Oscar buzz

Oscar buzz

Helen Mirren: From Queen of England to gritty police detective

By Ivor Davis 11/09/2006

Is this The Year of Helen Mirren?

It’s certainly shaping up that way.

At 61, the British-born actress is riding high and has become the one to beat when the best actress Oscars are handed out next February.

The role that could bring her the gold is her dazzling portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s current queen in the provocative new movie The Queen. The film covers the days after the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris in August l997 and focuses on how Britain’s trendy new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) tries to move the tradition-bound Queen and other members of the royal family toward a more public display of emotion and mourning as a grieving nation waits for word from their ruling monarch.

“Will someone please save these people from themselves,” pleads an exasperated Tony Blair when confronted by the royals’ apparent reluctance to publicly express their emotions about their high-profile former daughter-in-law.

Earlier this year — in what some called a companion piece to the new movie — Mirren won an Emmy for playing Elizabeth I, a very different monarch, in the HBO miniseries Elizabeth I.

And this month (Nov. 12 and l9) Mirren moves from the rareified atmosphere of Buckingham Palace to the gritty police precincts and reprises her role in Prime Suspect as the troubled but perceptive Deputy Chief Inspector Jane Tennison.

Reared by Russian émigré parents in London, Mirren first made her mark in the London theater but then branched out into films and television, making her mark in pictures such as The Long Good Friday, The Mosquito Coast , The Madness of King George and, last year, as an assassin who has a fling with her much younger stepson, Cuba Gooding Jr., in Shadowboxer.

In June 2003, she was made Dame of the British Empire by the Queen.

Married to American director Taylor Hackford, she has homes in the Hollywood Hills, London and in France and has already picked up the best actress award for The Queen while at the Venice Film Festival.

In person, the energetic Mirren is a ball of fire, a no-nonsense lady with finely chiseled features who literally bursts into a suite at the Four Seasons hotel holding a steaming cup of cappuccino in each hand. She plants them on the table and sits down in almost workmanlike fashion to get on with the interview.

Looking a good decade younger with a stylish jaw-length blond bob, a long-sleeved, white cotton blouse, a tight brown skirt and flat white shoes, she drops sweetener into her coffee cup and is ready for action.

Recently, you talked about feeling you were not sure you ever wanted to work again. Is that true?

I’ve had years of incredibly intense work. I did Shadowboxer. I almost immediately went into Elizabeth I. I had two weeks off and went into Elizabeth II. I had about three weeks off and then I did my last Prime Suspect. It wasn’t so much Elizabeth I, but the other two roles which were really physically demanding, particularly when I’m on every day and the shoots are long. So I was just very tired.

Have you recovered?

Yes, I’m just coming out of it now. I went through a phase for about six months when I would say to my husband, “You know, I don’t want to pretend to feel something I don’t feel.”(laughs) But I’m beginning to get my imaginative energy back.

Was playing the current queen a tough one for you?

This was one of the most comfortable ones I’ve done. Sometimes in roles you fight, think about and work and this one wasn’t like that.

But millions think they know the reigning queen — wasn’t that daunting?

It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever contemplated. I was more nervous of this than anything I’ve ever done. But once I’d settled into it, I’d got the physicality and the voice and stuff like that and done the research and costumes, everything came together. I never had to think for one second doing this or say, “How shall I play this scene.” Never! I just let it happen.

Are there two personalities to the Queen of England?

In a way there isn’t, but of course there is. There’s a private queen that has a sense of humor and a sexuality and all those things we don’t associate with the queen. But I think that her role as monarch has been so fully embraced and so, looking at film footage of the queen in all my research, I wanted to find out what she was like as a young girl, before she became queen.

Did viewing the old black and white newsreels help?

It let me into the reality of the person, the real character and personality. So who would this woman be if she was a farmer’s wife in Yorkshire? And I discovered a person with an incredible sense of order, an incredible sense of duty even when she had no duty. And an incredible sense of responsibility.

Growing up as a young girl in England you said you were anti the royals. Did this role change your attitude?

I like them a lot more than I did. Who was I to like or dislike them because I didn’t know anything about them? It’s the British sport to think that we know the royal family and make pronouncements about what they should and shouldn’t do and how they are and how they aren’t. It’s our way of entertaining ourselves. Isn’t it?

Have you ever met the queen?

We had been invited to a polo match — my first and last one — and went because we thought it would be fun. We were invited to an enormous tent where the Queen was having tea. I was with the actress Chloe Sevigny and said to the Queen, ‘Ma’am, this is Chloe Sevigny, a wonderful young American actress who has come all the way from America to meet you … And I came all the way from Battersea (an area about a mile away from Buckingham Palace).”

What made you say goodbye to Jane Tennison?

It was time. We’ve always fought very hard and wanted Prime Suspect to be modern, relevant, cutting edge and real and not meander off into — as wonderful as it was — the Inspector Morse world. It’s a fantasy world, really, and in the real world, you know, police people don’t go on forever.

Are you enjoying all the attention you’ve been getting lately?

I’ve been around long enough to have experienced all kinds of movements in my career. But the greatest triumph is really that I’m still here. And I feel very lucky that I am, because a lot of my contemporaries are not having the kind of luck. But I know it comes and goes. The important thing is to hold onto your sense of equilibrium and your sense of what’s important. And remember that the banana skin is always there for you take a big fall at any minute.

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