The Saturday Profile: Helen Mirren, Actress - The drama queen of England

WHEN I told people that I was writing this profile of Helen Mirren, the most common reaction was a snort of disgust. "Oh God, more excuses to run pictures of sexy old Helen," said one woman. "Why? She's the most written about woman in England," said a theatre type. Nor could anyone resist pointing out that she likes the odd nude scene. "You know the one thing that you can count on with her," said another man, eyes aglint, "is that she always takes her kit off." And then, finally and always on cue, came the discussion about whether those really were her legs in the Virgin ad.

So before you turn the page, let me explain. Helen Mirren may be one of the most written about women in England but the articles tend to follow a certain pattern: interviewer falls in love with Helen, she tells them lots of contradictory things, interviewer says she is the best actress in the universe, she explains why she's not and then everyone has another glass of wine. She may indeed take her clothes off at the drop of a camera lens but, at 53 years of age, surely it's not news anymore. And, before you ask, those were not her legs in the Virgin ad because "mine look like Gazza's".

But sexy old Helen is doing something interesting at the moment and it is more interesting than anything she's done professionally since getting under the skin of DCI Jane Tennison in the television series Prime Suspect. That was her screen role of a lifetime, not that it has had that much competition given her disastrous relationship with Hollywood. But now she is returning to her stage role of a lifetime, playing Cleopatra to Alan Rickman's Antony at the National Theatre. Press previews start on Monday with the run proper beginning on 20 October. The play is already sold out and one suspects it's not Shakespeare who's the real draw.

It will be the third time Mirren has played Cleopatra and each has been momentous. The first was in 1965 when she was an unknown 19-year-old with the National Youth Theatre. "Of course," she said then, "I know an older woman would play it better. Life leaves a mark on people, certainly on Cleopatra. I haven't got that mark yet. I can only try to imagine or think it out." The critics didn't seem to notice the lack of markings, instead raving about her talent for "sluttish eroticism". She joined the Royal Shakespeare Company soon afterward.

Her next Cleopatra came in the early Eighties, opposite Michael Gambon for the RSC. It was a huge success, as befits the woman who then said she wanted to be among the stage greats; and indeed she had taken enough career risks to be one, including, in the mid-Seventies, joining Peter Brook's company in France. "I wanted to be a great actress. I thought the next step on that path was to step away from being successful to do a learning, experimental thing," she says. "It was a bit of a nightmare, but it was fantastic. I did incredible things."

As far as she was concerned, she was at the height of her career as the Seventies became the Eighties. She believes that this Cleopatra was her finest moment. "I did feel I was great," she has said. "I thought that was the best I could ever be on every level."

Some agreed, some didn't. She was nominated for the best actress award but didn't win. Helen Mirren was not a good loser, leaving the ceremony midway and shortly thereafter the country. "I thought: that's it, they obviously don't want me. They don't like me, they hate what I do," she said. "I'll go somewhere else. I didn't have much acclaim. I wasn't being asked to do any work in England. Nobody was actually asking me to do anything. What are you supposed to do?"

It was the turning point of her career and perhaps her life. She left for Hollywood in 1984. Things started off well enough. She played the Russian commander of the spaceship in 2010, and then made White Nights. Taylor Hackford was the director and so she met the man who has kept her shuttling between Battersea and LA ever since (Battersea's attractions include her favourite shop, Kwik Save, LA's her beautiful garden and beloved dogs). This is the "chap" whom, she famously says, she sets her alarm an hour early every day to make love to, and friends say that he is the great love of her life. She has another view: "He is not the love of my life. I've had a lot of great loves in my life. He's the love of this part of my life".

Other lovers included Prince George Galitzine and Liam Neeson, but Helen Mirren always said that marriage was not a state to get yourself into. Nor was pregnancy. "It's not an accident that I've never married and had children," she told The Sunday Times last year. "It was a conscious choice. It's just that I never wanted children. I don't know why. I've never been shrunk, so I've never gone into it. I was never drawn to babies. The only dolls I played with as a child were grown-up dolls. I would have loved a Barbie if they'd been around when I was a girl. And my skin still crawls when I see a little girl hauling around a big baby doll. You see these little five-year-olds with huge, great, monstrous, disgusting baby dolls. I want to go up and rip them out of their hands."

Helen Mirren is a woman of many contradictions and so no one was that surprised when she ended up getting married to Taylor Hackford last New Year's Eve in the Highlands. She was given away by the nephew to whom she has been a second mum (despite above comments). The groom wore a kilt and, as the Telegraph noted, "the bride wore... clothes, which is still a sufficiently rare occurrence". Now she says that she wasn't really against marriage. "I wasn't against it, just for myself," she told the Telegraph last week in her only pre-Cleopatra interview.

