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.
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.
Despite her misgivings about the uses of sexuality, Mirren hasn’t been reluctant to do nude scenes. Starting with 1969’s Age of Consent and continuing through 1999’s The Passion of Ayn Rand and 2003’s The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, she has had some very explicit moments onscreen. And in 1996 she did a nude cover for England’s Radio Times magazine. "Well," she says of that photograph, smiling demurely, "it’s not really naked. I was naked in that sort of covered-up way. Like this." And she shows me, legs crossed, leaning over, her arms coming down in a modest V over her chest.
In fulfilling her girlhood vow to be adventurous, Mirren explored the world, living in London, Stratford, Paris, Los Angeles and (briefly, with a boyfriend) on a kibbutz in Israel. In the early 1970s, she traveled with a troupe of actors assembled by visionary British director Peter Brook through Africa and the United States; on an Indian reservation in Minnesota, after drinking several brandies, she got a small tattoo — two interlocking V’s — below her left thumb, of which she’s very proud. Her wanderlust, she says, came from her British mother, who "always wanted to travel."
But she sees another side to her parents’ generation, one that helped her understand the strong women she has consistently chosen to play. "They had a real sense of discipline and a willingness to sacrifice to create a better world," she says. "That was my delight and my pleasure in playing the queen. Elizabeth was the iconic figure for that generation and embraced those values — duty, selflessness — very deeply. That’s why she could never understand Diana." What Mirren captures best in her acting is the terrible space between duty and personal impulse, the tension experienced by a powerful woman of whom superhuman strength and uprightness are required.
"The weird thing with Helen playing all these aristocratic, proper women is that she is the most anarchic person I’ve met," George says. "There’s a wildness in there that’s challenging and intimidating, and she relishes it. She has a razor-sharp intelligence that treats it all with a healthy disdain."
Mirren trains that intelligence on a wide variety of topics. She is a news junkie who knows what people are talking about, whether it’s Pakistan’s upheaval or the American primaries. And she’s not shy about expressing her opinions. In accepting her Emmy award for Prime Suspect last September, she glancingly criticized the United States: "You Americans are wonderfully generous people; you are a lot of other things as well, some good, some bad…." Today, she explains what she meant. "I think Americans are a little parochial, a little naive," she says. "Naivete can be a good thing as well, all that innocence and idealism, not like those cynical Europeans: ‘Oh, it’ll never work!’ But sometimes Americans show a terrible cruelty toward their own people, like what happened post-Katrina, you know, in the wealthiest country in the world. Which is extraordinary to me."
Mirren — who once said she likes to set her alarm for an hour before she has to get up, in order to spend some quality time in bed with Hackford — confesses she has her "Russian moments" of darkness and depression. "I don’t mean super-depressed," she says, "but when the world looks horrible or it’s boring, it doesn’t grab you. We all go through that. I’m not permanently positive; I’m not some ghastly cheerful person.
"But you’re still going to get pleasure out of a sunset and a tree and the light on a wall and a dog…and shopping."
There is one more thing Mirren wants to do before leaving the photo shoot. Well, two. She’d like to try on a dress she didn’t wear during the session but has been thinking about the whole time, she tells me. It’s a sleeveless, broad-collared, apple-green fitted gown, and she and the seamstress run upstairs with it. Ten minutes later, they return.
"I’m buying it," she says, holding it up. "Isn’t it fabulous?"
And the other thing? Mirren wants to say good-bye to everyone who worked on the shoot. She sets off purposefully, moving from the courtyard through the library and down the kitchen corridor to thank the caterer, then over to the front yard, thanking photographer’s assistants, the stylist, the second makeup artist. On each face is a slight look of surprise as Mirren comes up to shake hands. And I feel, trailing her, as if I am walking in the wake of a queen.
Amy Wilentz’s profile of the late Benazir Bhutto appeared in the December/January issue of MORE.
Originally published in MORE magazine, April 2008.