Great actors bring all of themselves to any role. In the case of Helen Mirren, that's a lot—decades of both wild living and sedate gardening, and a dizzyingly diverse career, from Shakespeare to soft porn, from itinerant avant-garde theatre to the BBC detective thriller she's still best known for, Prime Suspect. She has played the West End, Broadway, and L.A. Equity Waiver; she has starred in trash films and art films (and combinations of same), television serials, and Hollywood blockbusters.
In short she's had a career like no other, and she's still going strong. The relatively recent recognition by Mirren's peers with rafts of nominations and awards is for more than sheer longevity—it expresses genuinely awed admiration for the way she continues to paint each role with the deepening, maturing tones of her rich life and career experience.
You may not know consciously, for instance, that the woman who glides fleetly through Gosford Park as starchy housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (in a performance that's netted SAG Actor Award and Oscar nominations) has a small tattoo between her left thumb and forefinger. But if there seems to be something tamped down about Mrs. Wilson's severity, if there seems to be a sneakingly clued-in wit behind her condescension, it's because Mirren has absorbed Wilson, and vice versa, to the point that we're watching a character truly live before us in all her fascinating contradictions. That's no doubt why that coruscating social realist Robert Altman, who made Gosford Park, cast her—and why SAG and the Academy focused on her amid a veritable herd of heavyweight English actors.
Mirren, who was born Illyena Lydia Mironoff to Russian and Scottish parents in 1945, spoke to us recently from New York, where her acclaimed Broadway turn opposite Sir Ian McKellen in Strindberg's Dance of Death had closed last month. I asked her if she'd first come to Hollywood in the early '80s secretly harboring any of the typical dreams of fame and fortune.
Helen Mirren: I don't know about making my fortune; it was a little bit late in the day for that. I had very deliberately earlier in my career chosen a different path, so I realized that was probably extremely unlikely.
But certainly I came to L.A. to learn more about filmmaking and film acting from an American perspective. Unlike some English actors, I've always admired American actors. I think now the younger English actors are much more into, for want of a better word, the American approach to acting. And I'd always really admired that and wanted to learn it in a more direct way, by being in and amongst American actors. So I'd always had a bit of a secret sort of yearning to be in Los Angeles. And beware of what you want because you might get it: I was asked to do a film in Los Angeles, 2010, and I loved it. I was very, very happy working in a big American studio like that, a classic Hollywood studio—it was so exciting. Around about the same time, I met the man who was later to become my husband, Taylor Hackford. So then my fate was sealed—I was going to be spending a lot of time in L.A. because L.A. is his hometown.
Back Stage West: What is it specifically about the American approach vs. the English approach to acting?
Mirren: It's an ability to jump further in faster and not have a fear about that. I remember I didn't go to a lot of audition-type things where you have to read, but I did go to a few, and, sitting outside, some actors would be going through the lines of the scene, but instead of mumbling them—like English actors, who wouldn't even be looking at the script, they would pretend they were there for another reason—I was just amazed seeing these American actors going through their lines full out, like there was an audience of 500 watching them, just totally committed, going right in, totally in, immediately. American actors, especially for film and television, are expected to give the performance in the reading—and actually, the directors want to see it there and then, and then they buy that, like they're buying something off a shelf: "That I want, that's good, I want that, I'll buy that." Of course, there is a danger to that, which is that you do it all and then there's nothing left, you know? It's good to give yourself somewhere to go. English acting is not like that; there's a rehearsal process, and the reading is just, if you like, a sort of pencil sketch of what is to become an oil painting, and you've got a long way to go from that reading to the eventual performance. But there's a lot to be admired in that ability of American actors; American actors have taught me not to be afraid more than anyone.
BSW: So it has changed your approach to acting.
Mirren: Oh, hugely, hugely. And I get very short-tempered now with British actors who are sort of fussing around. I'm, "Get on with it! Do it! What have you got to lose? Just go there, do it."
BSW: There couldn't have been much time fussing around on Gosford Park, with a big cast like that for several weeks of shooting.
Mirren: On that film I was very proud of my fellow British actors, I have to say, because they gave themselves up to it absolutely wholeheartedly, and generously, without any egos at all. Of course, we all have egos—all actors have egos, there's no question about that—but they gave of themselves very selflessly, and with a lot of dedication.
BSW: I understand much of the cast was hanging about in character to essentially play "background" in the big scenes.
Mirren: Especially Alan Bates, who played the butler; he was there as an extra for weeks—in any other circumstances on any other film, he would be an extra. He was there constantly, not saying anything, standing in the background of shots that he wasn't featured in at all. Amazing commitment.
BSW: Did you have a similar experience?
Mirren: Oh, absolutely. Very often what you think of as your big scene is not your big scene at all—it's the dog's big scene or something, and you're just someone muttering away in the background.
