A brilliant performance is the early favorite for Best Actress
Helen Mirren commands the screen with her riveting portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen follows the British monarch in the days after the death of Princess Diana. The public's anger towards her grows as she fails to react openly to the tragedy. The newly elected Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), challenges the Queen's steadfast approach. It's a great film, and Mirren's performance has her as the early favorite for Best Actress. I was very impressed with her during the interview. She has this incredible gravitas, a real sense of class, but also radiates a wild demeanor. Ms. Mirren closes out the year with the final installment of "Prime Suspect" for British television.
How did you prepare for this role?
Helen Mirren: I did a lot of work with a wonderful voice coach who was brilliant. He approaches the voice through the psychology of the voice rather than just "This is what it sounds like it." She's actually got two voices. She's got to have a formal voice for speeches, which is the one that we're all sort of familiar with and then she's got to have, not a substantially different voice but a different voice when she's talking normally. It's a voice we are so familiar with, and indeed its been parodied so often in Britain, that the fear was that it would sound like a parody. It had to sound true and authentic and natural. The interesting thing is her voice has actually changed over the years. Her accent has changed. She was very, as we say, cut glass, when she was younger. She's less so now.
The queen has a well-documented public persona. Were you allowed an intimate behind the scenes look at her? Did you speak to anyone who knows her personally?
Helen Mirren: No, I never spoke to anybody who knew her, but I did read a lot of biographies. There's a particular biographer called Robert Lacey who has written a lot of books about various monarchies. He's a really smart, intelligent, observant, thoughtful writer. His book was very valuable. I read all the different biographies and found a consensus between them. Then you take a guess. It's a guess, it's a portrait, it's an educated guess, but it's a guess nonetheless. One of the things I noticed is that she has her handbag. She always has her handbag and her hand is always like this, her finger is going like this, same as mine would do right now. Just going round and round and round and round like that, there's this tiny little movement; just signifying an inner tension or an inner energy. So you watch for things like that.
You've said that one of the pieces of footage that influenced you the most was of her when she was twelve years old. What was so revealing about that footage?
Helen Mirren: I looked at the young Elizabeth to see the true character, what she was like before the monarchy descended upon her and reformed her character into this queen. Who was she before she even knew she was going to be queen. She wasn't destined to be queen. She came to it a very circuitous route. She wasn't supposed to be queen. So I thought I would know what the true person inside is like. I found this little girl who was already full of a sense of responsibility, a sense of duty, and a sense of doing things the right way; a sense of order. It wasn't like she was a wild child who had to then control and suppress it all because she's the monarch. There was already the sense of centeredness with her. I don't think she's a neurotic person at all.
Why is there such a fascination with royalty?
Helen Mirren: It's so strange, so alien to how the rest of us live. Even the world's rich, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, they don't live like that. They can create their own world around them. The monarchy can't. No monarchy can because a monarchy is fixed within the history of the country that it exists in. There are formalities, requirements, and cultural understandings that they have to fit themselves within. I can't comprehend it. I describe it as being a place beyond ego, beyond vanity, a place where you have no choice. That's one of the most important things about monarchy is that you have no choice.
Were you at all worried about playing someone who is still alive?
Helen Mirren: Very much so, absolutely, if she were a farmer's wife from northern Scotland, I would have felt the same. If you're intruding into someone's private life without their permission and without their collaboration, it is intrusive. I think there are requirements to be honest and truthful and have as much integrity as possible. I just don't think its fair otherwise.
Has the Queen or the royal family seen the film? Have you had any feedback from them?
Helen Mirren: No and we never will. Why should they? Why should they give us a thumbs up or a thumbs down? That's not what they do. They're not film critics. You'd think, of course, some slight interest. I'm sure they're very relieved that it takes a humanistic approach to them, and certainly in Britain the feeling is that's always a good the thing.
What's your favorite scene in the film?
Helen Mirren: The stag scene. I thought that was beautiful. I love the idea of the queen crying, breaking down when she's alone, no one's there. She allows herself to break down with the pain of everything. The pain of the whole thing and then having that moment with the stag, I thought it was a beautiful scene.
How did Stephen [Frears, the director] influence your performance?
Helen Mirren: Stephen's style of direction is very hands off; which is kind of cool. It's great. He's not one of those controlling sort of directors. I think that's why when we see one of his movies; the direction is not in your face. He allows the story to tell itself. I think he trusts his actors. He just wants whatever might appear within a scene or within the film. He just wants it to be allowed to appear. He doesn't want to force it into a particular shape. That's the way he works. There were certain things that I suggested. It was difficult for us to find how to end the movie. We had a lot of textual discussions around that and then in fact went back and did a little re-shoot or an extra shoot.
You're receiving quite a bit of critical acclaim for this performance? The odds makers are putting you as the early favorite for Best Actress. What do you think of the Oscar buzz?
Helen Mirren: There's a road, you're walking down the road and there's a path, and the sign says "awards" and an arrow. You go, "Hmm that looks interesting down there. You know, I've got to walk down there." You go to walk down; you completely miss the sign that says, "Beware falling rocks." So I tend to not go down that road. I tend to just march ahead and see what happens. Having said that, we want people to see our movie. They're expensive things to make. You don't make them for no one to come see them. You want to get an audience. All you want is for people to go into the cinema and watch your movie. It's a very good tool for getting people into the theater. So on that level it's important, but on a personal level, I never walk down that road.
What are your personal feelings toward the death of Princess Diana? Did you label her as 'The People's Princess' like the British public?
Helen Mirren: I didn't feel that way. I wasn't inclined that way.
You have such a diverse body of work. How do you decide on a particular role?
Helen Mirren: The people involved. The director, the writer, that's sort of the number one thing. I read the script backwards because if my character is on the last page its always a good sign. (laughs) I never read it from the front forward. I read back to see what the character's last scene is. A bit of good advice for you actors out there, if the last scene is a great scene, that's a good part and it doesn't matter about not being on the last page. If that part just sort of disappears, don't bother reading it to the front. Send it back.
The Queen gets a wide release on October 13th and is rated 'PG-13' for brief strong language.