FOR MANY Irishmen and women, an encounter with a British monarch might inspire a complicated internal dialectic. But curtseying before Helen Mirren, a woman who won an Academy Award for her poignant depiction of the queen, presents no such problem.
We may never know what Queen Elizabeth II made of us during her recent visit but happily, Dame Helen Mirren is glad to provide us with a ringing endorsement.
"I've often thought somebody should do a book about the Irish sky," she says. "All those wonderful shades of grey and light." Really, who needs the crown when we have the woman Russell Brand – a Caliban to her feminised Prospero in Julie Taymor's recent adaption of The Tempest– calls the "Punk Queen". It's an apt tribute for somebody who sports a Lakesh tattoo on her left hand and who once moved hipper-than-thou progressive rockers The Mars Volta to write the song Ilyena.
“Oh trust Russell,” gushes Mirren. “He is just a magician with words. I suppose punk has always been a bit to my taste. So I’m just glowing with pride that Russell said so. Typical Russell to come up with a great phrase like that. I cannot recommend spending time with Russell highly enough. Especially if you’re a woman.” It hardly needs to be said that Mirren, the granddaughter of White Russian aristocrat Colonel Pyotr Vasilievich Mironov, exudes a regal aura, or that she looks maybe 45 (tops) of her 66 years.
But possessed with a sly wit and a mile-wide naughty streak, the Woman Who Would Be Queen is far warmer than her blue-blooded lineage might suggest.
“I’ve always been a good girl desperately wanting to be a bad girl and not really achieving it,” she despairs. “Ultimately, I’m too well behaved to ever be a proper bad girl.” Besides, whatever privileges were once attached to her Tsarist heritage had long gone by the time Mirren enjoyed what she calls a “thoroughly lower middle class” upbringing. Her mother hails from East London, and was the 13th of 14 children born to a butcher; Dad drove a taxi when work as a violist with the London Philharmonic dried up after the second World War.
“My parents were early bohemians before there were such people, really,” she recalls. “My dad’s rank was on King’s Road when King’s Road was flooded with artists and young art crowd of the 1950s. He loved writing and painting and playing music. My mum was working-class West Ham, but she had a burning desire to find out more about the world.”
In keeping with her artistic roots, young Mirren was accepted into the National Youth Theatre at 18; by 20, she was putting her classical training to use at the Royal Shakespeare Company only to earn the somewhat dubious monicker “the Sex Queen of Stratford”. Since then, every birthday brings a new headline: “Helen Mirren: still sexy at 55”, “Helen Mirren: still sexy at 60”. And so on.
It’s a bit of a backhanded compliment, no? “You’ve nailed it,” says Mirren. “It is very backhanded. It’s not really a compliment at all. The subtext is ‘Oooh, how weird. At her age!’ Inevitably, it’s now so entrenched on my CV I’m never going to get away from it. It’s so silly. You see what you see.”
She adopts a decrepit tone: “I’m just waiting for ‘She’s still sexy at 90’, you know.” She’s pleased, at least, that the “friendly” pat-on-the-bottom culture of her youth has gone the way of the dinosaurs that once doled it out.
"People would never get away with the kind of behaviour they did in the 1970s," she says. "It used to enrage me. It was so frustrating because I was living within a society that didn't even recognise that rage. It was all 'Look the other way. Oh yes dear. Do be quiet dear.' It was slow progress and it's still coming along. Even when Prime Suspectcame out, the first episodes were really about a woman struggling against the appalling sexism of the police force. I knew that feeling very well. And that wasn't so long ago." She laughs: "Well, it was 20 years ago, but that's not long at my age." She's pleased, too, that more enlightened times have given her an opportunity to reinvent herself as an onscreen adventuress. Following on from recent gun-totting escapades with Bruce Willis in REDand Nicolas Cage in National Treasure: Book of Secrets, she was delighted to sign on as a retired Nazi-hunting Mossad agent for spanking new thriller The Debt.
