If anyone is the embodiment of acting royalty, it is Dame Helen Mirren. Having started her career on stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company, she went on to a successful career in mostly British movies and on TV, where she was best known for starring in the U.K. crime drama "Prime Suspect;" she earned two Emmy Awards for that role. But over the past decade, the big screen has come calling again, and with renewed force.
Critically acclaimed for her performances in The Madness of King George, Gosford Park, Calendar Girls, and The Queen, Mirren has now reunited with the director of "Prime Suspect 4: The Lost Child," John Madden (check out our 1-on-1 with him here), for The Debt, in which she plays a former Israeli spy whose past catches up with her when new info emerges about a long-ago mission. We met up with the 66-year-old actor in London where she explained the secret behind her incredible success.
Some actors have commented that there are less and less good parts available the older they get, whereas your opportunities seem to be increasing. How do you explain this?
"I think if you manage to stay on in my profession through your 40s and 50s, which is the age where an awful lot of actors drop away because there is not enough work for them, then you tend to find you face less competition and thus there are more opportunities out there. I think one of the reasons I have done so well is because all of my life I have gone back to the theatre. About every four years, sometimes less, I will go and do some theatre work. I think because of that my career has kept going."
Why the theatre?
"I think it allows the audience to re-evaluate who you are. It's important to make the audience constantly re-evaluate you so you don't get pigeonholed into something that they won't let you escape from. Maybe it's something to do with that but, of course, I also do it because I love the theatre!"
You make a very convincing Israeli agent in The Debt. How did you prepare for the role?
"The research I did was related to reminding myself of the power and impact of the Holocaust during the Second World War. My character is carrying the memory, anger and passion of that. My research was more to do with reminding myself of where this comes from."
What did you learn from that?
"The efforts the Jews went to after the war to bring the Nazis to justice, whether they were guards in concentration camps or Nazi doctors, has to be commended. I think that was an extremely important process to happen. People have to remember. What can't happen is it just disappears into history and is swept under the carpet. I think if people suffer like that, history has to remember it."
So you think there's a danger that people will forget what happened in the past?
"Yes, yes I do. Partly because they're not being taught in schools, and partly because history marches on and certain things will be forgotten. I went to Germany recently to visit a World War II remembrance site, and it was incredibly powerful. You had the opportunity to pay respect to the lives and the deaths of the people who were there."
It seems that you are always working, but is it true you're thinking about taking a break from making films?
"Yes I am, not so much from the film business, but from work in general. I think I've earned a break; I've worked absolutely non-stop in the past 10 years. I'm going to take a nice little three-month break."
Only three months? I thought you were going to say three years.
"Well three months is rare for me. Often I finish a film, then go back to London, unpack, repack and then go off and work on another film. Then finish that film, go back to Los Angeles, unpack, repack, then go off and make another film. It's been like that for years and years."
In 2007 you released your autobiography, "In the Frame." Do you have any plans to expand on it, or write another one?
"Yes I think I will, and I think I will do it differently next time. Maybe I'll start right from the beginning and I'll write a different kind of book... I'd actually quite like to write a book about my sex life! But I'd have to do it when I'm 90 years old and just about to die. It can come out posthumously."
Having played the Queen, were you invited to the Royal wedding earlier this year?
"No, I was in Italy at the time, but I would have been there like a shot if invited! My hat would have been really nice. It would have been quite small because I would have been polite about the people sitting behind me. I thought they were so rude, all of them!"
Have you become a bit of a Royalist yourself?
"I’m a Queenist. For me there's two things — there's the institution of the monarchy which I am not at all sure about, then there are the Royal family as people. Princess Anne I have immense respect for, the Queen I have immense respect for, Charles also. I think these are serious, dedicated and dutiful people with a real decency about them."
But aren't they overpaid?
"I'd say if anything they are underpaid, when you think of how much footballers earn or some movie stars. I've become less politicized about all that than I used to be. Before I starred in The Queen I never really thought about it, I just had a slightly knee-jerk reaction. But it forced me to really consider, think and research, and as I was researching, my respect for the Queen really grew enormously."
Your last film, Arthur, was a broad comedy. Is there a funny side to you that you would like to showcase a bit more?
"Oh, definitely! I mean I have to say it was really hard doing Arthur. It was exhausting. The young director [Jason Winer] was just relentless! These big comedy pieces, you know they are very technical. It was just such hard work."
Would you say comedy is harder to do than drama?
"I don't think so, no. To act in a dramatic role is very intense and personal for an actor, but comedy is something that is constructed. Especially comedy in film, because you have no immediate reaction from the audience to see whether it is funny or not. But I would love to do more comedy, I really enjoyed it."
Mark Pilkington is a freelance writer based in London, England.
Mirren with her Oscar for The Queen
From Russia, in part…
Helen Mirren may seem like the epitome of British stock — here she is winning an Oscar for playing the Queen of England, after all — but she was actually born Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironov. Her grandfather, Pyotr Vasilievich Mironov, was a colonel in Russia's Tsarist Army and was stranded in the U.K., where he'd been negotiating an arms deal, during the Russian Revolution. Mirren's father, Vasily, decided to anglicize the family name when Ilyena was still a little girl. However, on her mom's side, Mirren does have a connection to British royalty. Her mother's grandfather was Queen Victoria's butcher. —MW