All Hail ‘The Queen’
Helen Mirren would flirt with a tree if she thought she could get a response — or even just for the hell of it. Standing at the edge of a swimming pool in Venice, California, wearing a yellow evening gown in broad daylight, she is doing just that. Her picture is being taken; it’s been a long session and she is a little exhausted, woozy, clinging tenderly to an arching shoot of a banana tree. Dallying with one of the broad leaves, she covers bits and pieces of herself with it, coyly touching the plant with an outstretched palm, an extended finger, stroking, toying, a private smile playing across her face. If the banana tree could, it would follow Mirren anywhere.
No one around her is safe from the discerning and attentive Mirren glance — not the techies, the dressers, the photographer, or the makeup artists. Mirren is incorrigible, an inveterate observer of her fellow human beings, a natural anthropologist and a reflexive seductress. "I love what you’re wearing," she tells a young man who is assisting the photographer. "Your earring, the Mohawk. Those tough boots, with that conservative shirt! That’s good, the contrast…." She’s standing on a ledge about two feet off the ground, looking down at us, speaking in her thrilling alto voice.
All the while, as she bats the assistant’s ego around playfully, like a kitten with a ball of twine, she has not forgotten the camera. As the flashes go off, she looks at it ardently, then lowers her lids and turns her head down, exposing a long, graceful neck — not the neck you would expect from someone who so recently played the resolutely sexless Elizabeth II in The Queen.
The past year was an immensely satisfying one for Helen Mirren, who turned 62 in July. Not only did she win almost every possible award for The Queen, but she was also lauded for her exacting and exposed portrayal of detective superintendent Jane Tennison in TV’s Prime Suspect: The Final Act and for her commanding performance in the HBO miniseries Elizabeth I. She has three films in the works, including the children’s fantasy Inkheart and Love Ranch, in which she’ll play a Nevada madam; the latter is her first collaboration with her husband, Taylor Hackford, since they met when he directed her in 1985’s White Nights. And her autobiography, In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures, just published in the United States, was a best seller last fall in England, where Mirren is theatrical royalty and in 2003 was named a Dame of the British Empire.
This is what international success looks like, and Mirren notes that a certain degree of camera worship comes with the territory: "You’ve got to stand there and have the makeup put on you," she says emphatically, sitting on a sofa with her arms wrapped around her knees as if she were a kid and this were the 1960s. "You’ve got to try and look good. It’s your job." At the same time, she considers herself lucky not to have fallen for all the flattery that accompanies fame, in part because by the time real celebrity caught up to her, she was mature enough to deal with it.
In any case, she insists, "I wouldn’t say I’m terrifically famous, quite honestly. I’m not like Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise is here." She gestures high in the air. "And I’m about around where his knees are. What I have is very benign, very sweet. Often it goes straight over my head. There are only two really tough times to be recognized: One is when you’re waiting for your luggage in the airport, and the other is when you are standing in line for the ladies’. Then you’re a captive and you either give up your place in the line or you pretend that you don’t want your luggage after all. And the embarrassment of my scruffy luggage when it does come out…." She laughs.