Famously outspoken, Helen Mirren turned down being a Bond girl for her feminist principles, but it’s her acting presence that has kept her in demand for five decades
Words by Michelle Davies
When Helen Mirren was invited to appear on Michael Parkinson’s eponymous chat show in 1975, he must have assumed she would be one of his less contentious guests. This was her first primetime appearance and he was the doyen of celebrity interviews – how could it possibly go wrong?
Yet it did – for him – as seen when the footage resurfaced on social media and went viral last August. When Parkinson blithely suggested her ‘equipment’ (nodding towards her breasts) might detract from her acting, Mirren didn’t simper and giggle as he clearly expected her to. Instead, quietly ‘enraged’ as she would later reveal, the actress – then 30 – shut down his sexist questioning with masterful aplomb: ‘I’d like you to explain what you mean by “my equipment”, you mean my fingers? Come on, spit it out,’ she urged him, before dismissing his questions as ‘boring’.
Now a Dame, with her latest film Collateral Beauty hitting cinemas this December, she is one of only 13 actresses ever to have achieved what’s known as the Triple Crown of Acting – winning a Tony, Emmy and Oscar. Born Illiana Lydia Petrovna Mironova on 26 July, 1945, in west London, she was one of three children. Her Russian father Vasily, a civil servant, anglicised their names when Helen was nine. Her mother, Kathleen, was the daughter of an east London butcher who supplied meat to Queen Victoria. The family relocated to Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, when Mirren was two, because her parents felt the seaside was a nicer place to raise children. Mirren is fiercely proud of her roots. ‘I am still very much an Essex girl,’ she said. ‘My poshed-over voice was all learnt.’
It was watching an amateur production of Hamlet at the Palace Theatre in nearby Westcliff-on-Sea when she was 13 that made Mirren want to act. ‘It was in all probability a very poor production – I certainly remember tights that were falling down – but the power of the story and the exoticism of the characters were overwhelming,’ she recalled in her 2008 autobiography, In The Frame: My Life In Words And Pictures.
As a child, performing in a play
A painfully shy child, Mirren recalls, ‘I was never the kind of little girl who naturally loves to perform, or rather be looked at. Embarrassment came easily to me and acting, even in my school days, was more to do with disappearing than “look at me.”’ But when she joined the National Youth Theatre at
18 after impressing in school productions, she gained rave reviews for playing Cleopatra and was invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967, aged 22.
The press would later brand Mirren as a ‘sex symbol’, with one newspaper calling her ‘the sex queen of Stratford’. That didn’t sit well with her feminist ideology and she would later complain, ‘The headline was to haunt me for the next 20 years or more.’ As her fame grew, Mirren rejected the role of a Bond girl because she didn’t want to be objectified.
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It was her mother who shaped Mirren’s feminist beliefs, urging her to have a career (as a teacher) and not to settle down too young. Mirren has since said, ‘She was totally successful [as] I never had any inclination to marry. It seemed to me like voluntary imprisonment.’
She did have serious relationships though, her first with actor Kenneth Cranham, who recently appeared in the BBC’s War & Peace. Mirren credits him with ‘restoring my self-esteem’. She has said, ‘The hardest period in life is one’s twenties. It’s a shame because you’re your most gorgeous and you’re physically in peak condition. But it’s actually when you’re most insecure and full of self-doubt.’ At one point Mirren visited a palm reader for reassurance. His prediction? ‘You will be successful in life, but you will see your greatest success later, after the age of 45.’
With ex-boyfriend, Liam Neeson
By 1981, then 36, Mirren signed up to appear in Excalibur, a Camelot-inspired fantasy epic, and promptly fell for her co-star, Liam Neeson, who was seven years younger than her. After filming wrapped, Neeson moved from his native Belfast to live with Mirren in London. Their relationship lasted four years, floundering because he reportedly wanted marriage and children and Mirren didn’t. Eventually she decided to move to Hollywood to pursue bigger roles, leaving him behind. Neeson, said to be heartbroken when she left, almost never talks about her publicly but once, when pushed on the subject, he answered, ‘Ah, Helen… what a bright lady and beautiful… she was very special to me. But I can say nothing more.’