Now she is a great fan. "It was fantastic. It was so romantic: a feeling of being not owned but possessed, which I'd never had before. And it's not to be sneezed at. That first euphoria passed but I still get glimpses of it. Like waking up in bed at two in the morning, looking over and thinking: wait a minute, that's my husband there. My husband!" Then, in the next breath, she says that they decided to get married for legal and economic reasons. "Wills, all that stuff." She happily admits this doesn't seem to go at all with the breathless bride stuff. "I'd never expected all that. I thought it would be just the same. I was surprised by how much it has influenced me."

More puzzling than any of her contradictions, though, is what happened to Helen Mirren's career in Los Angeles. Why did the great actress not become a Hollywood star or even something close to one? Why, when the rights to Prime Suspect were bought, did the studio not consider her for the part that had become her signature? There are many theories. She is too much a "real person" to be a star, she won't play the game, and even that she is simply too good an actress. It's a subject on which Helen herself has many opinions. Here are three from the last few years:

- "I wasn't in Hollywood for work. I was there because I was fucking Taylor. I was there for love. And I don't want to be a movie star. I was offered movies at age 18 or 19 and didn't want to be one even then. I don't have that hunger. People who become movie stars are hungry and passionate to be movie stars."

- "Of course I could act them (other actresses) off the screen, but what Demi Moore does is not acting, it's about being a star. It's not funny, it's not absurd, it's professional - getting up at four it the morning and going to the gym for five hours to look beautiful as she does. It is to be incredibly respected, what she does. Speaking as a woman, I think it's fantastic. I'm not being an inverted snob here, I'm being totally genuine. You bloody try it. The point is that you get $8m for a movie. That's a huge point. You get immensely wealthy and immensely famous. It's nothing to do with acting. It's like making a car. I'm too lazy. I can't do that."

- "It's because I'm not American. Americans have a very uncomfortable relationship with people who speak with an English accent. I think it comes from those Cecil B DeMille films where all the Romans were played by people with a British accent and all the good Jews, from Jesus Christ onwards, were played by Americans. They have this terrible fear thinly disguised as admiration, of the Brits. The only kind of Brit you're allowed to be in America is a princess or a duchess or a lord and then they really love you."

She is wrong in that Americans do love her as Jane Tennison. "Jane Tennison is, in short, a great, great character, and darn lucky to have a great, great actress playing her," gushes the Washington Post. And she is also wrong about whether she has the hunger to succeed. The one thing everyone says of Helen Mirren is that she is and always has been ambitious. After all, even becoming an actress required an act of will that would have felled most girls in the Fifties, and most things about her life suggest that she possesses a determination that is rare. Not that she'd ever admit to it or much else. Witness this exchange with an interviewer last year:

Interviewer: "You are, after all, the best actress of your generation."

Helen Mirren: "How long, exactly, is a generation?"

Interviewer: "Twenty-five years."

Helen Mirren: "So which 25 years am I the best of?"

Interviewer: "OK, OK. Don't milk it."

Helen Mirren: "I'm not. It's just a silly thing to say."

But could it be that Helen Mirren doesn't really think that it is such a silly idea after all? Perhaps that is why she has come back to Battersea, to the stage and to Cleopatra. The timing could just be right and, as she would say, this time, life has certainly left its mark.

Life Story

Full name: Ilyena Lydia Mironoff.

Origins: Born 26 July 1945 in a corridor outside the delivery room in Queen Charlotte's Hospital, Chiswick. Her father's side is Russian, coming to England in 1917. Her mother is a Londoner. The name changed when the grandfather died and she was brought up in Southend, feeling more immigrant than English. Her family had no television and spent evenings discussing the meaning of life.

Vital statistics: Age 53. Many lovers and one (new) husband, Taylor Hackford, a lover since 1985. No children, though she has been a "surrogate mother" to her nephew, Simon.

Passions: Sex, famously, and shopping at Kwik Save. No other obvious ones. "I don't have a hobby," she insists, "I don't make things out of matchsticks."

Her critics say: Nothing critical.

Her fans say: She is the best/ sexiest/most wonderful actress of her generation.

She says: "Why am I still eaten up with envy at what everyone else is doing? Why always the continuous anxiety, the worry, the one eye over the shoulder, wondering what's around, wondering who's been offered what? God, I wish I wasn't like that. I'd give anything to know what satisfaction feels like."

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