Mirren is not at all surprised that her greatest successes have come to her later in life. "I’ve never been worried about getting older," she says, "but I do recognize that I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve been able to keep working and working, and how cool is that? I’m still here, and I’m surging ahead at the moment. But that happened because I’ve always thought of myself as constantly learning."
A Strong Woman, On and Off the Screen
Mirren hasn’t always been so mature, so utterly cool and cosmopolitan. Ilyena Mironov (her birth name) grew up in a tiny, picturesque town about 40 miles east of London called Leigh-on-Sea. Her grandfather, a member of Russia’s czarist army, was in Britain with his wife and toddler son buying military supplies when the Russian Revolution broke out. In that turbulence, the Mironov family lost almost all of its possessions, and Helen’s grandparents and father remained in England as refugees. Her father became a taxi driver, married a woman whose grandfather had been butcher to Queen Victoria, and anglicized the family name.
The middle child of three, Mirren had a happy, family-oriented upbringing. The only eccentricity she could boast of, besides her Russian ancestry, was her attraction to the stage — not as a place to be looked at, she writes, but to disappear into. By the time she arrived in London, at 17, there were only a few things she was certain of: She would escape the suburbs; she would never marry; she would never have children. She wanted to seek adventure and to become a legendary Shakespearean actress. And most of these ambitions she fulfilled. (She did marry Hackford, but not until 1997, after 12 years together.)
At first, Mirren struggled along in secondary parts at the fabled National Youth Theatre. But in 1965, she was chosen to star in the company’s Old Vic production of Antony and Cleopatra. The performance by the 19-year-old blonde as the aging raven-haired queen was riveting, and she went on to play Ophelia and later, with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Lady Macbeth. Intense sexuality was one of Mirren’s fortes as a young actress, and "She still has self-confidence and a sexiness that crosses the screen," says Terry George, who directed Mirren in the 1996 film Some Mother’s Son.
But early on, Mirren didn’t understand the fuss about "the whole sex thing," she says. "I wasn’t advertising it; I wasn’t pushing it. I thought I was an incredibly serious young Shakespearean actress." She was horrified that one of the first profiles of her — a very positive one — appeared under the headline "Stratford’s Very Own Sex Queen."
"I’m still trying to wriggle out from under that label," she says. "Sexuality for girls is so complex and tricky. I was never beautiful, but as a young woman, beautiful or not is sort of irrelevant. Being a sexual object is mortifying and irritating, yet it’s giving you power — an awful power that you’ve done nothing to deserve, a powerless power. I think some young women fall in love with that power, and it’s really objectifying. And when it starts falling away, it’s an incredible relief. When you’re 16, you think 28 is so old! And then you get to 28 and it’s fabulous. You think, then, what about 42? Ugh! And then 42 is great. As you reach each age, you gain the understanding and experience you need to deal with it and enjoy it." Over the course of her four-decade career, she has replaced the "powerless power" of youthful sex appeal with a real power earned by hard work and sheer talent.