The Sunday Times, 18 November 2001
On 26th July 1945, between the end of hostilities in Europe and Hiroshima, Helen Mirren was born rather suddenly in the corridor outside the delivery room in Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, Chiswick. “It was 20 minutes,” she explains, “from the first pang to me actually appearing.”
A few decades later she is sitting in a restaurant in Pimlico drinking Kir Royales and embarking on bizarre, head-clutching rows about Queen Charlotte’s indeed being in Chiswick, not Southend, and mad flights of fancy about the use of celebrity nuns in drug smuggling operations.
“Nuns are cool,” she says with the slangy conviction of a teenager, “I grew up with nuns. Imagine what a smuggler Sister Wendy could be. A famous nun could walk through British customs with tons of heroin all over her, in every orifice.”
We’re only two Kirs into the dinner and already her conversation has become a verbal Bermuda Triangle. Squadrons of coherence mysteriously vanish over her turbulent waters. Behind her, as if caught in the vortex of her indirection, waiters repeatedly crash to the ground carrying stacks of plates or glasses. Each time it happens she turns round sympathetically – “Oh poor baby” – at which each waiter looks up, melts and appears ready to propose marriage. Meanwhile, the French maitre d’ flutters about warbling treasonously, “French twits! You can’t get the staff!”
This must be what madness is like. I feel hysteria rising in my throat. What has happened? La Poule au Pot in Ebury Street seemed to be all right before she arrived. Then she came in, teetering – a cliche, I know, but there is no other word – on dangerously high heels, wearing a long, tight, red dress and a filmy black thing with flowers on it.
“I sink I saw ‘er,” the maitre d’ murmured to me just before she arrived.
Of course he did. Who else could this vision have been? Or maybe he just detected her presence by the sound of crashing buses and the thud of pedestrians hitting the pavement.
Part of this chaos is deliberate. She is tired of talking about herself, of being interviewed. She just wants to “get drunk and have fun” and so, repeatedly, she subverts my plodding attempts to draw her back to the point, just as she can charm a waiter into embarrassed confusion by pausing, with exquisite timing, in the process of ordering. But part of it is quite unconscious. Mirren is, whether you recognise her or not, whether she knows it or not, a presence. She plainly is somebody. The world arranges itself around her. What can I – or anybody – do but defer to her whimsical free associations, her odd combination of grande damery and sudden, coarse irritations.
“What do you do when you’re not working?” I ask in another lame attempt to get the conversation back on course.
“Not working? What the f***? I don’t know, read the Sunday papers, watch a bit of TV. What the f*** do you do when you’re not working? I don’t have a hobby, I don’t make things out of matchsticks.”
At one point I resort to shock tactics – a sudden, random reinforcement of her vanity.
“You are, after all, the best actress of your generation.”
The whimsy slithers to a halt and she straightens herself slightly.
“How long, exactly, is a generation?”
“So which 25 years am I the best of?”
“Okay, okay,” I respond, now emboldened by a passable Meursault, “don’t milk it.”
“I’m not, it’s just a silly thing to say.”
But, in truth, she probably is. On stage and on television – notably the Prime Suspect films – she is mesmerising. On film she has perhaps only once dominated in quite the same way – in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her lover. But, in 2010, she did enough with a fairly slender role to make it clear that, if Hollywood gave her the chance in its mainstream, global hits, she could make the whole damn town look like a hole in the screen.
She is also, by common consent, the sexiest actress in the business. Male acquaintances paled and gulped when I told them I was having dinner with Mirren. Females told me – warned me – sniffily that they weren’t her legs in the Virgin Atlantic TV ad. (They weren’t because, she says, she has legs like Gazza’s, but that was not the point.) On the Internet inadequate geeks on both sides of the Atlantic emit hopeless, electronic mating calls in her direction. On one site she was awarded a place of honour for services to masturbation. And, in a Radio Times poll, she was voted the sexiest woman on television, beating assorted twentyish and teen bimbettes by a mile and at least two decades, a victory which plainly gave her much discreet satisfaction.
