Helen Mirren: queen of the screen

With a fourth Oscar nomination for her role as Tolstoy's wife, Helen Mirren talks to M about her childhood, career and the image she can't shake off.

After a long and distinguished record, Helen Mirren has finally become an A-list superstar. With a fourth Oscar nomination for her role as Tolstoy's wife, she talks to Kevin Maher about her childhood, career and the image she can't quite shake off. When she was 23 years old, Helen Mirren was depressed. It was 1968. She was a rising star, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, making her name on stage as Cressida in Troilus And Cressida, and in the title role in Miss Julie. She was, however, impatient with her lot, and unsure that she would ever break out to bigger and better things. Thus, one afternoon, she wandered into the office of an Indian graphologist in Golders Green, north London, and scribbled away solidly for 20 minutes, ultimately paying the then princely sum of £5 (about £80 [Dh450] today) for the privilege to the prognosticator, who carefully scrutinised every crossed "t" and dotted "i".

Unlike most faux mystics, this man did not see great things just ahead of her, or magic and moondust on the horizon. Instead, he observed that she would have to wait for her successes. In fact, she would only boast her greatest achievements when she was well past her 45th year. It was not something that she wanted to hear at that moment. But it turns out that he was right. Fast-forward 42 years and, as if to prove a point, Mirren is happily perched on top of a late-blooming and seemingly unstoppable career juggernaut. The actress once best known as TV's supercop Jane Tennison in the Prime Suspect series is just about to star opposite Bruce Willis in the comic book action movie Red, in which she plays a CIA operative recruited back into the field. Then, there's the highly anticipated remake of the classic British film, Brighton Rock, with Sam Riley and John Hurt, plus a movie called Love Ranch, which is set in and around Nevada's first legal brothel and is directed by her filmmaker husband Taylor Hackford (Ray).

If that were not enough, she has starred opposite Russell Crowe in the thriller State Of Play and opposite Dominic Cooper in a revered theatre adaptation of Racine's Phèdre that was beamed live last summer to 280 cinemas around the globe. Oh, and there's a small matter of the Oscars too - tomorrow night she is up for her second Academy Award, this time for Best Actress, for playing Leo Tolstoy's widow Sofya in the literary melodrama The Last Station.

Yes, the Oscars, she says, with a wry chuckle, here in the foyer of a swanky central London hotel. "The Oscars are so strange, because actors are not racehorses," she says. "Our business is not to win awards. Our business is to try and tell stories and interpret the world around us. So the Oscars are a contradiction, in some way, to the very nature of being an actor." Mirren is dressed in a long black skirt and simple white blouse, and has a soft, quietly regal demeanour. She is contained and controlled, and yet never icy or humourless. On the contrary, she is quick to deconstruct the serious and the self-important in her own statements, and even here, after keeping the Academy Awards at arm's length, will happily admit that, "the Oscars are also a fantastically wonderful carnival that you just can't resist!"

She remembers her taste of Oscar glory, for playing a stern but not unemotional version of HRH Elizabeth II in The Queen in 2007 (she had been nominated twice before that, for Gosford Park and The Madness Of King George). "I guess that a whirlwind is the only way to describe it," she says, contemplating the entire media frenzy that grips, from nomination announcements right through to the ceremony itself. "And it's hard to keep going when you're inside it. It's the exhausting build-up, the awards dinners, and the endless listening to, and making of, speeches."

Mirren says that one of her favourite moments on that famous March night was not hobnobbing with celebrities, but finally sitting down at the Vanity Fair party and eating a hamburger at her table (a sneakily snapped photo of which graced tabloid front pages around the world the following day). "I do remember chowing down on that hamburger," she says, unembarrassed. "It was incredibly gratefully received, because I was so hungry by then."

In fact, she qualifies thoughtfully, that her favourite memory from the Oscar hoopla of 2007 was not on the night at all. Instead, it was two days later, when she arrived at London's Heathrow airport after flying in from Los Angeles. "When I walked into the luggage hall to get my bags, all the baggage handlers and customs guys came out and applauded me," she says with a smile. "I didn't cry when I got my Oscar but I cried then. An amazing experience."

