By Frank Barron
You certainly can’t type-cast Helen Mirren. On the big screen she’s currently a kick-butt action star in Red 2, and the menacing voice of the college dean in Monsters University. And for her television work, Mirren just got an Emmy nomination for Lead Actress Movie/Miniseries for playing the defense attorney opposite Al Pacino in Phil Spector for HBO. Helen says meeting and studying Spector’s real lawyer, Linda Kenney Baden, was “incredibly invaluable,” and the story of the murder trial is seen through her eyes. “It’s amazing to have someone available to you who’s lived those experiences, who knew the absolute intimate details of that world. Understanding her is very important.”
An Oscar-winner for playing Elizabeth II in the 2006 movie The Queen, officially, Helen Mirren is Dame Helen, having received her damehood from the real Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2003. But she reports, “I’ve never been there socially.”
Mirren, who will turn 68 this week on July 26, has played other Royals with great success, having received her first Oscar nomination for playing Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George, and won one of her four Emmys for playing the title role in HBO’s Elizabeth I. “I loved getting into that character,” notes Mirren. Another of her favorite roles was playing a housekeeper to British aristocrats in Gosford Park, which earned Mirren her second Oscar nomination. After winning for The Queen, her fourth Oscar nomination came for The Last Station, playing Tolstoy’s wife. She also played Alfred Hitchcock’s wife in last year’s film Hitchcock, opposite Anthony Hopkins.
She can boast of four Emmy Awards (out of 10 nominations). Two trophies are for playing the unrelenting Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison in the acclaimed Prime Suspect Masterpiece Theatre series on PBS. The other wins were for The Passion of Ayn Rand, and playing the title queen in HBO’s Elizabeth I.
She says she evaluates all her roles in much the same way. “When I receive a script, I always read the last page first to see if my character is on the last page. If it is, I know it’s probably a good role,” she reveals with a sly smile. And she’s picked a few big hits that way, from National Treasure: Book of Secrets to Calendar Girls.
Among the characters she has enjoyed playing most is Jane Tennison, “although I am not like her at all,” she says about the pushy, tough, Prime Suspect police detective she embodied for seven years.
Giving insight to her real life personality, Mirren admits, “There have been moments in my life when I haven’t paid attention to my family in the way that maybe I should have done, because I was opening a play or I was off filming somewhere.”
Born in Chiswick, England, Mirren started acting at age 18 playing Cleopatra in a youth production in London. But her actual film career started in 1969, playing opposite James Mason in Age of Consent, and then a breakout role in 1980 with The Long Good Friday opposite Bob Hoskins.
Mirren is married to an American director, Taylor Hackford, a Santa Barbara native and USC graduate, who is also president of the Directors Guild of America. They met when he was directing her in White Nights. They enjoy working together again on Love Ranch, about the first legal brothel in Nevada with Helen playing the madam.
She says she never interferes with Hackford’s work while he’s behind the cameras. In fact, she points out, “I’ve always been hands off in allowing writers and directors to have their own vision. I never want them to feel they have to obey some sort of format. I am allowed to have a great influence on the directors I work with, but ultimately, it’s their vision.”
The cool and honest star says she doesn’t think she’s “the sort of person who is really a celebrity. I’m not the kind who goes to all those Hollywood premieres.” But she is one of the premier actors who has worked steadily, choosing her own scripts, be they film or television, or for the stage. “I’ve played older parts and I’ve played younger parts. I’ve been blessed to play marvelous roles of any age.”
Her latest Emmy nomination is not taken for granted. “To be appreciated in America is important to me,” Mirren admits. “American television, in general I feel, has been consistently wonderful. A lot of the shows are really extraordinarily good.”