“That Gillian Anderson,” she murmurs of the X-Files star who came second in the poll, “that blank face, like a mask!”
One theme emerges from this dual reputation for competence and sex – authenticity. On the one hand she is a “real” actress with a formidable stage pedigree, as opposed to the flashy, pumped-up, dead-eyed robots who dominate the movies. On the other she is a “real” woman, whose sexiness increases with age without workout videos and the inevitable descent into sunbedded stringiness. And, from this, emerges a further theme – Englishness. Mirren’s acting is seen as the finest flower of our national art and her refusal to fake youth is seen as reinforcing our native scepticism about the whole Californian health cult. The fact that she lives most of the time in Los Angeles seems to drive the point home. Like the LA cricket team or David Hockney, she represents, in West Coast exile, some irreducible aspect of the national psyche.
Yet, afloat on a sea of adoration, she emits waves of discontent, a habit she seems to find puzzling. As she said to one interviewer: “Why am I still eaten up with envy at what everyone else is doing? Why always the continuous anxiety, the worry, the one eye over the shoulder, wondering what’s around, wondering who’s been offered what. God, I wish I wasn’t like that, I’d give anything to know what satisfaction feels like.”
The life suggests some clues. By paternal descent she is Russian. Her great great grandfather was a marshall in the Napoleonic Wars and appears in War and Peace as Kamiensky. Her grandfather was in England doing an arms deal for the Tsar in 1917 when Lenin struck. He stayed in England, living a life of exile and increasing poverty. – “He went from having lunch with Churchill and living in the Russian embassy to being a taxi driver within ten years.”
Her father, who had been two in 1917, married “a real Londoner” called Kitty Rogers. Until the grandfather died they kept the name Mironoff and so the plainly named Helen Mirren came into the world as the sonorously named Ilyena Lydia Mironoff. She also has an older sister who now teaches and a mysterious younger brother whom she describes as “an adventurer in the Philippines and a sort of hanger out with bar girls.”
“He said his ambition in life was to be a sleazy old white man in a dirty white suit sitting in the corner of some tacky bar in the Philippines with a fan going round. He’s not a drinker though, he just wants to be sleazy – very Graham Greene.”
“Colourful bunch,” I remark.
“We didn’t think so. We thought we were very normal. Though we were the first to have yoghurt in our street – a bit Bohemian.”
The background is marked by a certain intensity. First there was the drama of exile, then there was the passion of their father, who, perhaps perversely, became a devout communist in the 1930s. Through her childhood they had no television, a radio that didn’t work and they seldom went out. Instead they solemnly, Russianly debated issues of life, the universe and everything around the family table each night. Since Mirren, by day, went to a convent school – her militantly atheist parents had decided it was the best in the area – her intelligence was formed in a climate of immense and formidable issues.
“After that it took me a long time to realise you could make small talk. My dad could be very funny and so could my mum, but we had no television and we never knew about pop music. We’d just have these philosophical discussions about life and art and whether you have a soul or not. It took me ten years to learn you could just chat.”
Further intensity was added to this mix by the fact that Mirren herself had conceived the implausible ambition of becoming an actress. It seemed to have happened when she was about seven. She went to see a show at the Southend Palace – the Mirrens had moved to Southend from Chiswick about three years earlier – starring Terry Scott.
“He made me fall off my seat he was so funny. And then when the dancing girls came on I remember thinking it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I still love costumes and dressing up as you see….,” she gestures at her Bohemian scarlet and black, “…. it’s that thing about sitting in the dark and there’s this magical thing on stage. I still find a darkened theatre one of the most moving and emotional places.”
She went on to act at school and told people she wanted to be an actress, but it seemed like the most absurd fantasy.
“In those days a girl was given four alternatives: marriage – that was the most important – nurse, teacher or you went into the civil service. Nothing else existed as far as they were concerned. To want to be an actress was just fantastically weird.”
Her parents thought it was absurd and insisted on her training to be a teacher. So she ended up in Hampstead, learning to teach drama.
