Helen Mirren on Hitchcock, Prime Suspect and playing the Queen
"I terribly wanted to be Brigitte Bardot but I was a fat, spotty girl in Southend-on-Sea so there wasn’t much chance of that"
Helen Mirren is a star, and like all the most memorable stars, she exudes something of herself even as she dissolves into the Queen, a Texas bordello madam or a former Mossad agent. A blend of wattage and humanity, toughness and vulnerability, sexuality and restraint has ensured her performing longevity. She is still hot at 67, with none of that “caught in a wind tunnel” look that some of her contemporaries have opted for. She doesn’t look like anyone has messed with her. She’s sexy because she dares to live, to have a laugh, to bare almost-all in a red swimsuit – and she can play Phèdre or Miss Julie. Why not?
Wrapped in a figure-hugging purple dress opposite me, she talks about early ambitions – was it stage or screen that appealed to the girl growing up in an Essex seaside town in the 1960s? Who did she dream of becoming?
“Eleonora Duse, Sarah Bernhardt... I was very romantically taken by the idea of those great, powerful theatre actresses. But I think if I was to be absolutely honest I just wanted to be a star – which is awful, really!
“It was the time of Brigitte Bardot as well, and I terribly wanted to be Brigitte Bardot. I was a fat, spotty girl in Southend-on-Sea so there wasn’t much chance of that, but I do remember sitting on the sea front and imagining, hoping, dreaming, wishing, being absolutely sure that a big producer would drive by in a car with a cigar and lean out of the window and say, ‘Hey, what’s your name? You’re the one I’ve been looking for!’ ”
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Bardot and Bernhardt – that combination of sexuality and grandeur is, in varying measures, what audiences have loved in Mirren over the years. The convent girl with Russian antecedents (her grandfather fled the Bolsheviks and came to London during the First World War), the Royal Shakespeare Company actress who went on the road with Peter Brook’s experimental troupe, the bohemian who became an Oscar-winning star with a home in Los Angeles and a Hollywood director husband, has transformed herself into the Queen, but is equally the most down-to-earth and formidable of female icons, DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect.
I can remember, when I first came to London more than 30 years ago, sitting near the very front at London’s Roundhouse for John Webster’s violent tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, as Mirren’s luscious Duchess married Pete Postlethwaite’s steward Antonio and squared up to a leather- clad Bob Hoskins as Bosola. The performance was charged, sensual, terrifying.
It seems so incongruous when Mirren talks of insecurity. Repeatedly she describes her early films to me in terms of doubt. “Working on those movies I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. At the beginning I was just in my little actor’s bubble, and very insecure. Partly because in those days it was a very masculine world, a totally masculine world, a film set. And as a youngish woman you’re already slightly self-conscious and feeling a bit embarrassed and a bit under the microscope and not feeling like you really fit in. It was a very, very blokey world in the early days.”
And that pressure was not confined to the film set. It would have been more convenient to be a conventional starlet, something pretty and passive, to suffer being leered at but not – God forbid – to act as an independent agent. She gained attention for a lack of inhibition in her performances at the RSC. A profile writer in the late 1960s described her as Stratford’s Sex Queen, a label that stuck for years. A famous chat-show host in an early interview pushed what seems now an embarrassingly persistent line about nudity, breasts and the frustrations of being a convent girl. She answered quietly but was clearly furious and confused.
“I’m sure many people have seen the interview with Michael Parkinson, but that’s a classic example of the prevalent attitude at that time,” she says now, recalling the encounter. “There was a prurient sort of thing going on.”
At some level she was probably also amused by the notoriety. Pictures taken by her lover at the time, James Wedge, suggest she was rightly proud of her body, at least in the service of a great image. But the sex-queen label was no route to complex female roles.
She seems to be on good terms with many of the men she has been involved with, including Liam Neeson, whom she met on Excalibur, but for nearly 30 years she has shared her life with Hollywood director Taylor Hackford. They met in the early 80s on White Nights, where she played a Russian ballet mistress (although he remembered seeing her on the Peter Brook tour) and from that point on her life began to revolve more around Hollywood. She got to work with big names, none starrier in 1986, for example, than Harrison Ford in Mosquito Coast.
But even so, she was, at that time in Hollywood at least, primarily perceived as Hackford’s partner, something that has helped her in her latest role as Alma Reville, the often overlooked wife of the Psycho director, in Hitchcock, opposite Anthony Hopkins.
