in my career and got to play major roles.” It was while at the RSC that Peter Hall, who ran the company, invited Mirren to appear in a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968), which she followed with Michael Powell‘s Age of Consent (1969), opposite James Mason.
Although Mirren, as a young actress, never lacked for work — memorable early roles included 1979’s Caligula, an X-rated production from Penthouse founder Bob Guccione, and 1986’s Mosquito Coast, on which she says she learned a great deal from co-star Harrison Ford — she “was very anxious and unhappy,” she confesses. As a result, Mirren says with a chuckle, she decided to pay a visit to an Indian palm reader. “He said, ‘You’ll have success, but you won’t be very, very successful until you’re in your forties,’ which was, more or less, unbelievably true.”
Mirren’s career took off after she landed the part of Jane Tennison in the first TV season of Prime Suspect (1991); six others have followed. “One woman being the leading role in a TV series was unheard of at that time,” she reflects, “so they weren’t at all sure that it would succeed.” The first series came along just as women were beginning to reach positions of power in the workplace, she notes. “Their journey had never been shown, and there it was on television — what they’d had to put up with — and they were so happy to see it.” As for the actress, she came away from the experience of the first series far more comfortable acting in front of a camera — and far more in demand.
In the ensuing years, Mirren landed her first Oscar nomination for Nicholas Hytner‘s The Madness of King George (1994), her first Emmy nomination for Losing Chase (1996) and “then from there I was given a series of really nice roles,” including another that brought her an Emmy nom, the TV movie The Passion of Ayn Rand (1999), and another that brought her an Oscar nom, Robert Altman‘s Gosford Park (2001). But no role has brought her greater acclaim than that of Queen Elizabeth II, whom she played first in the 2006 film The Queen, winning an Oscar, and then in the 2015 Broadway production of The Audience, winning a Tony.
The QEII experience began at a read-through of the last Prime Suspect when that series’ executive producer Andy Harris noticed Mirren greeting her collaborators as they arrived — to make them feel comfortable, she said, but “behaving like the Queen,” he thought. Harris then realized she also resembled the Queen, and therefore presented her with the idea of playing the Queen. “Knowing how the British are about the royals,” she says, “I knew it would be so dangerous if you got it remotely wrong. Even getting it right would be dangerous.” But after reading Peter Morgan‘s “extraordinary” script of The Queen, a film that imagines what the Queen went through in the weeks after the death of Princess Diana, the actress concluded that she “had to do it, no matter what difficulties it might lead me into.” (In this conversation, Mirren reveals the piece of archival footage that served as her “way in” to the character, and also that she wrote a letter to the Queen “halfway through my research, before I’d shot any film on the film.”)
The decade between The Queen and The Audience were filled with plum film parts, including that of Sophia Tolstaya in The Last Station (2009), which brought Mirren yet another Oscar nomination, as well as Golden Globe and SAG nominations; Alma Reville in Hitchcock (2012) and Hedda Hopper in Trumbo (2015), both of which also brought her Golden Globe and SAG nominations; and a woman trying to recover the Klimt painting stolen from her family by the Nazis in Woman in Gold (2015), which also brought her a SAG nomination. In other words, Mirren’s film career was going just fine when she learned that Morgan had written another piece about Queen Elizabeth II, this time a stage play covering the monarch’s life from the age of 26 to 88 non-linearly, and wanted her to star. She wasn’t immediately interested. “I was really trying to move on from there, as proud as I was of it,” says Mirren. “But it was so different, and it was a wonderful acting challenge having to go backwards and forwards in age and so on.” So she took the part and blew away critics and audiences on both sides of the pond over the course of a year.
This year, Mirren returned to the screen in Eye in the Sky, a film in which she plays a British military commander who oversees a secret drone program and faces gut-wrenching moral decisions. “It’s a real thriller, it’s a real nail-biter, but at the same time it does perform its function of showing the audience what is being done in our name,” she says. I liked that element of it.” Mirren further emphasizes that the appeal of the project, in this particular case, was not the part, but the whole. “It wasn’t because I wanted to play that role,” she says. “In essence, it’s not a hugely demanding role, it’s not emotional like playing Sophia Tolstaya or something. I wanted to be in that film. I wanted to be a part of that film to provoke a conversation.”
As Mirren generates best supporting actress Oscar buzz for this latest performance, on top of the shelves of accolades she’s garnered for all of her others, I ask her what she still hopes to do that she hasn’t yet done. Without missing a beat, she cracks, “I want to win a Grammy!” Of course, winning a Grammy would make her an “EGOT,” of which there are only 12. “Unfortunately, I can’t sing at all. But it would be kinda cool, wouldn’t it?”
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