Helen Mirren insists that she wasn’t that nervous at the 2007 Academy Awards while awaiting the opening of the Oscar envelope for best actress.
But her actions would suggest otherwise.
When Philip Seymour Hoffman announced she had won for her turn as Elizabeth II in “The Queen,” Mirren stood up, embraced her director husband Taylor Hackford, and made her way to the stage — in one hand clutching her purse and in the other holding a clip-on earring she had removed moments earlier because it was pinching her.
“When they gave me the Oscar, I had no hands left!” Mirren recalls with a laugh. “It was very klutzy of me. These are the thing they don’t tell you; what do you do with your purse?”
But the veteran actress, who turns 70 in July, appeared cool and collected when she then delivered a speech thanking the Academy for “the best gold star that I have ever had in my life” and paying tribute to the dignity and elegance of the woman she portrayed onscreen.
“It’s an indescribable moment,” Mirren says of the seconds after the envelope was opened and she heard her name. “Part of you is terrified they will call your name because the fear of making a fool of yourself is paramount. But then it’s this incredible pleasure, to sort of feel like you haven’t been found out — because as actors, we always think we’re going to be discovered as frauds. It’s joyous, it’s thrilling and there’s a little bit of guilt.”
The guilt, she explains, comes from believing there is no such thing as “best” in the world of art. “It’s not a race. It’s very clear in a sprint or a marathon who’s best,” she notes. “But you can never say who is best at acting or painting or writing. You’re all just as good, not only as the people nominated, but a whole community of people who did amazing work and weren’t nominated.”
“The Queen” marked her third time as a nominee, having previously been short-listed for best supporting actress in 1995 for “The Madness of King George” and in 2002 for “Gosford Park.” “The first time, I was so much more nervous; my heart was pounding,” she says. “This time, I really wasn’t that nervous, I was having a great time.”
Hackford, her husband of 18 years, remembers it differently. “There was definitely some hard squeezing of my hand leading up to the award,” he recalls. Having been with Mirren through the months of ceremonies attended, and tributes earned, leading up to the Oscars, Hackford says he was amazed by his wife’s creativity. “It’s very hard to not repeat yourself or fall into rote verbiage,” he notes. “And every single speech was totally original and unique to the occasion.”
To hear Mirren tell it, some of her most cherished memories came with her Oscar in tow. “When you win, you get rushed around backstage, and you always seem to be walking through a kitchen where people are doing real work,” she quips. “And everyone stops to say congratulations. It’s this wonderfully sweet, communal thing where everyone gets into the excitement.”
While she remained dry-eyed onstage, there was one time the actress admits to shedding tears. Flying home to London the day after the ceremony, she had the Oscar in her carry-on bag. “While waiting at baggage claim, someone spotted me and started applauding,” Mirren recalls. “Word started traveling, and soon the whole baggage hall was applauding. It was so incredible. Of course, I couldn’t resist — I reached into my bag and got my Oscar and held it up. I cried, I have to say; it was so touching and lovely.”
Another highlight occurred at the after-party, where Mirren was mobbed by well-wishers — so much so that Hackford reveals she had no time to eat at the Governors Awards. When they got to the Vanity Fair party at Morton’s, he says, “She was starving. She doesn’t usually eat hamburgers, but they brought some by, and she was ravenous.” When Hackford’s son Rio aimed his camera at Mirren biting into her food, Oscar on the table, a professional photographer jumped in as well. The next day, the front page of the Daily Mail featured a full photo with the headline “Helen, the Burger Queen.”
The benefits of taking home the Oscar don’t stop after the ceremony. A win can boost a career or an asking price — though Mirren already had decades of heralded performances on stage, screen and television. Says her longtime agent Fred Specktor: “It made a difference in that she was the star of a hit movie and won an Academy Award, which put her in the category of being somebody people who point to and say, ‘We can get this project made, and finance it based on her.’ ”
Simon Curtis, who directed Mirren in the upcoming “Woman in Gold” (which debuts April 3), laughs when asked if having an Oscar winner helped his movie. “It certainly wasn’t a terrible hindrance,” he quips. “But more than that, she’s one of those people who is a stamp of quality — her presence is reassuring to audiences — even before the Oscar. Now, I feel like more people are aware.”
Mirren can’t pinpoint how much the award changed her career. “It’s hard to say, because you don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t won,” she muses. “It’s a bit like becoming a Dame of the British Empire; once you win the Oscar, it becomes attached to your name. You’re ‘Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren.’ So yes, undoubtedly it raised my profile.”
The first film the actress signed onto after “The Queen” was an about-face. In the big-budget sequel “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” she played treasure-hunter Nicolas Cage’s mother. “I’d been dying to do an action movie, and no one had ever asked me!” she reveals. “So I jumped at the chance.”
Since then, her career has been a mix of dramas (“The Debt,” “Hitchcock”), more lighthearted fare (“Red” and its sequel), another best actress Oscar nomination (for “The Last Station”) and an ambitious, gender-bending misfire with Julie Taymor (“The Tempest”).
Along with “Woman in Gold,” in which she plays an octogenarian Jewish refugee who seeks to recover a family portrait stolen by the Nazis, Mirren also makes an upcoming appearance as famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in director Jay Roach’s biopic about novelist and blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
For now, though, she’s is returning to the role of Queen Elizabeth II in “The Audience,” a play by Peter Morgan, who also penned the screenplay for “The Queen.” Directed by Stephen Daldry, the show ran to rave reviews in London in 2013, and opens on Broadway March 8.
Unlike “The Queen,” which focused on a short period of time following the death of Princess Diana, “The Audience” spans 60 years, detailing the private weekly meetings between Elizabeth II and each of her 12 prime ministers.
Mirren admits she had some hesitation about repeating such an iconic role. “You don’t want to get too identified with one character as an actor,” she notes. “But Peter is such a good writer, Stephen is such an amazing director. It would have been very dumb for me not to do it.”
Says Morgan, “I wrote the play assuming Helen would not want to revisit the character, but was overjoyed when she read it and left me a message: ‘You bastard.’ ”
Queen Elizabeth II hasn’t spoken publicly about Mirren’s performances — and Mirren isn’t talking. “Even if she had spoken privately to me, I would never tell,” she says. Suggest that the Queen should be flattered to be portrayed by someone of Mirren’s caliber and the actress demurs. “Not flattered. But hopefully not displeased.”
And should her performance in “The Audience” put her back on the carousel for the Tony Awards (where she’s been nommed twice), or if there are more Oscar nominations in her future, Mirren promises to be the portrait of calm. “I love the dressing up, seeing all the people,” she says. “Now I just really enjoy it.”
And, maybe next time she heads to the stage to accept an honor, she’ll leave her purse with her husband.