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.

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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.

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