She says nonetheless that these days she's more sanguine about the ceremony, and more aware of its influence at the box office. "Since doing The Queen I've come to understand how important the Oscars can be for a film, especially the lower-budgeted films. The Oscar grabs people's attention and drives them towards the film." And certainly The Last Station, with its 19th-century literary hero (Tolstoy is played with stentorian charm by Christopher Plummer) and notable lack of special effects and blue-skinned 3D aliens, needs all the extra attention it can get. Its narrative drive too, on paper, might seem unduly quaint. It details the battle for the love and attention of Tolstoy himself between Mirren's histrionic Sofya and the coterie of sycophants and acolytes who hang on Tolstoy's every word and gesture, and bend his mind away from Sofya. It's a compelling film nonetheless, full of rage and marital strife, and has been in sporadic development for more than 20 years, with Mirren's role once in the hands of Meryl Streep, then Glenn Close.

The Oscar-nominated role of Sofya, naturally, is the movie's standout character, defined by sudden tempestuous eruptions. At times she rages powerfully at Tolstoy's followers, and at others, when that proves ineffectual, she feigns consumptive attacks that are as dramatic as they are comical. "But it was a balancing act," she says, explaining the root of a deceptively tricky role that daily treads a knife-edge. "Because you couldn't overplay the comedy, because the comedy had to come out of real situations. But then those situations were operatic and extreme, and you had to make them as unoperatic as possible."

She says that the movie, at its chromosomal essence, illustrates fundamental truths about the push and pull of emotions within any marriage. Her director, Michael Hoffman, for example, read the book upon which he based the screenplay in the 1990s. "He loved it, but he just didn't know how to write the script," she reveals. "But then he told me that it took him 12 years of marriage to finally understand what the film was about."

Mirren too sees her own marriage with Hackford (they were finally wed in 1997, after a 12-year relationship) in the film, especially in a central scene where Sofya describes relationships in terms of effort and struggle rather than cosy romantic flow. "A marriage is hard work," she confirms. "You go through all kinds of different mountains and valleys with a marriage. It's the rough and tumble of love in real life, as opposed to the theory of how love behaves."

More important than marriage, the film returns Mirren to a subject that has rarely been addressed in her recent years as a bona fide big screen phenomenon: namely, her Russian heritage (her grandfather was a tsarist colonel). Naturally, she has ambiguous feelings about how much she should either acknowledge or dismiss her heritage. "The reason I did this film was because it was a fantastic script. I would have done that whether I was French, German, Irish, or whatever. Great role, great script."

She sighs, contemplates for a moment, then says: "But having said that, when I went to do the film and walked on set for the first time in costume, with lots of extras around, I did have the feeling of stepping into one of my grandfather's photos from that era. I was dressed, and looked like my great-aunt. I had the same hair and costume. "And the extras were all dressed the way people are dressed in my family photographs. And that was quite affecting for that whole day. Quite affecting indeed."

Helen Mirren was born Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov, the middle of three children (with an older sister and younger brother) to an English mother called Kathleen and an East End cab driver, and later civil servant, called Vasiliy Petrovich Mironov. Her childhood was happy, she says, without great riches, and influenced only mildly by the Russian grandfather who lived with them until his death, when she was seven years old. "We would celebrate Russian Easter. But my dad was actually a communist and then a left-wing socialist. So although my grandfather was locked in his tsarist past, and homesick and tragically displaced, my father very much wanted to assimilate and forget about Russia, and eventually changed our family name to Mirren shortly after my grandfather died."

She was, she says, a quiet child, with ambitions to become a ballet dancer, but one whose life was changed, aged 13, when she went to see a Southend amateur production of Hamlet. "I was just blown away by that world. Ophelia goes mad and dies. Hamlet jumps into the grave. Gertrude drinks poison. Growing up without TV, and not going to the cinema, it was just the most fantastic thing I had seen, and I couldn't wait to get back into that world."

