Helen Mirren: Go-To Girl

UPDATED: May 14, 2024
PUBLISHED: July 11, 2013

When David Mamet needed someone to fill in for Bette Midler after she dropped out of his recent HBO film, he knew exactly whom to call: Helen Mirren. While some may wonder why the British-born Dame Mirren came to mind to replace the brassy singer-actress Midler, Mamet had no reservations. “She can do anything,” says the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Glengarry Glen Ross.

In a world where actors are as disposable as yesterday’s newspaper, Mirren has consistently maintained a solid career in theater, film, television and movies. She’s been nominated for two Tony Awards, four Oscars (winning Best Actress for The Queen in 2006), 10 Emmys (winning four for her work on Prime Suspect, Elizabeth I and The Passion of Ayn Rand) and 11 Golden Globes (winning three for Elizabeth I, The Queen and Losing Chase).

Just this past January, Mirren received her first star on the iconic Hollywood Walk of Fame. Her eyes sparkle as she recounts the experience. “Like all foreigners, I still think of myself as a newcomer, so to find myself amongst the history of Hollywood and be reminded of all those incredible performers is just so thrilling,” Mirren says. “I’ll have to go back and lurk. I’ll be out there with my little mop every day polishing it up!”

It’s a testament to her talent and work ethic that her career has gained momentum rather than waning through the years. But Mirren has no illusions about why she’s been able to stay relevant—and working—for more than 45 years in show business. She looks at me intensely with blue-green eyes as she explains.

“I try to work hard and try to be easy to work with. Honestly, that helps because directors and producers talk to each other. They say, ‘Yes, she’ll work hard,’ ” says Mirren, 68. “I’m sure that’s why David called me when Bette had to drop out. He knew I could come in last-minute and wouldn’t collapse or fall apart.

“Come in, do the work, deliver and don’t panic,” she adds—words to live by no matter what the profession.

Mirren had been enjoying an Italian holiday with older sister Kate when she was approached for Mamet’s Phil Spector. “I was determined not to work for the next three months or so, because I was very tired from working so much and just wanted to rest,” Mirren says. Then the call came, offering her the role of the real-life attorney who defended music producer Spector on a murder charge. “It was the dream job. I would have died to work with Al Pacino. And on top of that, David Mamet, and on top of that, a fascinating subject. My heart was dropping and I thought, Oh my God. I’m going to have to do this.”

Producers wanted Mirren to leave Italy that night and be on set in two days. She put her foot down. “I said I need time to prepare. I’m playing an American, and I’m not terribly good at accents, so I need to have a week to prepare. They gave me exactly a week, but I had to fly out the next day and do it in New York,” Mirren says. “But working with these two was a dream come true, so there was no way I was going to say no.”

She knew the role would be difficult. “I was terrified of working with Al. Terrified of working on Mamet’s type of text because he’s such a brilliant writer,” Mirren says. “I’ve watched many of his plays and wondered, How did the actors learn that? It’s so interwoven and dense, and you know that kind of writing is not to be improvised. You have to learn every word, and the rhythm of every interjection. So I was absolutely contemplating shooting myself!”

Instead, Mirren observed and learned. She studied Pacino creating a performance. “I was there in a front-row seat to witness it. He’s full on, and not just when the cameras are rolling, but in every rehearsal, every moment off-screen,” Mirren says. “He wasn’t just marking his lines. His performance was electrifying every time.”

Mirren has repeatedly sought to challenge herself with eclectic roles ranging from the inner voice of Becky, the cheerleading assistant with Down syndrome, on TV’s Glee to the stylish assassin in the Bruce Willis-helmed action flicks RED and RED 2 (due out Aug. 2). She’s also gained a strong reputation for her royal turns, portraying three British queens: Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George in 1994, the title role in the TV miniseries Elizabeth I in 2005, then Elizabeth II in her Oscar-winning performance in The Queen in 2006.

In May, she made headlines with another kind of performance. She was portraying Queen Elizabeth II in a production of The Audience at London’s Gielgud Theatre when a noisy demonstration erupted outside. People banging on drums were so loud that they drowned out the actors at one point. During intermission, Mirren marched out in costume, complete with tiara and pearls, and told the drummers in frank terms to be quiet because people had paid a lot of money to see and hear the play.

The stunned musicians obeyed their queen, who clearly was not amused. And the out-of-focus video went viral.

Her co-star Rufus Wright, playing Prime Minister David Cameron, followed Mirren out to the street. Later he tweeted “You should have seen Helen.… Honestly. It was breathtaking.”

