Helen Mirren: ‘I’m not chopped liver’

Helen Mirren on traumas, triumphs and the biggest lie ever told about her

'I never read my own interviews," Helen Mirren proclaims with a slight shudder. She pulls herself up. "Oh, I shouldn't say that to you. Should I? Sometimes I come across one and think, oh, that's got my voice, but not often."

She doesn’t mean that last sentence literally. But it is a voice that takes some describing. We tend to think of Dame Helen Mirren, now 69, as just that little bit grand. And she certainly doesn’t stint in the full-blooded rounding of vowels. There is, however, also a very faint glottal stop that speaks of a childhood by the Thames estuary. Anyway, one can understand why she gives interviews (such as this) the widest of berths. It’s not that writers have been unkind to her. She tells good stories and is impressively open about both traumas and triumphs. For 40 years, however, the newspapers have insisted upon writing about one of the UK’s greatest actresses – one Oscar, four Emmys, two Cannes best actress awards – in terms of her “sexuality”. You know the sort of thing. Mirren: Still sexy at 40/50/60 (delete according to decade).

"I'll tell you about the biggest lie ever told about me," she says. "Apparently, I am famous at the Guardian – and have become an object of derision there – because I once uttered the phrase: 'I trusted him because he was from the Guardian.' Ha."

She squares shoulders and pulls head back, the better to look down an imperious nose. "That's where the whole 'sex thing' started," she half-spits. "It was a very, very early interview with the Guardian when I was at the RSC. The headline was: 'The sex queen of Stratford'. It was completely unwarranted. He talked about me batting big blue eyes at him. I don't even have blue eyes and I would never have batted them. I was very young and every interview after that it was mentioned."


Neanderthal attitudes
It is worth remembering quite how Neanderthal attitudes still were towards female performers during the 1970s. The Women's Movement may have impressed itself on certain corners of BBC2 and Pelican Books. But the chat shows were still soaked in the culture of the saloon bar and the locker room. There exists extraordinary footage of Michael Parkinson interviewing Mirren in 1975 (seek it out on YouTube). Making no attempt to conceal his lupine leer, he describes her as "sluttishly erotic" and refers to her bosoms (we assume) as "her equipment". Steve Coogan would not have dared allow Alan Partridge to behave so boorishly.

“Yes, it was completely inappropriate,” she says. “And it struck me so at the time. It was insulting. It’s not as if I was a glamour model. I was doing pretty challenging work in one of the biggest theatres in Britain. It was just so rude. And that was the first TV I had ever done. I was incredibly nervous.”

One imagines the current incarnation of Mirren would have delivered a sharp blow to the Parkinsonian privates. Then barely 30, Mirren did a good job of undermining him while still appearing to play along.

“I watched it a while ago and I thought I was fantastic,” she says. “I was so cool and I didn’t get angry. I was quite funny. I think I handled him quite brilliantly.”

All that noted, I do have a duty to report on Mirren’s present appearance. She is blonde. Her skin glows. The eyes are crisp. She looks blisteringly healthy in a funky black and white dress. She will, I’m sure, allow me to say that she is very nicely turned out.

Happily, unlike actors from earlier eras, Mirren did not have to accept supporting roles as angry maiden aunts once she passed 40. Indeed, her fame has grown steadily and unrelentingly since securing a position with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the mid-1960s.

“Yes, from the minute I started I have earned my living doing this,” she laughs. “I was not always wealthy. There were times when there wasn’t money for the electric meter.”

In 2006, the career took another lurch forward when she won an Oscar for her role as Queen Elizabeth in Stephen Frears's The Queen. No actor had, come eve of ceremony, ever been so short a favourite for an Academy award and she admits that it boosted her profile in the US quite considerably.

“I had been to so many ceremonies by the time the Oscars came along and they were mostly arse-breakingly boring,” she says laughing. “And best actress came at the end. So, you couldn’t even leave early.”