BSW: I was curious to watch which actors played which class—whether there was some against-type casting there. Did you have your pick of upstairs or downstairs?
Mirren: No, it was a question of the roles and how Bob [Altman] saw you.
BSW: Yes, in looking back on your resumé, you haven't played a lot of toffs.
Mirren: Well, I did play the Queen of England, darling—can't get much more toffy than that.
BSW: Yes, but that's about it.
Mirren: Yeah, I think that's probably true, and I don't know whether that's my choice or other people's choice about me. I'm not a great lover of the class system in Britain, I'm not a great lover of the aristocracy in Britain, so it may be my own tastes that take me away from those sorts of roles.
BSW: You've said before that you don't choose roles, they choose you. But there are recurring themes and colors in your work over the years. Do you see recurring themes yourself, or do you prefer to be—as you once also said—a sort of female Alec Guinness, an actor who can change radically with every role?
Mirren: Yes, but, although Alec Guinness was a brilliant, extraordinary actor, I always wanted the change to be from within, as opposed to do with costumes and noses and wigs and stuff like that, and he was very much that—and brilliant at that. I wanted it to be more internalized than that, in my ideal scenario. For me it's not really the roles so much as the material. It's quite important to look back at your body of work and be able to say, Well, the material was right. Having said that, I've often chosen stuff just because it seemed like fun at the time. Something like Teaching Mrs. Tingle, for example, I did because it just seemed like a laugh, and Kevin Williamson was a wonderful person; I fell in love with him. It was a very benign Hollywood experience.
BSW: Yes, I think the first film I saw you in was The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu.
Mirren: Oh, that! You know, I've never seen that. I'd love to see that.
BSW: I don't think it holds up.
Mirren: I'm sure it doesn't—I'm sure it's an embarrassment. It didn't hold up when it was made.
BSW: Going back further, I wanted to ask about why you left your burgeoning career with the Royal Shakespeare Company and in films in the early 1970s to tour the world doing theatre with director Peter Brook—and what you learned from that.
Mirren: I did it because I wanted to become a better actor. At that point if I was going to pursue the Hollywood stardom route, that would have been the time to come to Hollywood, because I had quite a successful career in Britain, and I was getting a name for myself. I chose to go a different route at that point.
I was aware of Peter Brook's work, and I'd been a great admirer; that was the time he was doing Marat/Sade, work that was so revolutionary and extraordinary and entertaining—pure theatre. There was no one else out there like him. So I very much wanted to work with him and learn from him. I was with the group for one year, and we worked in Africa, and then we worked in America, in Minnesota on an American Indian reservation with a wonderful theatre group, and then we worked with El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista and also with American Theatre of the Deaf. In that era, American theatre was pretty extraordinary—there were some amazing theatre groups that were exploding out. All 'round, it was an extraordinary learning time of my life.
What I learned from that experience was to do with acting, but it's the kind of learning experience that takes a long time to kind of percolate through, and as you travel through life, you think, Oh, that's what that was about, now I understand. It wasn't something that you walk away from with a few quick, easy tricks that you've learned. It was much more to do with understanding yourself as a person, and, it seemed at the time, constantly confronting your failures as an actor and as a person. It wasn't a particularly comfortable experience. But it was wonderful, and in retrospect it was very righteous.
BSW: Would that be your advice for young actors—to set aside the Hollywood game and travel the world with an avant-garde theatre troupe?
Mirren: My advice is just to do as much theatre as you possibly can. Because it's the thing that will give you longevity. I know some people become an actor the way some people become divers off a high board—it's a wonderful, glorious thing, and it lasts about five years. But if you actually do want to be an actor for the whole of your life, you know, life is long. It's a long journey to go on, and you should be aware of that and prepare for that. As I say, if you think, I'll give it five years while I'm young and gorgeous, and maybe it'll work, and maybe it won't, and then I'll give it up—that's another thing. But if you do have that flame burning inside you, and you're dedicated in that way, then do as much theatre as you possibly can.
BSW: Of course, in London, you can do a lot of theatre and do a lot of film and TV without leaving town.
Mirren: Yeah, the funny thing is, you work a lot more in Britain. You work for less money and less perks, and less publicists and managers and lawyers—you don't have any of that stuff—but you work more, because you can move among theatre, television, and film with much more ease in England. And the television is often of a really, really high standard. You work more, and it's better for you as an actor.
BSW: Working is the best sort of training, anyway. Indeed I've read that you had no formal training whatever, is that right?
Mirren: No, I didn't.
BSW: You just worked onstage a lot.
Mirren: Of course. You know, drama school can't compare with that.
BSW: They haven't made you a dame yet, have they?
Mirren: No—and I don't think they ever will.
BSW: No, why not?
Mirren: I'm not too sure dames are allowed to be tattooed—unless you've got "God Save the Queen" tattooed across your butt. BSW