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People In Film | Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren | The Right Actress for Any Role

In John Madden’s The Debt, Mossad agents David Peretz, Rachel Singer and Stephan Gold embark on a covert mission in the 1960s to kidnap a Nazi war criminal living in East Berlin. Only when we revisit the same trio 30 years later do we come to understand that the present owes more to the past than anyone suspects. And while this story shuttles between two time periods and among three different characters, the older Rachel Singer – who is played by Helen Mirren – is, in many ways, the film’s moral center. As Madden, who previously directed Mirren in an episode of the gritty detective miniseries Prime Suspect, explains, “Here’s a role which required her to intimate the wounds and the corrosive effect of events suppressed over 30 years. The tension and pain of a decision made long ago are evident; she literally bears a scar from what happened back then. All this has to come across amidst the pace and excitement of a thriller.” Of course, considering Mirren’s remarkable career, it’s impossible to image a role she could not shine in.

Helen Mirren | Destined to Act

Mirren, aged 20, in a 1965 production of Anthony and Cleopatra

The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael wrote in 1985 of Helen Mirren, “Probably no other actress can let you know as fast and economically as she can that she's playing a distinguished and important woman." While Mirren is often cast to play “distinguished and important” English women, her own background is more complex. She was born Helen Lydia Mironoff, a mix of Russian aristocracy and British working class. Her paternal grandfather was Pyotr Vasielivich Mironov, a high-ranking diplomat in the Tsar’s government who became stranded in London after the Russian Revolution. Her mother's father ran a butcher's shop in West Ham, in London's East End. By the age of six, Mirren determined she wanted to be an actress in an “old-fashioned and traditional sense.” Despite her ambition, she faced early setbacks. At age eight, she lost the starring role of the princess in a school production of Four and Twenty Blackbirds, ending up instead in the blackbird chorus line. Mirren recounted to the Los Angeles Times, “I remember sitting in that pie, with a big cardboard crust over our heads, all squashed together in our black leotards and black tights, and sort of horrible yellow beaks on our faces. And I remember thinking, 'I'll be the princess one of these days.’" Despite her determination, Mirren’s parents, fearing acting might not prove the most prudent career choice, encouraged her to study teaching. Mirren honored their wishes but kept her theatrical dreams alive. In 1963, she enrolled at New College of Speech and Drama and also landed a place in the National Youth Theater. For two years, she both studied to be a teacher and pursued acting. But at 20, when she was given the lead in Antony and Cleopatra, she won acclaim and an agent – and everything changed.

Helen Mirren | A Woman on Stage

Mirren in Teeth ‘n’ Smiles (1975)

Through the 1960s and 70s, Mirren excelled in productions of Shakespeare plays, gaining more attention and admiration with each performance. She told the Los Angeles Times, “Shakespeare was all I wanted to do. I was asked to do two or three films. … I was very, very concentrated at that time with the idea of becoming a great classical actress." In 1975, she proved she could play crazy as well as classical when she became the rock goddess in David Hare’s Teeth ‘n’ Smiles. Not only did the part win her the Play and Players’ Best Actress award that year, but real life theatrics collided with onstage drama when The Who’s drummer, Keith Moon, infamously crashed his Rolls-Royce into the theater and then drunkenly joined the cast on stage. While she is “profoundly unmusical,” as she told The New Yorker, she learned from doing Teeth ‘n’ Smiles that “if you’ve got the chutzpah, you can persuade the audience of anything.” But it was more often her talent that persuaded critics and fans. In 1995, her performance in the National Theatre’s production of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country proved so powerful that the play was moved to Broadway, where Mirren was nominated for her first Tony. Her second nomination came in 2002 for her role in the Broadway production of August Strindberg’s Dance of Death. Even though Mirren has shifted her focus to TV and film, she explained to the Daily Telegraph, “About every three or four years I go back to the theatre and do a play….and the reason I go back is because I’m terrified that if I don’t, I’ll lose my nerve, because theatre takes a lot of nerve and you can lose it.”