Since then she's been Alma Hitchcock, wife to Anthony Hopkins's master of suspense, in Hitchcock. She's kicked ass (no other term will do) in Red. She won acclaim as lawyer to Al Pacino's fallen hit-maker in the TV movie Phil Spector.

This week we see her playing a grand French lady, proprietor of a Michelin-starred restaurant, in Lasse Hallström's crowd-pleasing The Hundred-Foot Journey. It's an ideal role for Mirren. She gets to scowl furiously at Om Puri as he and his family set up a rival Indian restaurant right across the street. She gets to declaim in Franglais. Whisper it quietly: better roles do seem to be available for older actresses these days.

“I always say the same thing,” she says. “Don’t worry about roles for women in drama. Worry about roles for women in life. If those come then roles in films will follow. If women are doing more than being wives and girlfriends in life then they’ll end up doing more than that in films. We need women as presidents and prime ministers and so on. That’s what will change things.”

Like most avatars of Englishness, the former Helen Lydia Mironoff is just a little bit foreign. Her grandfather, Pyotr Vasilievich Mironov, a former colonel in the imperial Russian army, became stranded in the UK while working as a diplomat at the time of the October Revolution. Her dad worked as a musician, drove a cab and ended up as a civil servant in the Department of Transport. Most of her childhood was spent among the unglamorous surroundings of Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. Like many actors of her generation, she found her feet at the National Youth Theatre, before catching the eye of Trevor Nunn and making it to the RSC.

“I do feel Russian when I am over there,” she says. “I look a bit like them. Growing up, I was aware of being different. This was before there was much immigration, remember. It was very monocultural.”

It was an exciting time to be in theatre. The great spaces were contemplating the experiments of Peter Brook. Political playwrights such as Howard Brenton and David Edgar were on the rise. And Mirren was right at the heart of it. She was Strindberg's Miss Julie. She was Nina in The Seagull. Later, she was in the London production of Brian Friel's Faith Healer. She says that she was shy during that period. It certainly didn't show. Few actors occupy the stage with such apparent confidence.

“Oh that’s a total illusion,” she says. “I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I will anyway. Ha ha. I think I was more intelligent than people gave me credit for. I was blonde and had [lowers voice while cupping hands over the brassiere area] these big tits. And they couldn’t get their head around the fact I was saying intelligent things. No, it’s not self-confidence. It’s to do with being thoughtful.”

Proper fame
As she acknowledged earlier, proper fame came gradually. She turned up frequently on telly in the 1970s, but was never in a big series. As she recalls it, each appearance – in, say, Dennis Potter's great Blue Remembered Hills – would trigger recognition in the street for a few weeks. Then life would calm down again. What really kicked her up a gear was the success of the superior cop show Prime Suspect. Running from 1991 to 2006, the series made a legend of hard-drinking, deeply flawed, slightly terrifying DCI Jane Tennison.

“It had everything you needed,” Mirren remembers. “It was beautifully written and directed. It was shot beautifully. And she was very flawed, very driven, very unattractive in many ways. They had great directors, great writers. And I’m not chopped liver either.”

Married to the director Taylor Hackford – he of An Officer and a Gentleman and Ray – since 1997, she divides her life between England, the US and France. She has managed the unusual trick of becoming an institution while still retaining significant degrees of danger. Both sides to the Mirren identity were on display last year when, playing Queen Elizabeth again in Peter Morgan's play The Audience, she stormed from the theatre to berate a group of drummers making a racket on Shaftesbury Avenue.

“Oh yes. Would I have done it if I’d had time to think? Maybe, maybe not, but something had to be done,” she says, pointing towards the door. “It was as if they were right out there. I reckoned the only person who had a chance of stopping them was me. They were quite sweet and stopped immediately. The thing is I had sort of forgotten I was still in costume.”

So, the combination of Mirren and Windsor offered too much hauteur to resist. “Maybe so. Maybe so. Ha, Ha.”

Definitely not chopped liver.

The Hundred-Foot Journey is on general release