The char­ac­ters He­len Mir­ren plays have one thing in com­mon: you wouldn’t mess with them. No, sir. And her lat­est may be the most for­mi­da­ble yet

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS He­len O’HARA por­traits MATTHEW Brookes

Dame Of Drones: He­len Mir­ren star­ring in a thriller about au­to­mated war­fare means we can fi­nally make that joke, too.

You’ll search long and hard to find a ma­jor act­ing award in the English-speak­ing world that He­len Mir­ren has not won, whether for film (The Queen bagged her the Os­car, BAFTA and Golden Globe), TV (she ruled the Em­mys with Prime Sus­pect and El­iz­a­beth I) or the­atre (The Au­di­ence saw her re­ceive Tony and Olivier awards). But the Es­sex girl who be­came the en­ter­tain­ment world’s go-to monarch has in­ter­ests that range far be­yond the sen­si­ble shoes of El­iz­a­beth II or Prime Sus­pect’s Jane Tennison. She’s played as­sas­sins (RED, Shad­ow­boxer), sor­cerors (Ex­cal­ibur, The Tem­pest) and cold-blooded ma­nip­u­la­tors (The Long Good Fri­day, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover), and vir­tu­ally ev­ery ma­jor Shake­spearean hero­ine on stage. You don’t have to look too hard though to find a com­mon thread. Her char­ac­ters tend to be badass.

Which, if we’re hon­est, makes the prospect of meet­ing her rather in­tim­i­dat­ing (and Em­pire doesn’t scare easy). It’s with freshly pol­ished shoes and care­fully ironed cloth­ing that we ap­proach the quiet pro­duc­tion of­fice in New York’s Soho where Mir­ren is film­ing pub­lic­ity ma­te­rial for her lat­est film, Eye In The Sky. It’s the ac­count of a mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion in Nairobi, Kenya, to cap­ture dan­ger­ous Al-shabaab mil­i­tants. Colonel Katherine Powell (Mir­ren) is lead­ing the op­er­a­tion from Eng­land, com­mand­ing a US drone of­fi­cer (Aaron Paul) and Kenyan ground troops work­ing with spe­cial op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer Jama Farah (Cap­tain Phillips’ Barkhad Abdi). But Powell must also an­swer to higher, po­lit­i­cal au­thor­i­ties, via her West­min­ster li­ai­son (Alan Rick­man), when the mis­sion changes from ‘cap­ture’ to ‘kill’.

As we’re shep­herded in­side a small glass room, Mir­ren is de­bat­ing Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens with her Eye In The Sky di­rec­tor, Gavin Hood. As it turns out, we didn’t need to be ner­vous. Mir­ren proves a funny and elo­quent in­ter­view, pok­ing fun at her own rep­u­ta­tion as a grande dame — es­pe­cially with talk of her need for a ‘tro­phy li­brary’…

In Eye In The Sky you spend al­most the en­tire movie in a dark­ened room, which must make for an odd shoot.

Yes, I was in a real con­crete bunker for two or three weeks, com­pletely sep­a­rate from ev­ery­one else. Then Aaron and the pi­lots came in; then the politi­cians. I was play­ing ba­si­cally with Gavin say­ing ev­ery­one else’s lines. I never got to work with Alan ; I was long gone when he ar­rived. It was a great pity.

What was it about this char­ac­ter that drew you in?

It wasn’t re­ally the char­ac­ter. Yes, I’d never played a mil­i­tary com­man­der be­fore; that was in­ter­est­ing. But the movie is not about Katherine at all; it’s about the de­ci­sion she has to make. It was the story that I thought was fan­tas­tic. I didn’t re­ally mind where I was in the film; I just wanted to be a part of it.

It raises some fas­ci­nat­ing moral ques­tions about what dam­age we can ac­cept to pre­vent greater harm.

I would love there to be a poll at the end, or an au­di­ence dis­cus­sion of who is right and who is wrong. Films like ab­so­lutes: hap­pily ever af­ter, the good guy kills the bad guy… Or nowa­days the good woman kills the bad woman. But this is not a film about ab­so­lutes at all. Katherine is com­pletely in the right and com­pletely in the wrong at the same time.

