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Helen Mirren, ‘The Queen’

Lead actress contender

Helen Mirren’s perf as Elizabeth II in “The Queen” is so unexpectedly moving that it had a lot of people (including, in the film, Prime Minister Tony Blair) rethinking the role of a monarchy’s usefulness. After all, if the idea of royalty is an anachronism in the democratic world, why do we keep elevating Hollywood figures to imaginary thrones?

“It was just an idea at first,” Mirren says, “thought up by Andy Harries (exec producer on ‘Prime Suspect’ and producer of ‘The Queen’). There was no script. It all seemed precarious until Peter Morgan came up with a brilliant, witty, intelligent script that took a tiny part of society and made it universal.”

Working with director Stephen Frears for the first time proved more than an agreeable experience.

“Film is a tightrope,” she says. “It’s so technical. All that hardware, those tracks. It takes an incredibly adroit director to create an improvisational sense of freedom in that environment. With Stephen, it never felt controlled. Robert Altman is the only other director I’ve worked with who has that sense of freedom.”

All of which made for “an amazingly, terrifyingly easy shoot. Once I’d done all my homework and done all my thinking — and put on that wig, the last element — I felt totally comfortable, which is presumptuous, I know.”

Still, she was the queen, in a performance so deft that people on the set began to confuse her with the real thing. Particularly the extras.

After a long day’s shoot in cold and miserable Balmoral, she went out to thank them for their forbearance, and slipped and fell.

“They couldn’t deal with it,” she says. “They were so full of awe, seeing me as the queen, that they looked away. Some of them giggled.”

For all the careful attention to detail, one element of the performance finally convinced Mirren that she had nailed the role: her walk.

“That final scene outdoors in the garden with Blair captured it. Whenever I see my walk, I know. It’s a country woman’s walk. She has no vanity. It’s a kind of stomp. It marks her place on the earth.”

Favorite film of the past five years: “My husband’s film, ‘Ray.’ (Mirren is married to filmmaker Taylor Hackford). I fully enjoyed watching him whip that story into shape. Jamie Foxx was extraordinary.”

Actor who impressed you greatly after working together: “Katie Holmes in ‘Teaching Mrs. Tingle.’ Her youth, exuberance and energy; all the girls, actually, made me want to work more with young people. And Al Pacino. I never worked with him, but I watched him in my husband’s ‘The Devil’s Advocate.’ I was impressed with his great freedom.”

Next project: “I’m working on ‘Inkheart’ right now. It’s based on Cornelia Funke’s famous work, a fantastical fairyland story about the power of books and how its characters come to life.”

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