The Many Sides of Helen Mirren

From her royal performances to her action romps, the Oscar-winning actor has always surprised her audiences.

WORDS Jeanne Wolf
November/December 2018

I’ve played such a range of roles but after The Queen I kept saying, “I’ve got to take off my crown.” I was so known for playing royals. Before that, I was very proud of Prime Suspect but worried I was too identified as Detective Jane Tennison. I want to play all types of characters. I’ve always loved imagination and storytelling. For The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Disney gave me such a wild image. I have red hair, a wicked laugh, and carry a big sword and even a whip. The producers found out that I can crack a whip really well so they added that.

I love fantasy. I was a dreamy, in-another-world kind of kid. I imagine my sister would probably say I was a terrible little whiner. I was also a romantic. I was a teenager when I started to discover drama by reading Shakespeare and poetry. There was Hamlet with duels and poisoning and love and death. It was much more interesting than the world I lived in, my sleepy little town.

Doing the movie brought back some childhood holiday memories. I didn’t grow up privileged. My mother had one elegant black dress with sequins on the shoulder. She would always wear that at Christmas, and I’d think she was so lovely. We made our own decorations, and we had a Christmas stocking that we’d fill with funky little things. In the foot of the stocking would always be a tangerine. We only had them at Christmastime so it was a very special thing to get that tangerine.

 The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

In The Nutcracker, I play Mother Ginger, who is nothing like my mother. Everyone thinks Ginger is a tyrant. She looks like a poor old cracked doll that’s been thrown away on a shelf and forgotten for many years. She’s really been through it all in her life. I came up with the idea of her wearing trousers instead of a dress. I thought it would make her look more like a woman of action.

I had a doll like that. I actually had one doll in my whole life. I cut her hair because it was lumpy but I didn’t realize it wouldn’t grow back. I tried to curl it and when I used the curling iron her face melted. But I still absolutely loved that doll with her terrible haircut and her face gone. I named her Elizabeth, which was prophetic considering I’d be famous playing the Queen.

I’ve had wonderful leading men and I’ll tell you what I find sexy about them—their sense of humor. There’s nothing sexier than a guy who can make you laugh. Actors in general are very funny, especially theater actors. I’ve had the best time just laughing my butt off. 

“I love my work, but I don’t like to draw attention to myself in public.”

I did fall in love with an actor, of course: Liam Neeson, whom I met on the set of Excalibur. We were together for five years. When you’re together with someone, there’s a familiarity that you never lose. It’s always fantastic when we meet at a gala or premiere. It’s a lovely thing, especially if you loved each other then and you love each other now.

There is a duality in all the interesting actors I’ve worked with, from Nigel Hawthorne and James Cromwell to Alan Rickman and Ryan Reynolds and, of course, Anthony Hopkins, who is incredibly powerful and serious. None of us is only one thing. 

Even with an action star, there is another layer in there. Doing The Fate of the Furious I found Vin Diesel had huge sensitivity and gentleness. I asked Vin to put me in his movie. I did, actually. I begged him. I’m shameless. And then there is, of course, Bruce Willis, who is one of the best and most brilliant. I’ve always had a little crush on him and that made working with him on Red very special.

The Queen

People were surprised to see me shooting a big gun in Red and the sequel, but why not?  Becoming a sort of action heroine was a new challenge. And it pushed the Queen out of people’s minds. But I have to say playing Elizabeth was my greatest performance, and I don’t mind being remembered most for that.

I’ve always loved costumes and, in a way, a red-carpet dress is just another costume. I love the artistry of it and the beauty of the fine design. But I have done some performances without a costume. One of my first was in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, in which I was totally nude. I won’t use the word “courage,” but did it take a certain chutzpah. My idea is that the best thing would be if all the crew took their clothes off, too. Then you’d feel fine. It’s never comfortable to be the only one without clothes on, for men or women. 

Now I’m about to play another woman who wore pants, Catherine the Great. It will be a miniseries for HBO. Catherine rode on the back of a horse dressed as a man, but that was more to show that she had guts. Portraying an empress is challenging. I have to put my mind into her sense of power, and along with that comes entitlement. Entitlement and lack of shame about one’s body or the way one looks because you have power. It’s exactly how men behave, incidentally. I have to really put my mind-set into that of a man. No embarrassment about their jowls or big butts or whatever because they have power. Catherine took favorites and then she got rid of them. She had four children by four different men. And she stayed on the throne.

People keep reminding me that my husband, Taylor Hackford, and I have one of the longest relationships in Hollywood. We’ve been together for 20 years. I always said I didn’t care if I got married. Now people ask about the secret of keeping it going. It’s because I was lucky to find the right person, and I was at the right point in my life. All of that helped. We’re as solid now as we’ve ever been. Maybe it is partly because we do have to spend long times apart. It’s important to each have your own world, your own work or hobby or whatever that interests you apart from your partner.

I love my work and can’t imagine not doing it. But still to this day, I don’t like to draw attention to myself in public. I don’t particularly like to be looked at. I feel self-conscious and slightly embarrassed. I’m full of anticipation and anxiety before a job. I’ve come to expect that it’s never going to go away. But on the other hand, fear is a great driving force, isn’t it? Fear of, Oh, that’s too scary. I can’t do that so I guess I better do it. Fear is quite a valuable thing in most ways.

As for being famous, you don’t want to get sucked into the vanity of it. I call it the “cacophony of vanity.” You just want to let go and say, It’s my work, I did it, it’s done, and on we go to the next thing. But there’s a sweetness in America that wants to go to the prize immediately. There’s something very appealing about that. You know, the Brits are more reserved and careful in their praise. 

I love Americans who go, “Yeah! Girl! You’re gonna win the Oscar! Fantastic!” 


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