Dame Helen Mirren: why she believes women are still judged by their looks
Her acclaimed career has without a doubt proved Michael Parkinson wrong… With her latest movie out this month, Dame Helen Mirren talks about her infamous interview with the British talk show host, her latest projects and a stellar career.
At 71, Dame Helen Mirren has not lost an ounce of her reputation as a woman of strength and substance. Just recently the world was reminded of her dignity and ability to hold her own when the now infamously sexist 1975 interview she did with Michael Parkinson emerged online for everyone to see.
During the awkward interview veteran broadcaster Michael told the young Helen that she was “in quotes, a serious actress”.
“In quotes?” asked Helen, trying to protest in the most graceful way possible. “What do you mean in quotes? How dare you.”
“Serious actress,” he explained,
“as opposed to an unserious actress.”
She visibly winced, but kept on listening.
“Do you find it to be fact that what could be best described as your equipment,” he continued, “hinders you in that pursuit [of being considered a serious actress]?”
Unable to let him off the hook, Helen said, “I’d like you to explain what you mean by my equipment in greater detail.”
“Your physical attributes,” said the talk show host.
“You mean my fingers?” countered the actress.
Once he finally spat out the word “figure”, she asked him, “Because serious actresses can’t have big bosoms, is that what you mean?”
“I think it might detract from the performance,” Michael hedged, “if you know what I mean.”
“I can’t say that would necessarily be true. I mean what a crummy performance if people are obsessed with the size of your bosom over anything else. I would hope that the performance and the play and the living relationship between all the people on the stage and all the people in the audience would overcome such… boring questions, really.”
Nearly 42 years later, and with more than 90 films under her belt, Helen brings a fierce intelligence to her work, which earned her an Oscar for The Queen and three BAFTAs for the enduring legacy of her role as DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect. And she says women are still being objectified in the way she was during the Parkinson interview.
“We’re constantly being judged by
our looks in ways that don’t apply to men,” she says. “When I was younger, the aesthetic model for British girls was Twiggy, and I suffered because I was never stick thin like that.
“Women are constantly being subjected to the pressure and stress of needing to conform to a particular physical type. That’s why I’ve said that we need to thank Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez for having partially liberated us from that thinking,” she adds.
At the time of the Michael Parkinson interview, Helen was already an accomplished stage actress in Britain. She was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company beginning to branch out into occasional television roles and was gearing up to play Lady Macbeth. As such, she was invited to appear on the talk show to chat about her on-the-rise career. That is what she probably thought she was being invited to discuss. Instead, the host welcomed her to the stage after introducing her as “a sex queen”.
In 2011 she told The Telegraph it was the first talk show she’d ever done.
“I was terrified. I watched it and I actually thought, ‘Bloody hell! I did really well.’ I was so young and inexperienced. And he was such a f------ sexist old fart. He was. He denies it to this day that it was sexist, but of course he was.”
And just a few weeks ago 81-yearold Michael still insisted on laughing the whole thing off, telling Event magazine, “Okay, maybe I was a bit over-reactive to Ms Mirren,” he said. “On the other hand, she presented a provocative figure as she walked down the stairs carrying a feather boa, half-dressed as I recall, with love and hate tattooed onto her knuckles. I mean, we didn’t like each other.”
He added, “I don’t regard what happened as being anything other than good television.”
In person, Helen is as vibrant and charismatic as ever. Her eyes project both an intensity and a devilish sensibility and you have the feeling that she’s ready to make a sharp comment if given half the chance.
“The hard part for me is to hold back from saying what I think, what I believe,” she says. “The trouble is that if you say something in public today, and you’re in my position, often your words are taken out of context and spread all over the world immediately. I have to be careful because whatever I say – even if I say something as a joke – can wind up as headlines on the internet and you can never take your comments back.”
She combines her savvy approach to media with an innate ability to choose roles for herself that have kept her interesting, and interested in her career.