Mirren, however, didn’t stay single for long. Once in Los Angeles she auditioned for a role in White Nights, a ballet-inspired film to be directed by Taylor Hackford, whose previous credits included An Officer And A Gentleman. Hackford was married at the time, and it would be a year after he and his wife had parted before he and Mirren became a couple. ‘Helen is just a fantastic partner for me,’ Hackford said. ‘She’s very witty and can use her humour and so on, but she’s a serious artist. You get a clarity and an honesty from Helen, which is only more real when you live with her.’
Mirren, meanwhile, credited their bond – they are still together 30 years later – to them both being unsentimental. ‘Taylor and I aren’t remotely romantic with each other,’ she has said. ‘I would be completely horrified if he gave me a Valentine’s card! That’s not our sort of relationship at all – we would pour cold water on that sort of thing.’
She has been married to Taylor Hackford for nearly 30 years
The tipping point of Mirren’s fame came in 1991, when she was offered the lead in a new ITV police drama written by Lynda La Plante. Called Prime Suspect, it centred on a female DCI called Jane Tennison who was battling sexism within the force while leading a murder investigation. Mirren hadn’t been looking for a return to TV or the UK, but the role was too irresistible to turn down.
‘Helen was already a consummate actress and had the maturity to make the character totally believable,’ La Plante told Marie Claire. ‘She possesses a rare weight and stillness, able to convey in a glance a multitude of emotions and, to this day, I am and always will be grateful she agreed to portray [Jane Tennison].’ The first series was a resounding success (and six more followed, until the final episode aired in 2006), winning Mirren an Emmy and a Bafta. She became a global household name at 46 – just as her fortune teller had predicted.
Away from the cameras, Mirren became equally adored for her outspokenness and refusal to kowtow to others’ expectations. She was candid about not wanting children (‘I have no maternal instinct’) and equally effusive about changing her mind on marriage when she wed Hackford in 1997 (after 11 years together) wearing a low-key jacket and skirt combo. ‘I’m a get-a-dress-at-a-thrift-shop-but-open-a-bottle-of-champagne kind of person,’ she said.
Occasionally, her comments would get her into trouble. In 2008, she suggested date-rape victims should not expect their assailants to be prosecuted because it was a ‘tricky’ area. She was talking from experience, revealing in a GQ interview that she had been date raped ‘a couple of times’ when she was younger – on one occasion she was locked in a bedroom and forced to have sex against her will – but never reported the incidents. In the ensuing backlash, anti-rape campaigners said her comments reinforced the idea women were ‘asking for it’. In the same interview, she also admitted she used to love taking cocaine as a young actress before stopping in the early 80s.
She remains outspoken, while the insecurities that plagued her twenties appear to be a distant memory. ‘As I get older, I don’t look as good – but I don’t give a damn,’ she said recently. ‘If I could give my younger self one piece of advice, it would be to use the words “fuck off” more frequently.’
After scene-stealing turns in Calendar Girls, The Madness Of King George – for which she received her first Oscar nomination in 1994 – and Gosford Park, Mirren was made a Dame in 2003, aged 58. Soon afterwards it was announced she would play Queen Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’ The Queen (2006) and it was to be Mirren’s career opus, winning her the Oscar for Best Actress in 2007.
At 71, Dame Helen has just completed filming the eighth instalment of the Fast & Furious franchise with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and is tipped to be starring alongside Keira Knightley in Disney’s forthcoming retelling of The Nutcracker. Ryan Reynolds, her co-star in last year’s Woman In Gold, said, ‘When they roll the cameras, she becomes whomever she is playing. That’s a beautiful thing.’