You were just talk­ing about Star Wars, and that’s a good ex­am­ple of those ab­so­lutes.

Yes, although at least in this last one you felt sym­pa­thy for the boy played by Adam Driver. He felt like a real psy­cho­log­i­cal char­ac­ter rather than a car­toon.

You’re also ap­pear­ing as Hedda Hop­per in Trumbo at the mo­ment. She was much less mo­rally torn. How much did you know about her?

At some point in the past I be­came fas­ci­nated by her. Hedda called her home ‘The House That Fear Built’ ; she was an ex­tra­or­di­nary char­ac­ter. It’s in­ter­est­ing to read of pow­er­ful women in that era be­cause they were pretty rare. What I didn’t know was that Trumbo and a lot of those guys were sent to prison, and I didn’t know the de­tails of how they came back, which is the most in­ter­est­ing part of the story.

There’s an echo be­tween the char­ac­ters of Hop­per and Colonel Powell, in that they’re both very sure of their own right­ness.

That’s true. Hedda had bet­ter cos­tumes… or maybe Eye In The Sky’s cam­ou­flage is bet­ter in the sense that it would lit­er­ally take me five min­utes to get ready. No make-up, no hair: the long­est thing was ty­ing up the boots. As Hedda, it took half an hour just to do my eye­brows. And the wig and the hat and the dress and ev­ery­thing…

And, in­ter­est­ingly, Tilda Swin­ton is also play­ing Hedda — or at least, two ver­sions of her — in Hail, Cae­sar!…

Yes, me and Tilda! I love it. I’m in very hon­oured com­pany.

But do you ever feel a lit­tle ter­ri­to­rial see­ing some­one else take on a role you’ve played?

Oh, no. With the clas­si­cal roles, it’s a bit like be­ing the run­ner with the Olympic torch. You have your mo­ment and then you pass it on, and the torch goes on and on. I mean, Hedda Hop­per is not one of the clas­sics, though she could be rather Shake­spearean.

You once com­pared the blood and spec­ta­cle of Shake­speare to Tarantino. Are you a Tarantino fan?

I’m a huge fan. His films are po­etic, al­most; he uses words in an in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful way. I mean, I nearly fainted in The Hate­ful Eight, but I didn’t want to leave! The vi­o­lence just got to me; I’m quite sus­cep­ti­ble to vi­o­lence. I com­pletely fainted in Bon­nie And Clyde and had to be car­ried out. This time I felt my­self go­ing, so I left and was sort of hov­er­ing out­side, look­ing in to see if it was safe to re­turn. But Tarantino gives women won­der­ful roles. Isn’t Jen­nifer Ja­son Leigh fan­tas­tic? The char­ac­ter is un­remit­ting: no fem­i­nin­ity, just spite! Ac­tu­ally I’d love to see Tarantino di­rect a Shake­speare play.

That would be in­ter­est­ing — though he might strug­gle to find great, bloody fe­male roles there. Maybe he could change the gen­der; your Pros­pera in The Tem­pest ac­tu­ally reads bet­ter than most Pros­peros.

I have to say I agree. There’s so lit­tle of the text you have to change — only a bit in the back­story and one scene in the be­gin­ning. I some­times won­der if women had been al­lowed on stage in those days, if Shake­speare wouldn’t

have writ­ten it for a woman. With a man, Pros­pero’s re­la­tion­ship with Mi­randa be­comes bul­ly­ing and pa­tri­ar­chal, and it’s very dif­fer­ent with a woman.

You’ve played a few roles that were orig­i­nally male. That, and the John Giel­gud role in the Arthur re­make...

I think this role (Powell) was orig­i­nally writ­ten for a man too. It’s what I’ve been say­ing for 30 years. There’s no prob­lem with roles for women; just take a role for a man and give it a woman’s name. Done! It was read­ing the script of Ridley Scott’s Alien — which I had the priv­i­lege of do­ing, though un­for­tu­nately I didn’t get a role in it — that made me re­alise it. All of the char­ac­ters had names like “Ri­p­ley”. There was no, “a lean, 32 year-old woman who doesn’t re­alise how at­trac­tive she is” — there was ab­so­lutely none of that! You had no idea who was a man and who was a woman. That was a rev­e­la­tion.

