Helen Mirren, who won an Oscar for her performance as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen,” says Meghan Markle was “a fantastic addition to the royal family,” and she “applauds” Markle and Prince Harry’s decision to step back from royal duties, she tells Variety.
Mirren, who is the subject of an homage at the Berlin Film Festival this week and will receive the festival’s Honorary Golden Bear for Lifetime Achievement on Thursday, says of the couple’s decision to withdraw from the royal family: “I think their instincts are absolutely right, and I applaud them for it. Hugely actually. Of course, it is complicated.”
She adds: “Meghan Markle was a fantastic addition to the royal family – charming, did everything right, was gracious, was sweet natured, and seemed to be … Wow! What a lovely addition. Didn’t seem to be neurotic…
“So, I think it is a loss in a way, but at the same time I think their instincts are absolutely correct. And I think it will all, hopefully, sort itself out, and the tabloid pearl-clutchers will get over their trauma at not having someone to attack all the time. They’ll find another victim… probably me,” she says with a laugh.
Mirren says she has witnessed a huge improvement in the position of female actors over the course of her career. (She says she prefers the term “actress.” “It has a slightly fin de siècle feel about it that I like,” she says. “But thank you for being politically correct; I approve of political correctness as well, so that’s alright.”) “Oh god, there’s more work to be done, further to go, but it is great, it’s absolutely great,” she says, with gusto. “It just pisses me off that I’m not now 23, and that that world is not open to me, because it is a much better world than it was when I was 23.
“I have often been asked if I was angry, and I was profoundly angry about it as I ticked off 20 male characters to one or two female characters if you were lucky. Incidentally it hasn’t changed that much. At least now you have female-led movies, and occasionally it is mostly female (casts) – still very rare, but at least they exist.
“But I always said when I was asked that question, and I still believe it, don’t worry about women’s profiles in drama, although you should, but worry about women’s profiles in life – in politics, in particular, and in the professions – and fight for that, and to a certain extent I was right because that world changed, and as night follows day drama and culture – us looking at ourselves through drama, through art – has changed, because they are looking at a different world. So change the world and culture will change alongside that.”
Mirren describes Margaret Thatcher as her “greatest female role model,” adding “not because I believed in her politics – I absolutely did not. I don’t think she was a great person as a person.” But she says a little girl who saw Margaret Thatcher on television would say “Mummy who’s that?” and the mother would reply, “That is the Prime Minister of England.” “Then that 4-year-old’s head goes: ‘Women can be Prime Minister of England.’ That wasn’t the case when I was 4 years old,” Mirren says.
She concedes that sometimes life does imitate art. “Culture can lead the world. It can say: Look there are women scientists in the world. Drama can change the look of the world around us; it is a symbiotic relationship.”
Mirren has been to the Berlin Film Festival a few times, most recently in 2015 with “Woman in Gold,” and she regards it with a certain reverence, so her Honory Golden Bear for Lifetime Achievement, and to be the subject of an homage for her work, means a great deal to her. “The Berlin film audiences are highly educated and very critical. They are not impressed by Hollywood. They are very discerning,” she says. “So you take a film to Berlin with a certain amount of trepidation. For that reason it becomes a very important festival for all filmmakers. I guess all I’m saying is to receive an award like this, particularly from the Berlin Film Festival, is to my mind quite impressive.”
Mirren has been an avid watcher of European films since her student days, but hasn’t appeared in as many European films as she would have liked to.
“I very proudly count myself as a European actress, and in my career I would have ideally liked to have been more of a European actress,” she says.
“I’m a member of the European Film Awards group and get incredible pleasure from seeing extraordinary European films every year, many of which never get to be seen outside their own country, that are incredible pieces of filmmaking.
“One or two of them will get nominated for best foreign film in the Oscars, but behind that film are many, many brilliant movies, about such an extraordinary array of subjects, and approached in such original, inspiring ways.
“When I go to the movies it is mostly to see European films. Where the American film industry succeeds it is where they have been influenced by European films, and along those lines there have been some great American movies, but I also have to say African, Antipodean, Asian, Latin American movies. I think the variety of culture, of history, the love of film coming out of Europe is so powerful.”
Mirren regards drama – theater, television and cinema – as more than just a form of entertainment, but as a serious art-form, through which we can explore how we as humans think and behave. She says most Hollywood movies she saw as a young person didn’t impress her, but when she discovered European films that changed her perspective on what could be achieved through cinema.
“It wasn’t until I saw European films that I realized that film could be a whole different thing. That it could be as expressive and as culturally important as theater was to my mind, and that revelation happened to me through seeing Antonioni’s ‘L’Avventura’ in a very seedy cinema in Brighton – a XXX type of cinema – and it was an incredible revelation for me. And thereon any European film that was showing anywhere I would go off to see,” she says.
“I was an usherette at an art film cinema called the Everyman in Hampstead (in London) when I was a student at college. So that gave me an incredible opportunity to see movies. Not just European movies. I remember seeing ‘Citizen Kane’ – like 10 times because it was so extraordinarily good. That was always my go-to film experience…to this day really. I love a nice popcorn movie and I’m much more generous in my tastes than I used to be. But still my go-to film experience is something, as you said, that retells the human story in all its variety and its complexity, and misery and its joy.
“We are constantly doing and then looking at ourselves doing, and then asking ourselves why we do, and how we do, and what we do. And that is what the history of art in human culture has always been.”
While some other actors have moved into producing or directing movies Mirren has no wish to do the same. “I think I am intrinsically too lazy. I did direct. I did a half-hour film for Showtime TV. I absolutely loved the experience. I was quite good at it. In fact Showtime asked me to do a full-length feature afterwards. But, again, I’m much too lazy. You know, honestly, I want to sit at home and watch TV.”