“I’m quite happy I didn’t go to drama school. They’re all very competitive hothouses, very cruel places. It’s not that the teachers are cruel, it’s the students who are cruel to each other. There’s so much jealousy and they’re out of touch with the reality of the profession anyway. I actually think they should ban all drama schools. When I visit them I tell the students: don’t worry people are much nicer in the profession than they are in drama schools.”
One thing is clear about the Mirren progress even at this early stage – marriage and children were not an option.
“It’s not an accident that I’ve never married and had children. It wasn’t a conscious choice. It’s just that I never wanted children. I don’t know why, I’ve never been shrunk so I’ve never gone into it. I was never drawn to babies. The only dolls I played with as a child were grown up dolls. I would have loved a Barbie if they’d been around when I was a little girl. And my skin still crawls when I see a little girl hauling around a big baby doll. You see this little five-year-olds with huge, great, monstrous, disgusting baby dolls. I want to go up and rip them out of their hands….”
And, as far as men go, she has had lovers, not husbands. There was Prince George Galitzin, Liam Neeson, the photographer James Wedge and so on. And now, in LA, there is the Hollywood director Taylor Hackford. Friends speak of this as the love of her life. This, they say, is the first man she can’t easily dominate. Hackford is a big, all-American man. He doesn’t wilt, he doesn’t drop plates just because she’s around. The affair is now more than a decade old. Might she, finally, marry?
“Maybe, I’m thinking about it right now. And he’s not the love of my life. I’ve had a lot of great loves in my life. He’s the love of this part of my life.”
And for the rest of her life? “Yeah, probably, yeah.”
Meanwhile, back in 1965, she was twenty. It was a time when, for better or worse, things were changing. Families were becoming boring and unfashionable and women were being allowed, encouraged to be sexually aggressive. Mirren, already, judging by the pictures at the time, hypnotically sexy, devoted to acting and unfettered by broody longings, had arrived at the right place – Hampstead – at the right time – the sixties.
Over the next twenty years she was to fulfil that destiny. Almost at once – thanks to summer work with the National Youth Theatre – she was spotted and she became one of the stars of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Interminably the critics would try to define the specifics of her sensuality – good-looking, yes, but something more, something erotically there. The ski-jump Slavic nose, the blonde hair, the strange slowness of the body and the alarmingly direct eyes added up to an intimidating frankness that makes it, for men at least, difficult to watch her and yet, at the same time, impossible not to. Oh yes, and she could act.
Films came and went. There were good ones – O Lucky Man!, The Long Good Friday, bad ones – Savage Messiah, Caligula, and award-winning ones – Cal, but, somehow, they weren’t the point. She never officially became a film star, even the Oscar nomination for The Madness of King George didn’t really project her into the movie front line. And, in any case, her real ambition to become a great classical actress, something she felt she could only do on the stage. In the mid seventies she joined Peter Brooke’s company in France, driving herself as hard as she could.
“I wanted to be a great actress. I thought the next step on that path was to step away from being successful to do a learning, experimental thing. It was a bit of a nightmare, but it was fantastic, I did incredible things.”
The climax of her stage career – at least as far as she was concerned – came in the early eighties when she played Cleopatra to Michael Gambon’s Antony for the RSC.
“I did feel that I was great. I thought that was the best I could ever be on every level.”
She was nominated for the best actress award that year. But she did not win. It was a turning point. She sneaked out of the ceremony feeling humiliated and rejected.
“I thought: F*** it, that’s it, they obviously don’t want me. They don’t like me, they hate what I do. I’ll go somewhere else. I didn’t have much acclaim. I wasn’t being asked to do any work in England. Nobody was actually asking me to do anything. What are you supposed to do?”
There are number of things that might be said to be wrong with this account. First, coming second isn’t bad. Secondly, we didn’t hate her. In fact, thirdly, she was generally adored.