Mirren has always been a take-charge person. In interviews, she’s thoughtful and immensely quotable. Her honesty is as alluring as her classic beauty. During the press tour for her role in Phil Spector, Mirren wore an elegant black dress adorned with a glittering diamond lizard. Her silvery-blonde hair was carefully tousled. She was toned and trim, without the look of enhancements that so many mature Hollywood actresses seem to employ to remain youthful.

Mirren shrugs off any suggestion that she spends much time on her appearance. “I don’t look like this in everyday life at all,” she says with a broad smile and slight laugh. “I just walk out the door and don’t make a big thing of it.” As for her fitness regime, “I don’t do a lot of anything. Maybe that’s the trick,” she says with sly smile. “I don’t do gymmy things, but then sometimes I do. I don’t diet, but then occasionally I do diet. I’ve never smoked, never drunk too much. Well, not consistently.”

She says the most important part of her regimen is her work as an actress, although she admits, “I love to garden with my husband.”

She and her husband, director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Ray), first met when she auditioned for the 1985 film White Nights. For Mirren, it was anything but love at first sight. In fact, he had kept her waiting for her audition and she was not at all impressed by that behavior. But he grew on her.

Mirren had had other long-term relationships; one of the highest-profile ones lasted about five years and involved actor Liam Neeson, whom she met on the set of the 1980 film Excalibur. She vowed never to marry, but she finally acquiesced. Mirren and Hackford wed in 1997 after 12 years together.

The couple own several homes, including one in Los Angeles and a flat in London. She says when they stay at their home in Italy, they live “off the grid” with few distractions—save the occasional call to work.

“I used to do a lot of gardening when I was in my 30s, then life took me away from the vegetable garden,” she says—life as an in-demand actress, that is.

Mirren, born Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironoff in London, descended from Russian aristocracy, but she insists she is anything but posh. Her paternal grandfather was a tsarist colonel who was in Britain negotiating an arms deal when the Russian Revolution broke out. Stranded, he remained in Britain, earning a living as a cabdriver.

Her father, who changed his name to Basil and Anglicized the surname to Mirren, played viola with the London Philharmonic. But he left that less-than-lucrative life to become a cabdriver like his father to better support his working-class family, which included Mirren’s older sister and younger brother Peter. Mirren’s dad eventually went to work as a civil servant with the Ministry of Transport. Her mother was British, the daughter of a butcher who supplied meat to Queen Victoria. She credits her mother for insisting that her children speak with proper elocution, which served her well in her chosen profession.

Although a young Mirren had dreams of becoming an actress, her parents tried to steer her away from that path as best they could. They sent her to a Catholic high school in Southend-on-Sea, where an English teacher nevertheless encouraged her acting ambitions.

Mirren played Cleopatra three times on stage, the first time when she was 20. She became a member of the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company in the late ’60s. Her first significant film role was in 1968’s A Midsummer Night's Dream with Diana Rigg, but it was her film appearance as the young muse to an aging artist played by James Mason in 1969’s Age Of Consent that boosted her profile and launched her career.

Long known for her sultry sex appeal, Mirren transitioned from saucy ingénue to tough cop in the worldwide hit series Prime Suspect. She even bared it all at 58 for her role in the 2003 film Calendar Girls, about mature women who pose nude for a calendar to raise money for charity.

“My longevity is a combination of a lot of things, but incredible good luck is a big part of it,” Mirren says. “Sadly, I have friends who are wonderful actresses, colleagues from when I was in my 20s and 30s, who find it difficult to find work. I was lucky that Prime Suspect came along when it did.”

Mirren was in her mid-40s, a tough age for actresses, in 1991 when Prime Suspect popped on the airwaves and made her a household name. The gritty British cop series featuring a strong female lead was unlike any other show and struck gold with audiences both in the United States, where it was seen on the Public Broadcasting Service, and in Britain.

Suddenly Mirren became a water cooler conversation topic as her character gained popularity. She grabbed six Emmy nominations and took home two gold statues for her role as Detective Jane Tennison.

In 2007 she came to Los Angeles to promote her last appearance as Tennison. In a TV critics’ news conference, she admitted to being a bit of a bad girl in her youth, with a penchant for wayward boys. So we asked, in addition to her Native American-inspired tattoo (at the base of her right thumb), what else would people be surprised to know about her?

“I’m a proper English woman in reality. Maybe that’s what’s ultimately surprising about me,” Mirren said. “I’m kind of a good girl at heart. I think. I hope.”