About Features Reviews Community Screenings Archives Studios Home
October 2006
The Queen: An Interview with Helen Mirren

The Queen: An Interview with Helen Mirren
By Wilson Morales

October 9, 2006

Starting out on stage and moving onto the film industry has been a natural fit for Helen Mirren. As one of the most respected actresses working today, Mirren has a gain a new fan base with each role she takes. When you look at the films she’s done, ranging from “Excalibur”, “Cal”, Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Terry George’s Some Mother’s Son, and Nicholas Hytner’s The Madness of King George, not only were these roles challenging, but she excelled in playing them. At the same time Mirren continues to do films, she’s also been a TV favorite for some time now having played the role of DCS Jane Tennison in the PBS series, Prime Suspect, and winning an Emmy for the role. She’s won numerous accolades, nominations and awards, but the Oscar has eluded so far. That may change this year, as a great deal of buzz is widening with her latest performance. With probably her most challenging and daring role to date, Mirren is playing current Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth II, in ‘The Queen”. Directed by Stephen Frears, Mirren plays the Queen during the most intense time of her reign. When Princess Diana suddenly died in a car accident, the Queen was less responsive to the public as the awaited some word of comfort and her loyal subjects started rebelling with words and outcry that, according to the film, newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair took it upon himself to convince the Queen to show support for their loss. In speaking with Ms. Mirren during the New York Film Festival, she talked about her portrayal of the Queen and the research she did to play the part without making it look comical.

Helen Mirren: I did a lot of work with a wonderful voice coach, who was brilliant because she approaches a voice through the psychology of the voice, rather than just this what it sounds like. The difficulty with the voice , there’s two difficulties, one is that she’s actually got two voices, she’s got her formal voice for speeches, which is the one we’re all so familiar with, and she’s has not a substantially different voice but a different voice when she’s talking normally. Obviously it’s a voice, we are so familiar with that voice, and it could sound like a parody. It could sound like a send-up. And that would have been a disaster. You have to find something that’s true and natural. The interesting thing is that her voice has actually changed over the years.

Did you watch footage?

HM: Yes, of course.

Did you talk to anyone who knew her?

HM: I didn’t talk to anyone who knew her but I did read a lot of biographies. There’s a particular biographer called Douglas Mason who has written a lot of books about various monarchies. And he’s a really smart, intelligent, thoughtful writer. And his books are very valuable. But I’ve read all the books and biographies, and then you find a consensus between them. But then you take a guess, an educated guess, but it’s a guess, nonetheless, you don’t know. Some of the things we do know, and watching the films, that’s all we see. So we don’t know. So when you watch the film, I watched it looking for clues, looking at the image as a whole like a detective. And one of the things I noticed was that she had her hands like this. A very secure image that you’re looking at. And then if you look closely you see that her finger is shaking ever so slightly. You watch for things like that.

So it was why she holds herself that way, not how?

HM: Yes. And she holds herself that way because she has fully and completely taken on board the responsibility and the gravitas. It has nothing to do with being a celebrity.

Why was the footage of her as a child so important?

HM: Because the young Elizabeth seemed like the true character, what she was like before the monarchy. And therefore reformed her character into this queen. Who was she before? She wasn’t destined to be the queen. She wasn’t supposed to be the queen. So I thought let the true person decide. And I found this little girl who was already full of a sense of responsibility. And a sense of doing things the right way. And a sense of order. It wasn’t like she was a wild child who had to then control it all. Suppress it all because now she was the monarchy so it was conflicted and neurotic. She already had a sense of duty and responsibility, order as I say, there was already this sense of this. I don’t think she was a neurotic person.

Why are we so fascinated by royalty?

HM: Well it’s such a strange anachronism, isn’t it. So alien to how the rest of us live. Even the wealthiest, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, they don’t live like that. Partly because they can create their own world, they can create the world that they want. And the monarchy can’t. No monarchy can. Because a monarchy is fixed within the history of the country so there are requirements and there are cultural understandings that they must fit themselves within. And it’s incomprehensible. I can’t comprehend it. It’s beyond vanity. That’s one of the most important things about a monarchy is that you go into a place where you have no choice. And I can’t imagine it.

You couldn’t imagine it to play the part?

HM: I had to try and imagine it, but in my real world I can’t imagine it. Yes, you walk on a set and put on makeup and costume and…

Did you feel a sense of responsibility, since she’s still alive?

HM: Very much so, absolutely. I think if she was a farmer’s wife from northern Scotland I would have…your introducing in someone’s private life without their permission and without their collaboration and it…it is intrusive and there are therefore requirements to be honest and truthful and…

Why do it?

HM: Well, obviously the people involved, the director, the writer, if the character’s on the last page. If it’s not on the last page we’ll read back and see what the character’s last scene is. And if the last scene is a great scene, if the character has a fabulous last scene, it doesn’t matter if I’m not in it on the last page. If it just disappears, don’t bother reading it.

How closely did you watch the news footage of Diana’s death?

HM: A lot of course. I almost perfectly reproduced, if you look at the pictures of the queen and the pictures of me, I really studied it a lot to see how she looked, when she bent down, and also the costume, brilliant costume designer, perfect reproduction of what the queen was wearing that day.

Can you talk about the stag in the film?

HM: The stag was one of the elements of the script, it was the element of the script, I thought it was the element that wasn’t what you expected. I thought it was the moment of that…so that connection was one that I thought was very true. I mean actually it was – but a lot of them do it, ---.

Was there anything else in particular that made you think you had to do the film?

HM: The stag scene. I loved the idea of the queen crying, breaking down, when she’s alone, no one’s there, she allows herself to break down, and then having that moment with the stag. I thought it was a beautiful scene.

What can you say about Steven’s directing?

HM: Steven’s style of direction is very hands off, which is kind of cool, actually it’s great. He’s not controlling as a director. The directing is not in our heads. He allows the story to tell itself. I think he trusts us. He just wants whatever might appear within a scene or within the film. He wants to allow it to appear. He doesn’t want to force it into a particular shape. There were certain things that I suggested, and other actors, and it was difficult for us to --- we had a lot of textile discussions around that. And we had to do a re-shoot.

How hard is it for you to suppress emotion?

HM: Very easy, because I’m a brilliant actress. You know, it’s what you do. And you know, you’re doing stuff like that, that’s the weird thing about film acting, you have no idea what’s being communicated. All you know is what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling. You have no idea, it might look as though you have a nasty smile.

Was there anything really funny where you had to suppress laughter?

HM: Yeah, a lot of things.

What do you have to say the Oscar buzz your performance is generating?

HM: There’s a road, and there’s a sign that says awards, and there’s an arrow, and you go, oh, I want to go that way. And you completely miss the sign that says beware falling rocks. So I try not to go down that road, I say just march ahead and see what happens. But, obviously, we want people to see our movie. They’re expensive things to make, you don’t make them for no one to go and see them. You want to get an audience, and a very good tool is nominated. So on that level it’s important. On a personal level I never walk down that road.

What’s next for you? Will you do theater again?

HM: I will always do more theater. But next is Prime Suspect, the next Prime Suspect is coming on television the middle of November and that’s a big one for me because it’s the last one.


HM: It’s my choice. You know, it’s a big one.

THE QUEEN opens nationally on October 6, 2006




Terms of Use | Privacy Policy