Helen Mirren talks first auditions, Prime Suspect & portraying royalty on screen
The acting icon talks to Melvyn Bragg about her award-winning career, dealing with insecurities and more.
This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
Helen Mirren’s life can be seen as a fairy tale, a journey from wholly unpromising beginnings to international fame. She was born in 1945 in Hammersmith, west London, but the story really begins on the Essex coast at Southend where, as a four-year-old child, she was taken on the “diddly dunk” (what she called the train) by her mother to see the end-of-the-pier show. It was cold and windy, a miserable night. But that trip activated her imagination and changed her life.
“I remember being utterly entranced by the dancing girls in their veils,” she says. “I thought they were beautiful. Terry Scott, the comedian, did this silly schoolboy act and I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen in my life. I literally fell off my seat. It was magical, revelatory.”
She speaks with an utterly convincing sincerity. Raised in a house without a TV by a family that didn’t go to the cinema (“We couldn’t afford it”), this experience sank in deeply. It has never left her even though, today, she is among the most lauded actors in the world, garlanded with an Oscar, four BAFTAs, four Emmys, three Golden Globes and a Tony, among many other awards.
When we meet in London I encounter an actor who, at 77 (her birthday was on 26th July), is still at the height of her popularity – she’s recently starred in The Duke and is about to be seen playing Golda Meir in Golda – but also conscious of where she comes from and of the debt owed to her remarkable parents.
Her father, Vasily Petrovich Mironoff, had arrived from Russia, aged two, with his father – émigrés from the Revolution. “We were immigrants. My father hated having a Russian name, so we changed it when I was seven, as soon as his father died.” Vasily, who came from an aristocratic Russian family mentioned by Tolstoy, found work with a Jewish tailor in London and became a socialist, taking part in the Cable Street riots against Oswald Mosley’s fascists. “He was a socialist and maybe even a communist and we were very much encouraged to have political discussions about art and life. It took me a very long time to be able to make small talk.”
To her father’s political commitment can be added her English mother’s sense of drama. “She left school aged 13 and was the thirteenth child of a butcher,” says Mirren. “She was exceptionally dramatic. I came back from school one day to discover her blundering around the house knocking everything over. She had a scarf around her eyes and she had decided to see what it was like to be blind.”
Mirren’s Russian grandfather moved in with them and it was then that she got some idea of the Russia that had been abandoned. The rolling acres, the stables, the servants, all gone. As a memento, her grandfather gave her a tsarist rouble note, which she still has.
The second great revelation in childhood was being taken to see Hamlet. “It wasn’t the language: it was the story,” she says. “A world where people took poison and beautiful girls went mad and people drowned themselves and mothers were abused by their sons.” She bursts out laughing. “And can you imagine not knowing what happens next? Not knowing Ophelia is going to kill herself? Hamlet is an incredible thriller on that level.
“I do feel quite strongly that Shakespeare shouldn’t be taught in schools. I think people’s first experience of Shakespeare should be in a live theatre. A performance, or maybe a great movie, nothing wrong with that! Watch Mel Gibson do Hamlet. It’s so extraordinary to watch those plays not knowing what will happen next, as Shakespeare’s audience would have watched them. Then you can study it.”
There was a tiny volume of Shakespeare’s plays in her parents’ bookish house in eye-wateringly small print, but she read it repeatedly and told no one. It was private. She kept a great deal strictly to herself, and still does. Like a plant that grows best in the dark.
Enter a figure who features in so many noteworthy cultural lives – the inspirational school teacher. “Mrs Welding spotted something in me, hungry to find food for my imagination, beyond what was expected. She opened my heart to poetry. She advised me to go to an audition for the National Youth Theatre, which I had never heard of. I had never acted in front of anyone, not even in front of the mirror. But I decided to try and later secretly went off for an audition.”
For our South Bank Show we have found footage of a teenage Mirren at that first audition in London. She looks so very young and rather fragile, but there was an unmistakable concentration, and she blew the judges away with a long speech of Margaret of Anjou in Henry VI.
A couple of years later she was being auditioned for the Royal Shakespeare Company by Trevor Nunn, then the artistic director.
“I still don’t know how I did the auditions. It was like one of those awful dreams when you’re walking down the street and you know that you have forgotten to put your pants on. Oh, God.”
Nunn recalls his impression of the young Mirren: “We were amazed she hadn’t been to drama school. But there was so much life in her, I suspected we would surely find some small parts for her until she found her feet.”
After a year she had graduated to playing Ophelia in her beloved Hamlet. “All I wanted was to be a classical stage actress. I would stand in the wings to watch the others – Judi Dench! Michael Gambon!” But ambition grew with talent, and in 1980 she co-starred with Bob Hoskins in the gangster film, The Long Good Friday. Mirren was worried that her part, working-class gangster’s moll Victoria, was undercooked. So she rewrote her lines. Victoria became cut-glass posh and a key player. “I made it better,” she says firmly.
Such confidence was, and is, compelling, yet she claims to lack it. “I am insecure. Perhaps there are people who march through life with not a moment’s self-doubt, or self-questioning. But I persuade myself that, actually, everybody has moments of insecurity. So stop thinking you’re special, you’re just like everyone else! In a way, I think insecurity is a weird form of vanity or ego, making it all about yourself. A much better way to approach things is to make it about other people, rather than about yourself.”
