Helen Mirren’s Walk of Fame star ceremony on Hollywood today will be one of the rare instances in which she stoops to conquer. She’s played numerous monarchs in her celebrated career, beginning with Cleopatra as a teenager in “Antony and Cleopatra” at Britain’s National Youth Theater; Queen Charlotte in 1994’s “The Madness of King George” (Oscar nominee); and Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’ 2006, “The Queen,” which won her an Academy Award and virtually every other film honor out there. As if to keep it in the family, she was invested as Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2003.
The grand manner, of course, is not exactly what she’s about. In person, she’s low-key, smart, agreeable, self-possessed, a dame with both capital and lower case “d.” And droll. About reaching 67, she says, “A lot of the crap drops away. A lot of other things drop away too.”
More characteristic of her career is the variety of roles — more than 118 spread among stage, TV and the movies. In some, she’s treaded water in material that hasn’t made good use of her. But given the chance, she’s a tough act to follow.
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“She goes for life,” says actor Jeremy Irons, who worked with her in the 2005 TV miniseries, “Elizabeth I.” “She’s the complete antithesis of the vapid.”
A sensual frankness characterized Mirren through most of her career, in which, former New Yorker drama critic John Lahr tells Variety, “She was the definitive actress of her time for anyone who came of age in London in the ’60s and early ’70s. She’s always exuded a very particular power and otherness.”
“I don’t look for roles,” she says via phone from southern Italy. “They find me. Every role changes you in a certain way. They afford you the ability to develop. They challenge you out of your comfort zone.”
Variety is the symptom of a career characterized by a hungry restlessness. She was a leading player at the Royal Shakespeare Company during a period considered by some as the greatest in its history when she decided to go to Paris to join Peter Brook’s Intl. Center for Theater Research.
Brook was a legendary theater director of the century and a radical theorist who used theater to examine the underpinnings of culture and society. It was almost a religious calling to be part of the communal ICTR. Mirren toured Africa and the U.S. in “The Conference of the Birds” before she decided to pack it in.
“I was always looking for something different so that I could learn and develop,” she says. “I wanted to know more about films. I didn’t want to be an experimental actress all my life. I wanted to try the movies, with their ranges of style and technique.”
Aside from roles in “Cal,” “Excalibur,” “Caligula” and “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover,” you’d have to be a devout cineaste to have known much about Mirren over the next 15 years or so, and virtually clairvoyant to predict what she’d become. But an earlier 1969 film, Michael Powell’s “Age of Consent,” offers a clue. In it, she plays a teen muse to a disenchanted painter (James Mason) who relocates to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in search of inspiration. Mirren is a voluptuous, frolicsome homegrown wild child, as unmindful of her ripe sexuality as a fawn is of its spots. But there’s a pause in her teen playfulness when she sits still and looks off to an abstract distant point, as if gripped with piercing Chekovian melancholy.
This is as telling an expression as anything that would reveal her later.
Mirren was born Helen Lydia Mironoff (nicknamed Ilyena) to a family whose patriarchal link reaches into the aristocracy of Czarist Russia. Her great-grandmother was a countess whose family is mentioned in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Her grandfather Pyotr was on a diplomatic mission to England when the Russian Revolution broke out and he lost everything, cut off from Mother Russia, a permanent exile. Helen’s father, Vasily, waited until Pyotr died before changing the family name to Mirren. Ilyena grew up in near poverty, consoled by her imagination and haunted by the echo of lost grandeur. The theater came to her rescue, and with it, the long search for mastery that would match her natural power and presence.
“Dropping her kit,” the American equivalent to letting it all hang out, became part of her reputation — a phrase that came to annoy and embarrass her. It wasn’t until she appeared as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the 1991 British series “Prime Suspect,” replayed here on PBS, that American audiences took to Mirren in a big way. The show became a prototype for police procedurals, but Mirren’s portrayal of a professional woman obsessively making her way through a thick male environment of acrid disapproval remains unmatched. She shows the other side too, the loneliness and confusion, the alcoholic despair of relentless exposure to a world of predators and degenerates.
Film historian and critic David Thomson says, “She’s had one of the most interesting careers around. She’s managed to stay dangerous and mysterious. There’s a depth and passion that still surprises me. I think she has three of four more great performances in her that’ll make you sit up and take notice all over again.”
It’s been a good period for Mirren. In 2012 she was nominated for SAG, Golden Globe and London Film Society awards for her role as Alma Reville in “Hitchcock.” This year she’s doing the sequel to “Red”; she’ll play opposite Al Pacino in HBO’s biopic on Phil Spector; and in March she’ll do QEII again in a new Peter Morgan play called “The Audience.”
She hopes that someday someone will write a play about Russia’s Catherine the Great. Not only would it return her to a lost root, but, she says, “I wouldn’t have to diet for the role.”
“Mirren … is realistic and believable in Alma’s pain, her businesslike competence and her flashes of humor or outrage. A great actor should not seem, but be. Mirren simply is, and she takes ‘Hitchcock’ up a notch with every look and line.” – Lawrence Toppman, the Charlotte Observer
“Best of the bunch … is Mirren’s Victoria, who runs a bed and breakfast in Virginia but admits that when bored ‘I take the odd contract on the side.’ While the other actors run hot and cold, Mirren is most at ease in her role, handling her lines with aplomb and firing automatic weapons like she means it.” – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
‘The Queen,’ 2006
“(Mirren) finds a way, even in a ‘behind the scenes’ docudrama, to suggest that part of her character will always be behind the scenes. What a masterful performance, built on suggestion, implication and understatement.” –
– Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
“Mourning Becomes Electra,” 2003
“Stately and flirtatious, grandly witty yet pricked by bleeding wounds to the heart, Mirren is Lillian Hellman’s scheming Regina Giddens in embryo as well as a lethally self-aware woman whose severest lacerations are directed at herself. The actress is at her best spitting out the single exclamation ‘Live!’ as she prepares to die, a murderess who can make peace ‘at last,’ she says, with the sleep available to her only in death.” –
– Matt Wolf, Variety
‘Gosford Park,’ 2001
“Helen Mirren is especially fine as the head housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson, a woman so resigned to her lot in life that she is able to say proudly and with only a trace of bitterness: ‘I’m the perfect servant. I have no life.’ ” –
– Stephen Holden, The New York Times
‘A Month in the Country,’ 1995
“What Mirren and director Scott Ellis have conspired to deliver here is a good old-fashioned star turn, wrapped in a boulevard comedy. Yes, there’s plenty of technique in evidence on the stage; however familiar her films and TV projects, Mirren is no interloper seeking validation on a Broadway stage.” – Jeremy Gerard, Variety
‘Mystery! Prime Suspect,’ 1992
“In the end it’s Mirren’s severe Tennison, hair businesslike short, foulmouthed
, obsessed with her work and generally without compassion, who runs the show — all four hours of it. Her smoking’s an awkward affectation, but everything else is 24 karat genuine. Mirren creates a strongwilled, unlikable character whose singleminded purpose cuts through civility but whose adherence to purpose redeems her.”
— compiled Sean Fitz-Gerald