But to raise such points is to misunderstand the absolutism of Mirren’s character. Beneath the whimsy and the insouciance, there is a hard, irreducible urge to be the best. In this, as in so many other things, shei s a representative woman of her time. Talented men cope with reversals by pretending their real lives, their soul, is elsewhere, they are not dependent on conventional signs of appreciation. Talented women have had a harder struggle and tend, as a result, to identify themselves more completely with what they do and how it is received. Mirren knew – or thought she knew – that she could do no better than Cleopatra, that, indeed, she had achieved greatness. But that was not enough – others had also to acknowledge her supremacy. When they didn’t, her own self-assessment was called into question and, in disgust, she left town.
As it happened, she had somewhere to go – Hollywood. There she got the part of the Russian commander of a spaceship in 2010. Suddenly she was in a new world, free of the oppressive demands of English stage classicism. The film was shot on the old MGM lot and, for the first time, she understood some of the romance of Hollywood movies. Until then she had only been interested in European films on which he had overdosed while working, during her college years, as an usherette at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. Suddenly Hollywood seemed a way of saying: “F*** you, England!”
The following year, 1985, she made White Nights. Taylor Hackford was the director and the relationship that still keeps her in LA began. There is no question that she did want to conquer Hollywood as an actress. Yet she never could. The reason is obvious: nobody ever conquers Hollywood as an actress. Acting, for women, is not the point – look at the absurd Demi Moore or the stilted collection of mannerisms that is Meryl Streep. The point is something Hollywood calls stardom. And Mirren now knows she doesn’t have the right collection of looks and studio acceptability that make stardom happen.
“Of course I could act them off the screen, But what Demi Moore does is not acting, it’s about being a star.”
“It’s not funny, Bryan, it’s not absurd, it’s professional – getting up at four in the morning and going to the gym for five hours to look beautiful as she does. It’s to be incredibly respected what she does. Speaking as a woman, I think it’s fantastic. I’m not being an inverted snob here. I’m being totally genuine. You bloody try it.”
“Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s worth doing. So what’s the point?”
“The point is that you get $8 million for a movie. That’s a huge point. You get immensely wealthy and immensely famous. It’s nothing to do with acting. It’s like making a car. I’m too lazy, I can’t do that.
“And they’re infantilised by the community around them and at the same time disdained. Everybody laughs at their jokes, they get nannies to look after their children and cars all paid for. They turn up with two assistants and all this huge kerfuffle. But, as soon as they walk on the set , they are basically despised, they have no real power.”
This, in effect, is a statement of the psychological compromise she has made with the reality of Hollywood. In making the correct distinction between acting and stardom, she takes the sting out of what must have been another rejection. And it was a sting – she may have failed to win an award in England; in Hollywood she had to go to auditions where producers and secretaries struggled to remember her name.
But, ironically, it was British television that was to make her American reputation. Prime Suspect was conceived by Lynda La Plante and sold, as an idea, to Granada in 1990. The idea was little more than that it should be a show about a woman policeman who was head of a homicide tea. La Plante found a real model for the role – DCI Jackie Malton – and followed her for weeks.
She wasn’t, at this stage, thinking of Mirren for the part. Other actresses were in her mind.But the final choice of Mirren was what made the show. Without her it would undoubtedly have been good, though one can’t help feeling it would have, by now, been forgotten as just one more British, gritty, “realistic” cop show. With Mirren, it became mesmerising. She may, as an actress, have been better as Cleopatra. But, as a woman, she was never better than when she played the wrecked, angry, vulnerable, confused Jane Tennison. Prime Suspect was followed by PS 2 and PS 3 and Mirren never faltered.
“Amazingly consistent performance,” I say.
“I don’t really know because I haven’t seen most of them. I can’t be bothered. It might be four hours and I don’t want to watch myself for four hours. I know the story. Oh, I’ll get round to watching them. Doing them was fun, but watching them is like a duty.
“I met Jackie Malton many times. But the character was nothing like her. The research was based on her. I think I just showed what happened to a lot of women in a lot of different professions – doctor, teacher, lawyer – they’d all gone into work at the age of 20 as I did when I became an actress. And they’d been dealing with all this for twenty years, fighting through it. Now they’re in their forties and successful and powerful and no one really old their story and suddenly there it was on television. It struck a chord with women in all professions.”
