Born in 1946 in Chiswick, England, to an English mother and an aristocratic Russian father, Mirren knew from very early on that she wanted to be an actress. Only six years old, she disclosed her wishes to her parents. By the age of thirteen she was playing Caliban in a school production of Shakespeare's The Tempest; five years later she had won the leading role in the National Youth Theatre's Anthony and Cleopatra at the Old Vic.
To please her parents, she trained as a teacher at the New College of Speech and Drama at 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.
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.
While her stage career is impressive enough, it is her movie work 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 and confirmed with her portrayals of the incestuous Morgana in Excalibur. As her film career took off, Mirren also found success on television. She won leading roles in Cousin Bette, The Changeling and Coffin for the Bride. She played Stella in The Collection opposite Laurence Olivier and Malcolm McDowell, and Angela in Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills.
On the Set
In 1984, Mirren ventured to Hollywood, where she has a role in 2010 with Roy Scheider. She sat down for a while to talk about her work.
The character she plays in the movie shares some similarities with her own background: while this is the first time Mirren plays a Russian, she is of Russian descent, and was baptized Ilynea Mironova (Iлyнea Миронова).
"It soon became apparent that Peter had had no idea of my background," she says, "when he cast me."
|Mirren as commander Kirbuk.|
"'I dunno, Helen. It just doesn't have that "nye" that I remember from my Russian grandparents.' I went home in despair and played back the tape of my work. It sounded good to me. Then the penny dropped. Peter, with his Russian Jewish roots, was used to an American Russian accent, whereas I was doing the accent of a Russian who had learned English in England. The next day I met with Peter again and this time put a hint of American into the accent. 'Yeah, that's it!' he said. 'That's a Russian accent!'"
The character she plays has been tailored a bit from the novel. The name of Helen Mirren's character – Tanya Kirbuk – is a thinly disguised reference to director Stanley Kubrick, who directed the first film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 16 years prior.
The other actors of the Leonov crew were Russian ex-pats. "They [are] great to work with," she says, "intense, like all Russians. Their trailer [can] explode into shouts and thumping, and when I'd knock on the door to see what's happening, a massive, screaming argument would be in progress: Who was better, Gogol or Dostoevsky? The thumps were the table being thumped."
Like all the other actors, Mirren was impressed by the massive, detailed sets production designer Albert Brenner had created.
"Just the very quality of the sets," says Mirren, "I think, for me, the minute I walk on to these sets – like we have here – I think it helps us more than we know as actors."
The sets themselves certainly set restraints on the actors' work, but they also provided a lot of leeway in the character portrayals, shaping the roles and aiding the performers. "I think we're given," Mirren says, "you know, a lot of our performances simply from being in the set."
The actors, however, did talk about things other than the sets during shooting. Among the topics they talked about was their chosen craft: acting.
|Helen Mirren as commander Kirbuk.|
"Bob [Balaban] gave me an incredible piece of advice about film acting," Mirren says. "I was sitting there watching all these American actors, who just seemed to be all so brilliant to me and just so natural I couldn't see how they were doing it. But Bob said, 'With film acting you have to let it go. It's like shooting with a bow and arrow: from the moment the arrow has left your bow you can't bring it back, it's going to land wherever it lands. You cannot bring it back. You can aim it as well as you can but the minute it's gone, it's gone. So just do what you do on the take in the moment and then let it go. Never go home at night and think 'Why didn't I do that? I should have done it like this.' – as one tends to do sometimes, you re-rehearse the scene and you go home and kick yourself for having not done this that and the other.' That was brilliant, brilliant advice."
Mirren has taken the advice to heart. "I do it. I aim it. The take is letting the arrow go, if you like," she explains. "The audience, you can't really control what the audience think – especially after the music and the editing and the rest of it. It’s transformed into something else. You can think, 'I hope they get the fact that I'm angry but secretly pleased' or something, but if they don't and they get something else there’s nothing I can do about that. I just have to let it go."
While Mirren has played a lot of mystical and mythical characters in the recent past, she says it does not influence her choice of roles.
"You know, I don't choose my roles really; they choose me to a certain extent. You can only do what you're asked to do in the end. Of course all great roles have to do with conflict, without a question, whether it’s internal or external conflict. And you know, I've played many, many, many different sort of roles in my career, which has been incredible fun."
"I don't particularly see a theme there, you know," she says. "I usually try to play characters who appear in the last scene. [Laughs] Especially on the last page, that's the most important thing of all. If they're not on the last page, I think, 'Hmm, I've better have a good look at this one...' So I always read scripts backwards. It's terrible."
Images copyright ©1984 M-G-M.