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Majestic Mirren

Gabrielle Donnelly / 22 January 2013

It’s Helen Mirren’s month – up on the big screen in an Oscar-tipped film role and back on stage to reign over the West End with another portrayal of the Queen. And she’s a tiny bit worried...

She bounces lightly into the room on this bleak New York winter morning – blonde bobbed hair shining, vivid blue eyes smiling. We meet, we greet, we assure each other that we’re both fine.

Dame Helen Mirren is 67 years old now. She looks it. And she looks terrific on it.

Officially, she’s in town to promote Hitchcock, the new movie about the legendary director’s relationship with his wife, the considerably less legendary but, it turns out, no less talented Alma Reville, a screenwriter, director and editor herself. It’s a part Helen sinks her teeth into with relish.

‘I’d had no idea even of the existence of Alma before this,’ she admits, ‘but people who knew used to say at the time that for every film Hitchcock directed there were four hands involved and only two of them were Alfred’s. She was a huge figure in film history and none of us knew anything about her!’

A return to theatre

However, the task of setting a piece of cinema history straight is not the only project she has coming up right now. The other one is a return to live theatre, in Peter Morgan’s play The Audience, which opens this month at the Gielgud Theatre, London, in which she will play Queen Elizabeth II for the second time in seven years.

‘It’s been a while since I’ve been back to the theatre and I’ve been missing it,’ she admits. ‘I did Phèdre at the National three years ago, and I’d been yearning to get back to… well, to my roots, really. I do try to do theatre every three or four years, and the reason is because I’m terrified that if I don’t I’ll lose my nerve about it. Theatre does take a lot of nerve, you know – a great deal more than film does – and you can lose that nerve if you’re not careful, so I try to test myself every so often and make sure it’s still there.’

She hasn’t exactly picked a soft piece to test herself on – as she herself acknowledges. ‘I’m a little worried about going back to any role, especially one as iconic and full of, what’s the word – “import”? – as this one. But it’s a rather wonderful play written, of course, by the man who wrote The Queen, about the Queen’s relationships with all of her prime ministers, from the beginning of her reign to the present day, and through many of the leading politicians, starting, obviously, with Churchill. So it’s a look at the history of Britain, the nature of power, the nature of politics. It’ll be very challenging, as not only do I have to play the Queen again but also have to go from the age of 26 to the age of 80. Maybe I’m making a huge mistake. But we’ll have to wait and see, won’t we!’

An exotic upbringing 

And she laughs, not looking especially worried by the prospect. But then she has been a fan of taking risks for most of her life. The daughter of a rather exotic-sounding White Russian aristocrat-turned-taxi driver father and a resolutely down-to-earth English working-class mother (whose grandfather had been Queen Victoria’s butcher), she was born in Southend. Although the Essex seaside town is not exactly celebrated for its luvvie population, she says she knew from an early age that she wanted to act.

‘I saw a production of Hamlet when I was about 14 or 15. It was an amateur production, so it wasn’t very wonderful, but even so I was completely mesmerised by the world of Shakespeare and the theatre. After that, I started doing little bits of drama at school – we didn’t have a drama teacher, but we’d perform bits of plays in the literature classes and I’d always put myself forward, and I quite soon realised that I was sort of quite good in my little schoolgirlie way.

‘So the leap of imagination of wanting to be an actor did happen quite early for me. But my parents very sensibly thought that this was a disastrous idea, that I shouldn’t pursue it and should go to train to be a teacher instead, and in essence they were right because it really wasn’t a very feasible idea at all.’

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Antony and Cleopatra

Realistic or not, the dream did not stop the young Helen from pursuing it. Throughout her teacher-training days she was doing theatre on the side; at 18 she was acting with the National Youth Theatre; at 20, she was playing Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra at the Old Vic; about five minutes after leaving training college she was snapped up by renowned agent Al Parker. She hasn’t looked back. 