All the Prime Suspects aired in America. There Esquire magazine said it was “the most sustained example of great acting in the history of television.”The television critic Tom Shales wrote: “Her portrayal of Tennison is ice-hard but not ice-cold, a brilliant parlay of backbone and heart. Mirren doesn’t take a breath or blink an eye that isn’t in character; everything contributes to a portrait of a cool, canny dynamo who knows she can’t allow herself any signs of weakness or indecision. The men are watching and waiting for her to been, to crack, even to crease a little.”
The question everybody asked was: how did she keeep it up? As Shales says, the character was so rigorously defined in every detail that it seemed like a miracle that it could be sustained through so many hours of television. She must, one assumes, have planned and rehearsed it to the point where she had every detail perfect.
“Nahhh,” she says, “you make it up as you go along. You’ve got to when you’re shooting ten minutes of screen time a day. It wasn’t considered at all. I didn’t think it through. It’s just a way of working – when I get into the costume and on the set I do the character. I haven’t much imagination, I can’t think of anything else to do. Give us another glass of wine.”
The show turned her into a kind of alternative star in America. She was worshipped by the cognoscenti as a great, real actress as opposed to the products of Hollywood. It wasn’t mass success, of course, and it didn’t get her the big movies. Indeed, when Hollywood bought the Prime Suspect script, she was explicitly excluded from the role. She was just too much for Hollywood, her life scrawled all over her face and the deep anti-sentimentalism of her performance. Instead, the beastly Demi was mentioned and one or two others, much to the rage of people on this side of the Atlantic.
“That,” she says, “unfortunately shows how parochial and amateur the Brits are about movies. Like they say in that great scene in The Player, the American film industry buys 300 scripts, develops 15 and makes 5. We think: ooooh Hollywood bought the script! We shouldn’t be so bloody excited. The Americans buying something means nothing.”
But, on the other hand, for her not even to be mentioned as a contender for the part means a great deal. It means the great rebellion that happened when her Cleopatra failed to win that award and when she spent blissful weeks wandering into the MGM studio while filming 2010, has not really projected her all that far out of Britain. Sure, there’s Hollywood and Taylor. But, when we met, she was back filming for Granada in London – this time she plays a somewhat wrecked inhabitant of the art world in a film called Painted Lady.
Plainly she wanted more, but then, even if she’d evicted the dread Demi from her Winnebago, she’d have still wanted more. She’s restless, even when she just says she wants to have fun and get drunk. As the dinner came to an end – everybody else had left, we were on the champagne and my wife was calling edgily on the mobile – she suddenly launched into an odd, impressionistic speech that seemed to sum her her situation better than I could. I had asked her what she wanted next.
“I would like my dream existence to be in a beautiful house in London with a lovely garden at the back. I would take my friends out there for a drink – cold, white wine. It’s a very yuppy dream this. It would be a gorgeous house, Georgian. No, not Georgian. One of those beautiful English houses with a little walled garden at the back. And, on a hot summer’s day we would have a nice cold glass of wine from Sainsbury’s, or Marks & Spencer, or Asda, or Kwik Save. Kwik Save is my favourite shop. They know me by name in Battersea Kwik Save. I object to paying more. It’s also round the corner from where I live. Taylor loves London. But he’s an American and he can’t live in England. And he’s a Californian so it’s just too small here. It seems like Disneyland to him.”
There’s a lot in that speech which I don’t think needs disentangling. And there’s a lot left out – notably the burning ambition to be recognised. But it had all been said. So I left her in Battersea. She murmured: “Let’s all meet again sometime. Taylor, me, you, your wife.” This is something famous people often say to journalists. The poor hack thinks it might happen and, in his desperation, doesn’t write anything nasty. I think they are taught it by their agents. It’s a cheap trick. But maybe she meant it. I don’t know. I wasn’t going to write anything nasty anyway. I don’t think there’s anything nasty to be said.
And so she teetered – there is no other word – down the street in her high heels and her long, tight red dress. She looked lonely, but, my God, what a star.