In 1991 she was cast as DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect. The police procedural, which upended the genre’s norms by putting a woman in control, ran for seven series and was a huge international success, sealing her reputation in America.
“I was very intimidated by her [Tennison] because I’d never done such a long story. Lynda [La Plante, the writer] gave me the best note a few days into filming: ‘Don’t smile. As women if we want someone to do something, we smile. We smile to negotiate our way through life, to make everyone feel good about themselves. Jane doesn’t smile, not until she’s achieved her goal.’ It was a brilliant note.
“That was the time when a big fight began to give women equality. So many women had gone through a post-war education and the workplace was a very difficult environment for them. Then they saw Jane Tennison expressing it out on the street. It was their battle. It resonated in many different professions.”
If we view Mirren’s career as a series of inspired performances that grew as she grew, then 2005 Channel 4/HBO drama Elizabeth I, written by Nigel Williams, is key. “Helen arrived having read all of Elizabeth I’s poetry!” Williams told me. “Who else would have done that? And the scene when she has to say goodbye to the man she loves but cannot marry… So moving.”
“Elizabeth was very emotional,” says Mirren. “She wasn’t cold, the ‘Virgin Queen’. She was quite febrile and it was that I wanted to bring to that scene.” Williams would later write the Sky series Catherine the Great for Mirren. “What I noticed then was that she would always spot a member of the cast who was being somehow neglected and go across and talk to them. She has a profoundly democratic nature.”
On to another Elizabeth. Mention Stephen Frears’s 2006 film The Queen and Mirren draws her hand down her face, from her brow to her mouth, as if she were drawing a blind behind which she can operate in secret. It’s a tiny gesture that speaks more clearly than words could have on how she views Elizabeth II.
“I thought of the Queen as a submarine, with a periscope. Her eyes are the periscope. She [Elizabeth the person] is watching the world through the Queen’s eyes.” This is long before The Crown – such a portrayal of a living monarch hadn’t been done before. “I thought, ‘Are you allowed to do that?’ I looked at portraits when I did Elizabeth I and thought, ‘What I’m doing is another portrait’. And there are so many portraits of Elizabeth II, paintings and photographs – this is mine. That liberated me.”
The core of this drama dwelt on whether or not the Queen would come back to London from Balmoral to mark the death of Princess Diana. She’s holding on to one personality – the grandmother – which includes the perception of herself as the unbending queen. Yet that is being chiselled away by Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who argues that she ought to be with her people at such a sensitive time.
Mirren prepared in her usual idiosyncratic way. A few snatches of film and then the appearance. Did the clothes help? “Very, very much. I cried, I really did, when I first saw them. Not so much ‘Do I have to wear them?’ but ‘Do I have to play someone who would wear clothes like this?’ But they were so beautifully made. They just, whoosh, slipped on. And they showed the Queen had no vanity at all. She is happiest grabbing a shirt, pulling on another terrible cardigan, a tweedy skirt, comfortable shoes and a rain mac and she’s off. I do remember suddenly nailing the walk. I had the outfit on and I was in the garden and then I got it!
“Another thing I noticed was this very controlled exterior, but she often twists and turns her wedding ring like some loose pulse of energy that won’t be subdued.”
Mirren reveals something that surprises me. “I realised we were investigating a profoundly painful part of her life, so I wrote to her. How do you write to your queen? Was it Madam, or Your Highness, or Your Majesty? I said, ‘We are doing this film. We are investigating a very difficult time in your life. I hope it’s not too awful for you’. I can’t remember how I put it. I just said that in my research I found myself with a growing respect for her, and I just wanted to say that. She didn’t write back, of course, but her secretary did. You know, ‘Yours sincerely, da di da di da,’ on behalf of the Queen. I was very relieved subsequently that I had written that letter.”
Her next monarch, Catherine the Great, brought Mirren face to face with her roots; the grandeur that was Imperial Russia. Williams says she dived into her own research and discovered that Catherine had a German background, so she tinged her speech with a German accent. As tactfully as he could, Williams said it didn’t really work; Mirren sensed it too and dropped it. But apart from everything it was a reminder of her deeper past, always present in her life, the grandfather living with her, the one rouble note.
I ask her one more question, one that seems very important to me – why doesn’t she watch her own work? She immediately becomes uncharacteristically confused, something I hadn’t heard or seen before in any of the interviews she’s done. The question touches one of the secret spots that are profoundly private, but I also think a sort of engine room in her personality.
“I mean, I can watch it about ten years later, but I’m hypercritical and if I saw anything now I’d think ‘I’m terrible’ and get depressed,” she says. “I think I’m useless and I should never be employed by anyone, so I’ve learnt to try not to put myself through it.”
There’s that insecurity again, even though she feels like one of the least insecure people I have met. “Well,” she says, “I know I’ve found my own way of dealing with it…” Just as she has found her own way of dealing with everything.
Back in the Day by Melvyn Bragg is published by Sceptre at £16.99 and is available now.
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