Within a cou­ple of years of read­ing Alien you were mak­ing The Long Good Fri­day, where you had to bat­tle to make Vic­to­ria in­ter­est­ing — which she was, in the end.

Yes, in the end. Not quite as in­ter­est­ing as she could have been, but a lot more than she would have been if I hadn’t been a pain in the arse. That role came to me, and I said, “I’d love to do it but I think the fe­male char­ac­ter needs work and here are my ideas.” Then I went on hol­i­day and the script changed in other ar­eas, but ab­so­lutely noth­ing had been done to her. Luck­ily, I was naive enough to think that you could just work it through — which we did. The great thing was Bob Hoskins who was won­der­fully sup­port­ive. If he’d been against it, it would have been hope­less. We im­pro­vised, we wrote scenes and moved it around. And it was Bob’s movie, so it was gen­er­ous and re­ally de­cent of him.

With a lot of your film roles dur­ing the ’80s you’ve talked about push­ing to make them more sub­stan­tial. How much did you have to change a role like Georgina in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover?

Oh, I didn’t have to push on that at all. In the way of Tarantino, the script was beau­ti­ful, it was ver­bal. Green­away is a great artist, so I didn’t want to mess with a word. I mean, Barry O’keefe, who wrote The Long Good Fri­day, is a won­der­ful writer too. He’d just re­ally short-changed the fe­male char­ac­ter.

Tell us about Ex­cal­ibur. You have John Boor­man di­rect­ing, all this op­er­atic mad­ness on screen, and many fan­tas­tic ac­tors ap­pear­ing in early film roles — how was that to make?

It was in­cred­i­ble, though we were all so ig­no­rant. Poor John! Me, Liam (Nee­son), Gabriel Byrne: none of us knew any­thing about film­mak­ing and he was very pa­tient with us. And to be on a set and hav­ing knights in ar­mour rid­ing by was won­der­ful. The bat­tle scenes were hi­lar­i­ous. John didn’t have many ex­tras, and they were all in ar­mour so you couldn’t see who was who. So he set the cam­era quite high, and any­one who died dropped out of shot. Then, all through the bat­tle scenes he was scream­ing at them, “Run round!” So all these guys were wrig­gling along on their hands and knees, in full ar­mour, then stand­ing up out of shot, get­ting another sword and com­ing back in again.

De­spite those films it took Prime Sus­pect to truly es­tab­lish you. That seemed to be a part of the mo­ment when the cur­rent TV golden age be­gan.

There had been a re­ally bril­liant piece be­fore Prime Sus­pect called Edge Of Dark­ness , so I would give credit to that as well. But Jane Tennison was rev­o­lu­tion­ary. The pre­vail­ing at­ti­tude was that a woman couldn’t lead a TV show. There had been Juliet Bravo, but that was more like a soap opera. They weren’t at all sure it would work. So they said, “We’ll do one se­ries, and if it works we’ll do two more.”

And it turned out rather well.

It did, and that’s re­ally where I learnt how to act on film, how films are made. I wanted each writer and di­rec­tor to make it their own, so they’d feel pas­sion­ate about it. I found my­self hang­ing around the cam­era lis­ten­ing to how the shot was be­ing set up and dis­cus­sions about how it would cut.

Would you like to di­rect?

I did! I di­rected a half-hour film for Show­time tele­vi­sion called Happy Birth­day . In fact, I was watch­ing Snow­piercer the other day and I re­alised it had the same story as my lit­tle movie! My film was a satire set in an over­crowded, hor­ri­ble city where one girl — I changed the char­ac­ter from a white male to a black fe­male; that was my artis­tic re­quire­ment — fights her way to the top. I have to say that I was ac­tu­ally quite good at it and I re­ally en­joyed it. But I’m a good ac­tress, as op­posed to an okay di­rec­tor. I didn’t feel I needed to do it just to have the con­trol,

which I think a lot of ac­tors do. But it did trans­form my un­der­stand­ing. Even liv­ing with my hus­band you don’t re­ally know what a di­rec­tor has to deal with un­til you’ve ex­pe­ri­enced it. It’s given me im­mense pa­tience with my di­rec­tors, and now I’m so on their side.