Stage led to art-house films, art-house films led to bigger films, and at just 22 Helen was cast with James Mason in the comedy Age of Consent. ‘It was filmed in Australia and it was the first time I’d ever been on a film set and almost the first time I’d ever been on a plane. They flew me first class by Qantas, and I’d thought, “OK, I’m a film star now, I’ve got to look smart,” so I’d gone down the Kings Road and bought myself this brown leather suit, very Sixties; little bomber jacket, short leather skirt, very cool, I thought… and the plane stops off in Hawaii and I get off, and – well, I’ve come from England and I’ve never experienced that kind of heat ever in my life! I’m sweating in my suit at two in the morning, there’s a mix-up about the hotel but I finally get there and crash into bed – and the next thing in the morning I open the bedroom shutters and there’s the Pacific Ocean and the palm trees outside and then I hear James Mason’s voice, and I suddenly realise I’m in Hawaii with James Mason and, wow, this is what it’s like to be a movie star.’

A glittering career 

By 1972 she was in her mid-twenties, talented, beautiful, and bursting with sex appeal, with a big film career all mapped out ready and waiting for her… which was precisely the time when she chose to step back from the limelight and take a year travelling through the less glamorous corners of the world with Peter Brook’s experimental theatre company.

‘Everyone around me was saying, “No, you can’t do that,”’ she recalls. ‘It was just at the time when my so-called career was about to pop open. I was being asked to do movies, I was being asked to do big theatre things, it was right at the time when stuff was happening and everyone was saying to me, “No, no, no, no, do not do this – now is not the time for this move.” But I wanted to do it and I did it. I think one should always go for these things. You’ve got to take risks or what’s the point?’

A little surprisingly, she comments that one of her role models at the time was Sir John Gielgud. ‘I loved the way he approached his career. He was a very serious and highly – highly – regarded classical actor of the old school, but he was also always prepared to take radical experimental steps with his work. He was in a film that I was in, Caligula (the controversial drama, verging on the pornographic, starring Malcolm McDowell as the debauched Roman emperor).

Classical actor 

‘I remember watching all of that happening when I was a young actor and thinking, “Yes, that’s the kind of actor I want to be. I want to be a serious classical actor and be respected for that – but I don’t want to disappear up my own bum while I’m about it!”’

Posterior disappearance has never been a danger for Helen Mirren. An Oscar-winner for The Queen and, since 2003, a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, she remains proudly aware of her working-class roots.

‘I’m probably quite ambitious but it’s not a British thing to admit it. It’s vulgar to be ambitious in Britain; it’s frowned upon. It’s so the opposite of the way it is in America. There, the attitude is, of course you’re ambitious, that’s what life’s about. And I love that attitude, I think it’s great.’

It is not surprising, therefore, that her husband, film director Taylor Hackford, is as American as they come. They met in 1985 on the set of White Nights, which he directed and in which she starred, became a couple immediately, decided to get married – somewhat to the surprise of Sixties wild child Helen – in 1997, and have been together ever since.

‘He’s a grown-up,’ she says approvingly of her husband. ‘He’s not infantilised like some men are. We support each other, which is terribly important, I think. Taylor allows me to shine in my own way. He consoles me when I’m in despair because I’ve had a bad review and he celebrates with me if something is successful, and I do the same with him. Because the way I see it, there’s enough criticism out there in the world – you don’t need it at home too.’

They divide their time between London, Los Angeles and wherever either of them happens to be making a movie, trying not to let the inevitable work separations last for too long. ‘Six or seven weeks is kind of OK,’ she once told me, ‘but when it’s three months then that gets difficult. The worst thing is that you get used to being apart, and then when you’re together it’s like, “Who did you say you were again? Oh, goodness, yes, you’re my husband.”

Helen Mirren on younger actors 

Taylor has two grown-up children by former marriages, but Helen has said that she never wanted to have children herself. However, when she talks of the younger actors she has worked with lately, a maternal tone enters her voice.

‘I absolutely love them!’ she announces. ‘I’m incredibly impressed with them. James D’Arcy, who plays Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock, is just so fantastic, and so is Scarlett Johansson who plays Janet Leigh. And Felicity Jones, who was in The Tempest with me, blows me away.

‘There’s a really great generation of young actors coming up and the marvellous thing is they’re so sweet, too. They’re committed and serious, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re so much not…’

She leans forward and lowers her voice confidentially, telling me the word that the young actors are not. It begins with an ‘a’ – let us just say that it’s very much an Essex-girl sort of a word. Then she straightens up.

‘I think,’ she concludes, restoring her voice to its normal volume – that wonderful, musical, plangent voice – ‘that they’re just lovely.’

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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