“I learnt a long time ago that you need to play very different roles in order to avoid being confined to any one category or type of character. This is what has helped me to continue finding interesting work over the past 20 years or so. I wasn’t really expecting to be able to work so much and I’m still very excited by the kinds of characters I’ve been getting to play.
“When it comes to choosing the next role, I usually try to find something opposite to what I’ve just played,” she continues. “And over the years, I’ve always been inclined towards taking risks and playing extravagant or extreme characters. Playing in a film like Red (an action comedy), for example. As an actor it’s important to shake the tree a little.”
Her role as Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect helped to raise her profile in Hollywood but she says there was more to it than that.
“I’m sure it helped, but you can never know, really. I honestly can’t explain why things have worked out so well. There is certainly an element of luck in all this, but I also believe it was the kinds of roles I chose to play which has also helped me.”
Helen’s new project, Collateral Beauty, sees her co-star opposite Will Smith in a film that he describes as a
I’m still excited by the kinds of characters I’ve been getting to play.”
cross between It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz. She plays one of several intriguing characters – the plot contains too many spoilers to reveal more – who advise Smith’s downtrodden New York businessman in an effort to restore his faith in life. The cast also includes Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, Naomie Harris and Michael Peña.
“It’s a wonderful film with some dark themes, but told in a very optimistic and inspired way,” Helen says. “Will Smith is the star and he’s very good in it. The story shows us how something beautiful can still happen even after ugly events.”
Her previous film, Eye in the Sky, saw her play a senior military officer, proving yet again that her career is an example of how there is no reason women shouldn’t be able to find good roles at any age.
“I play a military colonel who is a woman in charge of a very important mission. She’s presented as someone who is just as capable of making important military decisions as a man – and also capable of being just as unscrupulous in doing so,” she says.
“I think what’s responsible for giving women more opportunities in Hollywood is that we’re seeing more women in the real world who are occupying important positions, running companies and being influential in many ways.
“Films are going to keep reflecting the way women’s roles in society are changing and gaining in importance. There’s more acceptance of women now in different roles and we need to keep telling more stories about women and where women can occupy significant parts.”
Helen, who has spent the past 31 years with her husband, director Taylor Hackford (they married in 1997), says she is enjoying herself in Hollywood. “I’m having a lot of fun getting to do all kinds of movies. I love working in movies, I love going to movies, and I enjoy being able to be part of both big and small films, working on action movies or doing very serious dramas. I’m open to all kinds of stories and I hope to keep having opportunities to work with wonderful actors and directors.”
But the actress, who started out in theatre after seeing a performance of Hamlet as 15-year-old, has not forgotten her love of the stage.
“I was very idealistic and I had very specific ideas about acting and performance that fortunately dissipated with age. But the motivation was always the same: telling stories as a way of inspiring an audience,” she says.
“I was also ambitious and I was determined to gain recognition. I realised that if you want to have a good career you need to find projects where people are going to remember your name and that there needs to be something striking or compelling about the nature of your role.”
Helen tries to go back to the stage every three or four years.
“Theatre will always be important to me. It probably stems from a sense of guilt. In Britain, there is still this idea that a real actor needs to do theatre.”
And despite winning an Oscar for The Queen, Helen says she still feels that no performance is ever perfect.
“There’s always insecurity and doubt in this profession. It’s inevitable. In many cases, those projects where I feel I’ve done my best work have not necessarily been the most successful,” she says.
“You can never predict which films are going to turn out well or those where everything goes wrong. Every film and every performance you give is subject to interpretation, and no performance is ever perfect. So that keeps you on edge and it inspires you to keep pushing yourself.”
I was ambitious and I was determined to gain recognition.”
Helen and her husband Taylor Hackford in November 2016. They married in 1997, but have been together for 31 years.
ABOVE FROM LEFT: Helen with Will Smith in her latest film Collateral Beauty (in cinemas from January 12). In regal pose in The Queen, for which she won an Oscar. The 2015 movie Eye in the Sky saw Helen playing a military colonel.