Naturally, she returned to that world at first through the National Youth Theatre, where she famously played Cleopatra in an attention-grabbing production of Antony And Cleopatra at the Old Vic. After that she went to the RSC, and quickly became the company's hot new rising star. At the time, however, as well as dispiriting trips to north London graphologists, she was also plagued by what she calls "the sexism of that era". She was regularly described, by commentators and serious critics alike as "the sex queen of the RSC", and praised not for her performing skills but for being "stirringly voluptuous", and for her ability to project "sluttish eroticism". She was, in short, cast as a bombshell against her will.

"In my mind I was a serious actress, and I was working hard. But the critics and the commentators were trying to push me into being that sort of Carry On type thing. I felt it heavily, like a rucksack on my back." She dug in nonetheless, and settled down for the long haul, "doing the work I wanted to do", and ignoring the views from outside. She continued to accumulate a back-catalogue of peerless theatre parts, earning rapturous reviews for roles in The Faith Healer, The Duchess Of Malfi and A Month In The Country. In films too, she could be quietly powerful without seeming to do anything at all. She excelled, according to Tim Roth, her co-star in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, at "playing a character who, although terrified of the situation she was in, was also utterly in control". Roth added that "taking control of big brutal men" was Mirren's speciality.

In films such as The Long Good Friday, or The Cook, The Thief..., or in the 26 hours she's spent on screen as Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison in TV's Prime Suspect, she has never once seemed at a loss. Of Tennison she has said, "She was perhaps the first woman that I had ever read - and in that I include Shakespeare and Chekhov - that was not a fantasy figure of some sort, but seemed to be a woman I could recognise."

And this is perhaps the key to Mirren's success, and the reason why her superstardom was relatively late in coming. She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2003. For once the pressure of being a voluptuous young bombshell dropped away, she was finally free to bring her inner steel to the remaining roles of real women with complex inner lives. It was from here that she could credibly play the Queen with such solemn dignity in Stephen Frears's Oscar winner. Or the housekeeper Mrs Wilson in Gosford Park. Or the tough-talking newspaper editor in State Of Play. It is worth noting, too, that she is still possessed of considerable va-va-voom and, as infamous paparazzi photos (the now legendary "red bathing suit" shots) from an Italian holiday in 2008 illustrated, she is still admired for her stirring femininity. "I don't mind being sexy," she says, eventually reflecting on the evolution of her own image. "But as long as it's on my terms."

These days she divides her time between LA and London (she has homes in both). She describes her marriage to Taylor (who has two grown sons) as one of mutual support, personally and professionally. "We give each other the freedom to work and we support each other through our failures. Because that's your job as a partner. Otherwise, what the hell are you there for?" Mirren has never wanted children of her own, and is happy being a favourite auntie to others. She is conscious, she says, of her own mortality, especially as the years roll on. "Looking forward, as you get older, has become darker. There's no question about that."

She pauses, and begins a sombre illustration. "The day you're born, an old person starts off on a journey, and one day they're going to knock at the door and you'll open it to them. And there you are, and that's going to happen to all of us unless we die young. And I don't want to die young!" She stops herself suddenly, reflects at the gentle absurdity of the statement and bursts out laughing, "Well, I didn't die young, did I?"

Mirren jokes about plastic surgery, about how she'd love to get it done - "I'd go for the full-on!" she says, with the mock-serious laugh of someone who's doing just fine, thank you very much, on natural beauty alone. She says that she finds British politicians dispiriting ("they all lie, that's their business"), is discouraged by the way that television drama is treated by the UK media, and thinks alcohol is a far more intrinsic and dangerous ingredient in so-called "Broken Britain" than cannabis ("the level of alcoholism in our society is genuinely scary").

She closes by reflecting on her life in the broadest, most philosophical terms. Is she happy, for instance? "I think happiness is something that comes arbitrarily. Don't search for it. Accept unhappiness as being as much a part of life as happiness." Yes, but is she happy now? "Oh, today? I'm quite happy today," she says, nodding, before adding drolly, and with a wicked and regally arched eyebrow, "but I don't know where I'll be this evening."

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