Helen Mirren | Learning Her Craft on Film

Although Helen Mirren started appearing in films by the mid-1960s, it would be over 20 years before she found her first breakout role. Indeed Mirren recounts in her autobiography, In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures, how in 1968 she visited a palm reader who, after taking £5 off her, scrawled on a piece of paper, “You will be successful in life, but you will see your greatest success later, after the age of forty-five.” Mirren added, “Not something you want to hear at the age of twenty-three, but it turned out he was right.” Her first roles were mostly theatrical adaptations, like Peter Hall’s 1968 A Midsummer Night's Dream. But Mirren was up for anything, be it sophisticated farce (Michael Powell’s 1969 Age of Consent), rowdy art films (Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 O Lucky Man!), crime drama (John Mackenzie 1980 The Long Good Friday), historical fantasy (John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur) or even brow-raising sexual content (the scandal-ridden X-rated 1979 Caligula). In Cal, Pat O’Connor’s powerful love story, Mirren plays a woman married to a Protestant policeman who falls for a young IRA recruit. For her tender performance, Mirren was voted Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival and was singled out by critics like New York Times critic Janet Maslin, who wrote, “Miss Mirren, through a reserve that disappears layer by layer, makes Marcella a woman of unexpected substance and generosity.” Despite such starting successes, the best, as the back-alley palm reader had predicted, was yet to come.

Helen Mirren | Taking Charge on the Small Screen

Having carved out a career first in theater and then in film, Mirren next conquered television. While she’d appeared in various small-screen roles over the years, her performance as the British Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Jane Tennison in the 1991 police drama Prime Suspect proved a revelation. The British tabloid The Sun proclaimed that Prime Suspect was “One of those of those rare shows that hook the nation: a TV event. Thousands must have postponed Monday night plans to follow this brutal murder case which swept you along with its driving pace.” While the part took the nation by surprise, Mirren molded it from her classical roots. She originally explained, “This is the first time I've played a policewoman, but I wouldn't say it's the first time I've played a character like her; in fact the character that I have played that is closest to her is Lady Macbeth!” For Mirren, the character was not a one-off, but an evolving project. Instead of Prime Suspect being a standalone drama, it became an irregularly-produced miniseries, and Mirren would return as Tennison every few years until the seventh and final Prime Suspect in 2006. And for playing that character, she would be nominated for an Emmy six times, winning “Outstanding Actress – Miniseries or Special” three times, including for her exit turn in Prime Suspect: The Final Act. Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter said of Mirren's swansong that there was “no escaping that the end is here, not just for Tennison, but for a favorite television character and a miniseries that took television to new heights.” Mirren also picked up an Emmy for her title role in the miniseries Elizabeth I in 2006. (Ironically, she won an Oscar for her role as Elizabeth II that same year.)

Helen Mirren | Prophecy Fulfilled

The palm-reader's fortune given to Helen Mirren, that fame would come after she turned 45, proved only partially true. What was missing was how her career would continue to blossom for years after that. Starting in 1990, a string of roles –– the physically impaired wife in The Comfort of Strangers; the passionate widow in Where Angels Fear to Tread –– lead to Mirren's first Oscar nomination, a nod for Best Supporting Actress for her turn as the caring wife of the mentally unbalanced monarch in Nicholas Hytner’s The Madness of King George. If the 90s were good to Mirren, the next decade was even better. In 2001, her second nod for Best Actress in a Supporting Role came for her performance as the tight-lipped housekeeper in Robert Altman’s bustling, character-driven mystery Gosford Park. In 2007, Mirren won the Oscar for Best Actress for her mesmerizing performance as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen. And three years later, she was nominated again for Best Actress for her role as Leo Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya, in The Last Station. For Mirren, both Oscar-worthy roles were deeply connected to her love of acting. As she told The Seattle Times, “I love very subtle pieces…and nothing could have been more subtle than what was required of me to do in The Queen — that utter repression and sublimation of everything. But I think because of that, it was great to find a role that would show the extreme opposite — you can't get much further from the queen than Sofya Tolstoy." Indeed such balance and fun can be seen in the range of films she does, from romcoms like Raising Helen, to suspense dramas like The Clearing, to popcorn-chomping action flicks like National Treasure: Book of Secrets.


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