Helen Mirren — Even twenty years ago she was imperious

                                          June 1999   By Philip Berk

Indisputably one of the great actresses of the English theatre, Helen Mirren lives in Los Angeles. 

And for an explanation, she’d have to turn to a song from A Chorus Line, “What I did for love.”

While still in her teens, Mirren was an overnight sensation when she played Cleopatra at the Old Vic. She went on to do remarkable work in the West End ultimately teaming up with Peter Brook.

Hollywood beckoned, and she appeared in such high profile films as 20l0, White Nights, and Mosquito Coast. 

Awards also came her way. She was named best actress at the Cannes Film Festival, twice, for Cal and The Madness of King George.

But it was television that made her a household word.

As Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect she pioneered the New Woman on television.

As she puts it, “It got copied and cloned and was so influential on so many TV shows, I decided, if I were to do it again, it would have to have a fresh look. I am in discussions with Granada. Hopefully we can take it one step further.”

In the meantime, she’s appearing in a youth oriented American film, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, in which she plays a sadistic school teacher.

The film was poorly reviewed (except for Mirren’s performance) and has quickly come and gone.

I had the temerity to ask her why she made such a bad choice.

Surprisingly, she defended it passionately.

But then she’s been known to change her mind.

Eight years ago she told me she would never do theatre in Los Angeles.

“It’s not that theatre in Los Angeles isn’t good, it’s just the attitude that’s so bad. Theatre in L.A. is considered an audition for movies or for television, and I can’t stand that. To me, theatre is my art, absolutely an end in itself.”

This time she recants.

“I was stupidly insulting about Los Angeles theatre. Of course there’s great theatre in Los Angeles, at the Mark Taper Forum, but unfortunately that’s the only one, and for a city of this size, it’s extraordinary.”

Eight years ago she also explained why she moved to Los Angeles. “It was a reaction against England. I was feeling very antipathetic towards the government.”

Of course there was another reason. She had fallen in love. 

At the time she wouldn’t give his name, but everyone knew he was Taylor Hackford, the director of Officer and a Gentleman and the film that brought them together, White Nights.

In the interim, much has changed.

In fact, almost two years ago, in a much publicized ceremony the two were  married in Inverness, Scotland.

After being together thirteen years, why did they want to make it legal?

“I got married because it was wonderful.” she replies.

“Obviously we had a great relationship — after thirteen years we are still together — I was perfectly happy not to be married — and he was too. I said, ‘If you think this is going to change things, don’t let’s do it,  because it’s really great the way it is; so why rock the boat.’ But he said ‘No, no, it’ll be fine, Okay.’ So we got married, and the next day it was different. 

“Look I wear a wedding ring –and I can’t believe it. But I love it. It’s my mother’s wedding ring. The day before I got married, I would have said, ‘I’m not going to wear a wedding ring. That’s ridiculous.’ But that ring got put on my finger, and I’ve rarely taken it off since, and I don’t know why. I can’t really work it out , why that is. “

So what makes marriage different?

“It is different. For me, it’s great, it’s wonderful.”

Is she happier?

“I’m not happier because I was happy before. And I’m not peaceful. Just different. Like going through another door.”

Would she recommend it to others?

“No, no no. I don’t think people should or need to get married. I absolutely wouldn’t recommend it. If I did, it would be only if you were together for a really long time.”

Besides Mrs. Tingle, she is also playing Ayn Rand, in The Passion of Ayn Rand, for which she has been nominated for an Emmy Award.

Rand was the founder of the controversial philosophy Objectivism whose many adherents include no less than Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, “the most powerful man in the world in terms of world economy,” says Mirren.

Rand was also a passionate woman, who engaged in a consensual affair with a younger man while still married to her husband.

Does she have anything in common with Ayn Rand?

“We’re both  Russian, but I don’t come from a Russian Jewish background as Ayn did. And I was never an adherent to her philosophy. I was brought up as a socialist. I believe in socialism to a certain extent so I was really on the other side of the fence. Undoubtedly she had an enormous impact on what Americans believe to this very day.”

Does she share her unorthodox view of love?

Unflinchingly, Mirren replies,“Love is two things. There’s passion which comes and goes. And then there is enduring love which is a different kind of thing. I think all of us get the two mixed up all the time. We mistake passion for enduring love. Often we are not patient enough, once the passion has gone, to find the second level of love. That’s my personal experience, but I wouldn’t  be so bold as to offer a definitive answer for everybody.”

Is it easier to play someone who’s very much like her?

“The trick with all acting is to find what you have in common, what you can identify with. So in a sense you’re always playing someone who in some way is like you. But generally speaking, I like to play people who are not like me. It’s very difficult to play people who are close to you. It becomes hard to be truthful because none of us can see ourselves objectively. It’s easier to look at someone else objectively.”

Have her career goals changed over the years?

“In the first part of my career I was extremely driven to become a great classical actress. In my early twenties I was offered many film roles. I had opportunities to come to America, but I wanted to become the great classical actress. I pursued that. It involved things such as leaving the classical theatre for a while and working with Peter Brook, who I believe, is the greatest creative genius in the theatre today, because I thought it would further my abilities. I didn’t pursue money or fame. I pursued artistic ability. 

“But doing classical theatre is like riding an incredibly powerful potentially uncontrollable horse. At first you try to control it, but then it is running away with you. But bit by bit, you learn to control it. Ten years ago I was doing a performance as Cleopatra, and I suddenly realized I could ride this horse. Not only that, I could make it jump and stop and make it go backward, sideways. I could make it do anything. I had learned my craft. It was an interesting moment and so I thought, What shall I do next? And that happened just as I fell in love with someone who lived in America.” 

