THE EMPIRE INTERVIEW: HELEN MIRREN
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
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