What do you watch when you’re not work­ing?

I watch a lot of an­i­ma­tion. There was a won­der­ful graphic film, Waltz With Bashir, that I thought was spec­tac­u­lar. I think with the com­ing of Pixar, an­i­mated films are so phys­i­cally beau­ti­ful to watch, and very funny, very sub­tle.

Is that why you did Mon­sters Univer­sity?

Yes, ac­tu­ally. And then I also watch for­eign movies. Re­cently I saw a won­der­ful Hun­gar­ian film called Aferim! , which I loved.

What made you take on an ac­tion movie like RED?

I’d never done any­thing like that be­fore, and I was ter­ri­fied. Work­ing with huge movie stars, they’re a thing unto them­selves. Bruce was un­be­liev­ably gen­er­ous and sweet, but it was a form of film act­ing I felt very ig­no­rant about. When it’s taken three hours to set up a shot, to be com­pletely on point is re­ally dif­fi­cult — and that’s what these guys do, and they do it with ease. It was a hoot to make, but also chal­leng­ing.

Was the ex­pe­ri­ence sim­i­lar on Na­tional Trea­sure: Book Of Se­crets?

Yes, very much so. I was ex­cluded from that sort of ac­tion for most of my life and I was so thrilled when fi­nally I was asked to do some­thing like that. Although the ex­tra­or­di­nary thing about Na­tional Trea­sure and those enor­mous movies is that they have these big set-pieces but they don’t have the script to go with them. The script is writ­ten to work with the set. So ev­ery morn­ing we’d have these long dis­cus­sions, and there were enor­mous, end­less rewrites. It was fas­ci­nat­ing. I mean, all films are dif­fer­ent and I’m not de­valu­ing one against the other, be­cause hon­estly I love do­ing big ac­tion movies. That kind of movie is pop­corn en­ter­tain­ment — fan­tas­tic, then we go home and don’t think about it. Eye In The Sky is the ex­act op­po­site.

Ap­par­ently you were once named Na­tur­ist Of The Year. Is that true?

I was! Not that I’ve ever been to a na­tur­ist camp in my life, ever, in­ci­den­tally. But I had said once that I en­joy be­ing on nud­ist beaches if they hap­pen to come my way, so to speak. There is some­thing lib­er­at­ing and un­sex­ual about be­ing naked with other naked hu­man be­ings. Na­tur­ists are re­lent­lessly mocked, but I think they may have a point.

I can’t imag­ine there are many Os­car-win­ners who have that par­tic­u­lar dou­ble ac­co­lade.

Un­for­tu­nately I don’t have an ac­tual lit­tle fig­ure of a naked per­son. Or ac­tu­ally I do — I have the SAG award, and that’s a naked per­son.

Where do you keep your awards? In a tro­phy cabi­net?

(Dead­pan) I was think­ing of build­ing a wing. You know the way pres­i­dents have their li­braries? A li­brary with all my awards, and all my ac­cep­tance speeches run­ning con­stantly, so when you walk in you hear me say­ing, “Thank you,” in dif­fer­ent ways…

EYE In THE Sky is out on April 8 And will be re­viewed in the next is­sue.

Fac­ing a moral quandary as Eye In The Sky’s Colonel Katherine Powell.

as in­fa­mous gos­sip­mon­gerer Hedda Hop­per in Trumbo. re­tired and ex­tremely dan­ger­ous Vic­to­ria in

2010’s RED. Turn­ing pros­pero into pros­pera in The Tem­pest (2010).

With Ed­die Con­stan­tine and Bob Hoskins in 1980’s The Long Good Fri­day. Cast­ing a spell as Ex­cal­ibur’s Morgana in 1981.

rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing TV de­tec­tive drama with Prime Sus­pect, which en­joyed seven awards

hoard­ing sea­sons.

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