“When I first went to Hollywood, and I was with my husband who is/was at that time a very successful film director – he’d made An Officer and a Gentleman – he was very recognised in Hollywood and I absolutely was not. I did experience people walking through me to get to the great and the glorious Taylor Hackford. So I certainly could identify with Alma.”
It was really in the 1990s, she says, that she came of age as an actress, via Prime Suspect; DCI Tennison was a character she would pick up over and again for a decade and a half. Through those years, she really feels she learnt about acting for the screen.
The series brought her a trio of Baftas and a legacy, too. Her characterisation has set the example for female leads in drama – single-minded, thorough, flawed. Without Jane Tennison it seems there wouldn’t have been Sarah Lund. No Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen. And maybe even no Carrie Mathison in Homeland.
Sofie Grabol, who plays Lund in The Killing, when asked whether she was inspired by any other performances said, “Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect. It was so well acted.” Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays Nyborg, has also heaped praise on the trail-blazing British detective: “Character-wise, that show was very inspiring because it had such a complicated female lead.”
Mirren is quick to deflect any praise onto others, primarily writer Lynda La Plante, not only for creating such a perfectly complex character but for that implacable demeanour that was so recognisably Jane Tennison. “After the first week of shooting, Lynda came up to me and she said, ‘You’re smiling too much. Don’t smile,’ and I thought, she’s absolutely right. One was used, as a woman, to making people feel at ease. But Jane Tennison was, ‘No, give it to me.’
“The other great thing I learnt from a policewoman. She said, ‘Never fold your arms, because folding your arms is defensive’. And the other thing she said, and it’s absolutely true – you watch politicians – she said, ‘Touch people’. Politicians, especially in big summit conferences, they’re all vying with each other to be the first one to touch the other one, because then they’ve got the initiative and the other one becomes the lower one.”
Lund, Nyborg and Mathison rarely smile, they all keep their hands in their pockets as opposed to folded across their chest, they assert their authority over their male co-stars by touching their shoulder or holding their hand.
For Mirren personally, Prime Suspect had huge consequences; she got the chance to play Elizabeth II.
“It came about because of Andy Harries, who was the producer of the last Prime Suspect,” she recalls. “We were having our first read through, and when you’ve got a big cast like that, I always try to get there first so I can greet people as they come in and just be generally friendly. The cast started coming in and I’d be going up and saying hello to people. Andy says he was sitting at the other end of the room thinking, ‘It’s like people meeting the Queen,’ and then he thought, ‘and she looks a bit like the Queen, too’. And then, Apparently, he went, ‘We should do a film about the Queen,’ and suggested it to [writer] Peter Morgan.
“I have to admit I had already noticed that whenever I put a dark wig on, like in Cal [the 1984 film that earned Mirren her first Bafta nomination and won her the best actress award at Cannes], especially when I was younger, I looked quite like Princess Margaret. So there was a physical similarity of some sort going on.”
Despite the similarity, taking on the iconic role was not an easy decision. “I was really, really nervous doing The Queen. And then I suddenly thought, she’s very generous about portraitists. Unlike Elizabeth I, who I’d played just beforehand, who was very controlling about her image, this Queen is incredibly free and allows any artist to do anything they want, and never criticises or tries to control it.
“So there are all these portraits, and I suddenly thought, I’m like a painter doing a portrait. It’s my understanding of the Queen, in the same way that a portrait painter is giving his or her understanding of the Queen. So that sort of liberated me.”
She is about to return to the role – and the London stage – in The Audience, a new play by Peter Morgan. It will show the monarch in her regular sessions with a series of prime ministers from Winston Churchill onwards, including Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. This will require Mirren to change not just costume but voice. She is struck by the way the Queen’s (and her own) accent has changed since the 1950s. The play will be more a meditation on the changing nature of Britain than The Queen, where the emphasis was more on the psychology, but it is still – even for an Oscar-winner – exposing to appear on stage, not least because she can’t help reading the reviews.
“It’s so, so painful and the pain stays forever with the bad reviews, absolutely forever. You’re angry and resentful and upset and disheartened. The good ones are equally dangerous, because you can’t often identify with what the hell they’re talking about. I often find myself thinking, ‘I didn’t mean to be doing that.’ So they’re dangerous in both ways.”
She is the best thing in Hitchcock (which opened in cinemas nationwide yesterday), although James D’Arcy gives a brilliant cameo as Anthony Perkins. By all accounts, she’s not much like the real Alma Reville, but then again, she is gloriously Helen Mirren.