"This is my kind of movie," she says. "I love films that absolutely entertain but that are intelligent. The perfect movie is a good balance of those two elements. I like art films. But in the end, when I'm at a cinema and I'm choosing what to see, I'll almost always go for something a little more escapist." She's only sorry that she missed out on Krav Maga Israeli self-defence training. That duty fell to Jessica Chastain, the bright young star from Terence Malick's The Tree of Life, who plays Mirren's younger self in flashback. Still, at least the senior artist got to wield a .50 calibre machine gun.
“I am quite a physical person,” says Mirren. “So I love doing action stuff. The great thing about action is that you don’t have to act. The action takes care of the acting. And ibuprofen takes care of the bruises.”
She's worked steadily onscreen since her 20s, when a string of respected titles including Robert Altman's The Long Goodbyeand Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man!brought her international acclaim. Writing in 1985, the New Yorker critic Pauline Kael seemed to catch Mirren perfectly with the claim that ". . . probably no other actress can let you know as fast and economically as she can that she's playing a distinguished and important woman". Lesser commentators were captivated by her supposed "haughtiness".
“Oh, I’m so not haughty,” she says. “It’s my nose, you know. When you’ve got a big nose, they have to call you something or other. When you’ve got a little pert nose you’re never called haughty even if you are a very haughty person.” She has also married into movies; she and director Taylor Hackford (“an absolute pet”) were hitched in 1997 and have never looked back. The movieverse has been kind but, she says, it’s far from perfect.
"The film industry – not necessarily Hollywood – is constantly finding an audience they'd completely forgotten about. For a very long time, believe it or not, they forgot all about teenagers. It took The Breakfast Clubfor them to realise teenagers like to go to the movies too. And then they rediscovered children. And then they remembered that women like to go to movies, so the chick flick came along. I hope what's happening now means that they'll start making films that will appeal to people over the age of 30. I have to say, with The Debt,it has that younger cast and thriller elements so it has enormous appeal for younger audiences. But it's also smart enough for grown ups."
Is it still exciting, we wonder, to head off to work when you have every award in the known universe sitting at home on the mantelpiece? “Oh yes,” she says. “Awards are lovely. It’s a great affirmation to get up there and say ‘thank you very much’. But the real prizes you win are interior. The biggest achievement always is getting past your own insecurity and getting past thoughts like ‘Oh f**k, you blew that one’ or ‘Oh, that’s crap Helen, you’ve got to do better than that’. The real victories come from conquering your own sense of insufficiency, no matter how nice the award is.”
But you don’t get to wear a nice frock for conquering one’s own sense of insufficiency. “That’s true,” says Mirren. “It doesn’t do to underestimate a nice frock. Frocks have been one of the great pleasures of my career and my life.”
Helen Mirren: three star turns
The Long Good Friday (dir. John Mackenzie, 1980)
A heady subterreanean Molotov cocktail of old school East-End villains, American Mafiosi, bent coppers and IRA gun-runners form the backdrop of this classic crime thriller.
But Helen Mirren’s breakthrough role as a classy London gangster’s moll was not on the pages of the original screenplay. By her account, she became “a real thorn in the side of our director in trying to flesh her out”. Her co-star Bob Hoskins made sure she got her way.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife Her Lover (dir. Peter Greenaway, 1989) Jean-Paul Gaultier designed the frocks, Michael Nyman wrote the music and Greenaway laid on the ludicrously sumptuous visuals for this twisted tale of force-feeding, tyranny and nudity in a meat truck.
Mirren has never shied away from explicit material. Mrskin.com, which chronicles fleshier onscreen moments in mainstream movies, has 16 listings for the two-time Tony-winner; she boasts a top four-star rating in the Nudity Hall of Fame.
The Queen (dir. Stephen Frears 2006)
Mirren's played Elizabeth I and Queen Charlotte ( The Madness of King George) in her time, but it was her turn as the reigning British monarch that she won an Academy Award. She was shortlisted for Best Actress again in 2009 for her role as Leo Tolstoy's wife in The Last Station.
She's been in the running for Best Supporting Actress twice for The Madness of King George(1994) and Gosford Park(2001). She's won Best Actress at Cannes twice, four BAFTAs, three Screen Actors' Guild Awards and four Emmys.