Helen Mirren: An audience with The Queen

Ahead of the Oscars, double Golden Globe-winner Helen Mirren talks about her award-winning performances as Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II.
Venice, September 2006

As a young woman you were always very anti-establishment. Now you’re not only playing the ultimate establishment figure, but you’re also a Dame. Do you now feel like you have become the establishment?

“That’s my great fear. I don’t want to be a part of the establishment as such. That’s not my role as an artist. You have to hold yourself apart because our job, as artists, is not to arbitrarily attack the establishment, I don’t say that, but if that need comes to step up and do it. You have to kind of hold yourself apart. But as you get older, inevitably life [smiles] pulls you into it because the younger generation look at you that way. You become the establishment just because you are established, and the younger generation are going, ‘Yeuch, get rid of them.’”

Have you ever met the Queen?

“I met the Queen very briefly, for about 20 seconds, at a polo match - the first and last polo match I’ve ever been to. I was invited to have tea with the Queen, with about a thousand other people, and me and Chloe Sevigney were taken over to meet her. I had the impression that everybody has when they are meeting the Queen in a slightly informal situation: she is absolutely charming and very twinkly and very easy and very natural. I did use that in the beginning of the film, before the tragedy of Diana’s death, to show this person with a sense of humour and kind of ease about her.”

Did she know that you wanted to play her?

“She did because I wrote to her. I got an answer from her secretary saying, ‘The Queen has read your letter with interest.’”

What did you write?

“I said, ‘I’m sure you’re aware that a film is going to be made and I am playing your Royal Highness. I understand that this is intrusive, especially as the film deals with these very difficult two weeks.’ This is more or less, not verbatim. I’d already done a lot of research at that point, so I already had a feeling. Through my research I had this growing feeling of respect for her. So, I just said, ‘All I can say is that I will do this as honestly as I possibly can and try and reflect the person that I have come to respect.’”

When you looked at yourself in the mirror, dressed up, did you think, ‘Oh my God, I really look like her’?

“Yes, I used to take myself a little bit by surprise. But I really looked like her when I was acting her. I didn’t particularly look like her when I was just being myself. It was when I took on the character and my head went back and the look came that I started looking like her. So when I looked at myself in the mirror, I’d think, ‘I don’t look anything like the Queen. I look like Helen Mirren in a wig.’”

Was there any intention in the film to reflect on where Blair is today because he seems to be in the position now that the Queen was then?

“Indeed. Although I have to say when we started the movie, it wasn’t quite as extreme as it is now. And I love that line, ‘This will happen to you, Mr Blair. And it will come quite suddenly.’ That’s very much Peter [Morgan screenwriter].”

Do you think Blair admired her power because it’s as if he has also now become monolithic, distant and deaf to the public?

“You know, I can’t say anything. That’s maybe what you want to say. I have no idea.”

But you’re a Labour supporter and during the election in 1997 you were vocal in your support.

“Well, I was a supporter of change. And Blair was a wonderful, and he still is, orator, and a great politician. No question. All the resources that a politician is supposed to have, he’s got - including an ability to dissimilate [Laughs]. He’s a brilliant politician. It was time for change, so might as well be him.”

What research did you do to play the Queen?

“I had just done Elizabeth I in Lithuania, I was exhausted from that, but I had to go to the South of France. I went with this big bag of tapes and I spent my whole time just watching tapes and reading biographies. One that I found really, really valuable in particular was the book that was written by Elizabeth and Margaret’s nanny, Crawfie [Marion Crawford]. She had them from about the age of five, even younger, and she was with them through the abdication of their uncle, through their father becoming King, the move to Buckingham Palace. When the girls got to be 16, 17, 18, whatever, she was let go, because she no longer had a job. She wrote this book and it was terrible. The monarchy saw it as the most appalling betrayal, because it was the first time they’d ever confronted anyone going public about what happened in the private life of the royal family. In fact the book is very, very sympathetic, totally uncritical. But it really does show the world that they lived in and she does talk about Elizabeth’s character as a young girl. I found that book totally invaluable because I found myself gravitating very much towards Elizabeth before she became Queen, really up to the end of the Second World War. It wasn’t like she was born and this is going to be the next Queen. Her uncle was King and if her uncle had children there was no way she was going to be Queen. And even when her father became King, her mother and father were young enough to have more children. So if they’d had another child and it had been a boy, she would not have been Queen. So for a lot of her young life she lived without that understanding and that was the person I wanted to look at. Get that Queen thing away from her and just look at the little girl.”