Why was Peter Brook so unique?

“Iconoclastic, is that the right word? Someone who takes his own path. He’s been accused of being a guru, and for people outside his world it’s something to be afraid of. I’ve never been afraid of the search for knowledge. I’ve never followed a guru, but I can fully understand people who do. It’s a dangerous world, full of shifting sands and potential disaster.  It is dangerous, but people who are very charismatic and intellectually superior are very attractive.  Peter is one of them. It was a fantastic experience for me to work with him, but a year was enough because in the end it was too esoteric for me. I wanted to be in the normal world as an actor. It was a heightened world and a wonderful world, but I didn’t want to stay there all my life.”

Is there a difference working in film and theatre?

“Of course, but they are two totally different methods. On stage, your brain has to be working very hard. It has to be full of information because you are, after all, the director, the cameraman, everything for a particular moment. On stage you are basically in control. 

“On film, you mustn’t think. You empty your mind. Which doesn’t mean you are stupid on film. It is very difficult to empty your mind. Anyone who has tried meditation knows that. In films you are, in a way, in a permanent state of rehearsal. On film you cannot let go of a character and neither can you afford to live it too strongly.

“Of course in the theatre it’s completely different from one night to another, but if you played a scene on film it would be different from day to day. Unfortunately with film you don’t get the opportunity to do it another day. It’s frozen in time. So as a film actor you have to learn to let go of that and not torture yourself about it.”

Does she have a favorite theatre role?

“Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play. There is no role that has been written in the past 400 years that is of that caliber. She has the range from a Genghis Khan to that of a fool. Where could you find another character of such sheer force?

By my count, she’s played the role three times, last year opposite Alan Rickman who got disastrous reviews. 

Are there differences between English and American actors?

“Big differences. But there are a lot of people who are seen acting, but I wouldn’t call them actors. What I think of as actors are those who have taken a certain imaginative leap. We (English and American actors) have a common cord but there are big differences.

“American actors are much more outward, much less afraid of being emotional. For example, at an audition, English actors won’t read. If they’re given a script they’ll hold it close up, mumble, read stage directions, pretend they can’t read. 

“American actors thump on the table, throw themselves on the ground. English actors find that very embarrassing. Another difference is British actors work much more. We move easily between television, theatre, films. American actors tend to sit and wait for the big part. We like to work much more. And we’re paid much less!

“And most American actors rely on their hands for acting. It’s not such an English kind of thing. One of the great actor’s exercises is to take the actor’s hands away.”

Her costars in The Passion of Ayn Rand are Peter Fonda and Eric Stoltz.

What was working with Peter like?

“He was the most unexpected person, the nicest guy and generous as an actor.”

And how difficult were the love scenes with Eric?

“They were very easy because Eric is a naughty boy.  He couldn’t wait, which is great because with someone who’s inhibited, it can be a nightmare. But with someone like Eric who’s fun and funny, it’s great.”

What kind of actor was Harrison Ford?

“Harrison was more like an English actor than any other American actor I have ever worked with. Very hardworking. He had never played a character, the kind that inhabits you, as he did in Mosquito Coast. And he played the role almost on the scale of a King Lear or a Macbeth. I watched him being overtaken by the character. It was like he didn’t know what was happening to him. And unlike an American actor he wasn’t obsessed with psychology, motivation. He wasn’t into that at all. English actors aren’t either. They are, but we don’t talk about it…”

Does she like working in film?

“I always find it a struggle and a painful process. I get very upset, very dark, when I am making a film. Ironically, when I have done films and I have been very happy and happy go lucky it is rarely my best work.  The parts I like are the ones which are mysterious, where the audience never understands what I am thinking about. 

“Then again it’s terribly painful to watch yourself. At least in the theatre if you’re not very good that night, you’ve got tomorrow night. In a film it is terribly painful if you find yourself lacking. On the other hand it is quite pleasurable to watch yourself and find yourself better than you thought.” 

Although little known in America, she always seemed to get the great roles. 

Why is she the darling of American directors? 

“In one case, Peter Hyams, the director of 20l0, is an Anglophile, so he cast me. Peter Weir (for Mosquito Coast) had looked at an awful lot of actresses before he thought I was right.”

(Hackford obviously fell in love with her when he cast her in White Nights.)

Is it more difficult for a woman to juggle both her personal and professional lives?

“Yes I think so. I have never been able to have a dog because one is always going somewhere. You have to feed a goldfish regularly, and it is also hard to feed a relationship.  I used to put my work ahead of my personal happiness. Quite honestly I thought it was more interesting. Now it is lovely to have love. I love being in love. It was always secondary, the icing on the cake, not the bread and butter? The bread and butter was always my ambition to be a great actress. But now it’s kind of different.”

Does she feel lonesome for England?

“It used to be strange living as an exile. You missed things, the sense of humor, the way of telling a story, those deep cultural things you don’t know you have lost until you actually lose them.

“But I go back. Taylor just produced a film in England called GMT so that was great. We spent a lot of last year in England. He’s about to start another film that I’m hoping will have its pre-production in England so that means we’ll be able to be together while I’m doing a play there. Actually it’s an American play called Collected Stories.

”Honestly, we have two homes and neither one takes precedent over the other. One is much bigger than the other, but they’re both absolutely home to us.”

For the record, Mirren’s real name is Mirrenoff. Her father came to England from Russia when he was two. He worked as a taxi driver, and she admits to being from a lower middle class family. Before becoming an actress, she spent three years training to be a teacher, “something I absolutely didn’t want to be.”

Her older brother and younger sister are both teachers.

12 thoughts on “Helen Mirren — Even twenty years ago she was imperious”

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