Profile | Interview
Helen Mirren: A Profile
From Tempest to Tennison
In 1946, Helen Mirren was born Ilynea Lydia Mironoff in Chiswick, England, to an English mother and an aristocratic Russian father. Stranded in London after the 1917 Revolution, her father had stayed on to work as a taxi driver, freelance musician, driving instructor and a violinist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. While her father jumped from career to career, Mirren knew by age six that she wanted to be an actress. By 13, she was playing Caliban in a school production of The Tempest; five years later she had won the leading role in the National Youth Theatre's Anthony and Cleopatra at the Old Vic. (She has tackled the role twice more, in 1983 opposite Michael Gambon and in 1998 with Alan Rickman.) To please her parents, she trained as a teacher at the New College of Speech and Drama (Hampstead), but pursued acting during weekends and vacations. In 1967, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and made her mark over a period of eight years, appearing most notably as Cressida, Julia, Ophelia, Miss Julie, Lady Macbeth and Queen Margaret.
Tiring of traditional theatre, Mirren joined Peter Brook's Paris-based experimental troupe, the International Centre of Theatre Research, performing for villagers in Africa and migrant workers in California. Mirren's breakthrough role, however, came as Nina in a 1975 London revival of Chekhov's The Seagull, a role that allowed her to display the intelligence and sensuality that have become her hallmark. The Times of London dubbed her "the sex queen of the Royal Shakespeare Company." Mirren's success on the stage has continued throughout her careerand has included a 1995 Tony win for Best Actress in A Month In The Country.
It is Mirren's movie work, however, that has established her public image as a modern Mae West. In 1967, Mirren made her first film, Herostratus. The next year she appeared as Hermia in Peter Hall's A Midsummer Night's Dream alongside Derek Godfrey, Diana Rigg, and Ian Richardson. Her reputation as a thinking man's sex symbol was cemented in Penthouse Film's racy Caligula (1980) and confirmed with her portrayals of the incestuous Morgana in Excalibur (1981) and the sexually frustrated wife in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989). Her portrayal of an older woman in love with a younger man in Cal (1984) earned her a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. She reprised the May/December romance in Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991), proving that her powers of attraction had not waned.
In the 1980s, Mirren ventured to Hollywood, where she had roles in 2010 (1984) with Roy Scheider and The Mosquito Coast (1986) with Harrison Ford. She met director Taylor Hackford, with whom she has lived in Los Angeles since 1986, on the set of White Nights (1985). They married on New Year's Eve 1997.
While Los Angeles has remained her home for nearly 20 years, Mirren has maintained strong ties to the European film community. Playing the suffering queen in The Madness of King George (1994), she earned a Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival as well as Oscar and BAFTA nominations. In 2001, Mirren starred as the officious housekeeper of an English estate in Robert Altman's Gosford Park, for which she earned her second Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress.
As her film career took off, Mirren also found success on television. She won leading roles in Cousin Bette (1970), The Changeling (1974) and Coffin for the Bride (1974). She played Stella in The Collection (1975) opposite Laurence Olivier and Malcolm McDowell, and Angela in Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills (1979).
Mirren didn't snag her signature television role until 1990, when she made her first appearance as DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect. Critics praised her for the most realistic, three-dimensional portrayal of a woman on film or television. A far cry from the sexually charged roles Mirren had become known for, the role of Tennison allowed her to showcase her psychological mettle and physical grit. Her every tic and clipped gesture subtly display Tennison's emotions and intellect as she synthesizes the evidence for a gruesome case and negotiates the sexist obstacle course that is her department. Film critic James Wolcott wrote that "A performance as thorny and propulsive as Helen Mirren's in the Prime Suspect series has a crackle that holds up in reruns; her trim execution recalls the Humphrey Bogart of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep." In Tennison, Mirren has created a heroic underdog for the modern age. The unglamorous police detective has captured the imagination of both viewers and critics on an international scale.
Also in 1996, Mirren earned the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Television Movie or Miniseries for Losing Chase, with Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon, who also directed. She won a second Emmy for the title role in the Showtime movie The Passion of Ayn Rand (1999). In 2002, Mirren earned two Emmy nominations, one for lead actress in a Miniseries or a Movie for her work in Tennessee Williams' The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and one for Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie for Door to Door.
Recently Mirren has moved into film and television production, serving as an associate producer on Some Mother's Sons (1996), in which she starred as the parent of a man imprisoned for alleged ties to the IRA, and doing double duty again for the television drama Painted Lady (1997), in which she played an aging rock singer turned amateur sleuth. In 2001, she made her directing debut with Happy Birthday, a segment of Showtime's Directed By series called On the Edge. In June 2003, she was made a Dame of the British Empire during the Queen's Birthday Honours.
Following her work on Prime Suspect 6, Mirren appeared in Calendar Girls with Julie Walters. The film, inspired by the true story of a group of women who bared all for charity, received rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival, was described by Alan Jones in Film Review as a "pitch perfect, brilliantly scripted and enormously touching tale."
True to form, Mirren can next be seen on stage, screen, and television. Her upcoming film appearances include The Clearing, with Robert Redford and Willem Dafoe, Raising Helen, opposite Kate Hudson, and Shadowboxer, in which she is paired with Ryan Phillippe, 29, for another May/December romance. Mirren can be heard on television as the voice of Macheeba in the BBC animated film Pride, the story a rebellious lioness cub. On stage, she plans to appear as Christine Mannon in a New York production of Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, following its run at the Royal National Theatre in London.