Did you see any similarities between the two Elizabeths?

“Well, I think monarchs have to believe that God wants them there and they are, in general, God fearing or religious. I think if they don’t believe that God wants them there, the whole thing falls apart a bit. And, you know, there’s this thing of how ego plays out within the role of monarchy. In Elizabeth I’s case the ego was so enormous it was incomprehensible. It was like an Everest of ego. And Elizabeth II, there is no ego. It’s very strange. It’s as if she’s let go of ego. It’s like when you pass through vanity, through ego, into another place, which is the place of no choice. I can’t comprehend what that must be like.”

Would you compare her with an actor that has to play the same role throughout her career?

“No, it’s way beyond acting. It’s being, not acting. And I do know that the Queen has an absolute abhorrence of performing. She finds it, and always has, very difficult to, you know, smile the way actors do on the red carpet. Smile and wave. She’s not good at that. And I don’t think she sees it particularly as her role to act. She is being. It’s a far deeper than acting.”

The Queen deals with her grief by putting her energies into the grandchildren. Did anything in your own experience inform the way you played these moments?

“Not really because I’ve never experienced anything like that. I mean I can understand from a human point of view that of course your energy would go towards protecting your grandchildren, especially in a world that wants more anything to eat those children alive. What the public wanted was Harry and William to come out and fall on their knees and sob and say, ‘My mother! I’ve lost my beautiful mother!’ They wanted that photo opportunity. It was disgusting. Some people to this day say, ‘Why didn’t they cry?’ You know, fuck off. I say beware of people crying on television. These guys who come on and cry about their wives missing, usually they’re the ones who have killed them. Why do people think crying in public is a sign of emotion? It’s very often a sign of lying.”

What is your interpretation of the scene where the Queen goes to look at the killed stag?

“That was a scene in the script that I loved the most and I thought really heightened it into being more than documentary, more than a cheeky look behind curtains. It gave it a poetic quality. I think everyone who sees that sees their own symbolism. I know that Jamie Cornwall, who plays the Duke of Edinburgh, absolutely saw that as Diana. Saw the death of the stag as the death of Diana. This magnificent wild creature cruelly killed. I didn’t see that at all. My interpretation was that it’s the loss of a generation and a way of life. Not of a monarchist way of life but a way of Britain being. I felt like that because I felt like that when my mother died. What killed me was the loss of that generation. We are losing that generation who experienced the depression, the Second World War, the deprivations of the post war in Britain, and then presented my generation with a National Health System, with an education system that allowed me, a girl from a working class economic background, to have a college education, and gave us this incredible modern world.”

How important to you was becoming a Dame?

“Becoming a Dame was to do with my family, with my Mum and Dad, and the world that I grew up in. They were both dead by the time, and that’s the sadness in getting something like that - usually you’re much older and your parents are dead. But I accepted it for my parents.”

It’s the 25th anniversary of The Long Good Friday this year. Bob Hoskins said he was always embraced somewhat by the underworld after appearing in that film. Was it the same for you?

“Well certainly in the East End, yes. In fact, my mother’s side of the family did come from the East End and, actually, I had had an uncle, not a blood relative but an uncle by marriage, who was an East End gangster. So I had had tenuous connections with that world [laughs] anyway. But certainly for a long time afterwards - it’s only just dissipated - I had incredible credibility in the East End. Any East End pub I went to into, any taxi driver, I had great, great cred. It was great. But I’m not saying they were necessarily gangsters, they were just East End people.”

One of your relatives used to be the butcher to Queen Victoria, didn’t he?

“Yeah, my mother’s grandfather was a butcher, so they came from that East End. I didn’t know a lot about my mother’s side of the family, actually, until quite recently. A journalist, needless to say, investigated it, unbeknownst to me, and did a whole thing on it. I knew that my family came from the East End but then I discovered that actually we came from West Ham. It was brilliant. I actually sent him a letter saying, ‘Thank you. That was great.’ He sent me all the research material.’”

So, you’ve played the Queen. What now? What about a very sexy role?

“[Laughs] Well I just did do a rather sexy film called Shadowboxer. I get to make love with Cuba Gooding Jr. It was fabulous.”

That’s a dark, violent film. What attracted you to it?

“It was the director, he persuaded me. Lee Daniels [producer of Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman]. He calls it a homo-ghetto-euro-movie, because he’s very gay and very black. So, you know, I thought it would be cool to do a movie with a gay black director. And it was fantastic. Macy Gray was in it, Mo'Nique - so I was in this wonderful American black world that was just fantastic.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2007

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