'Whenever I see the Queen, I think, "Oh ... there I am"': The right royal progress of Helen Mirren

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She is so at home playing royalty you could slap her on to a postage stamp and no one would know the difference. Now, she's at it again...

To play one British monarch named Elizabeth may be considered fortunate; to play two looks like calculation. When Helen Mirren followed her portrayal of Elizabeth I in 2005 with Elizabeth II in 2006 the crown was hers for the taking. The rave reviews of her latest stage incarnation of HM would seem to bear this out.

"Helen Mirren once again giving a magnificent performance as the Queen," gushed the Telegraph; the Daily Mail concurred: "Dame Helen Mirren is now so good at playing the Queen, you could stick her on stamps and people would lick them."

"Whenever I see the Queen," the actress joked recently, "I always think, Oh, there I am!" She is clearly comfortable playing royalty. One of her very earliest stage roles was as Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, a role that she went on to play twice more. On film, she has played a queen or empress six times: The Queen (2006); Elizabeth I (2005, a TV mini series); The Prince of Egypt (1998); The Snow Queen (1995); The Madness of King George (1994); and Caligula (1979).

Coming from Russian Tsarist stock, it may be that she has a genetic disposition towards blue-blooded roles.

Her grandfather Piotr Vasilievich Mironoff was a tsarist (White Russian) aristocrat who was in London negotiating an arms deal during the First World War when the 1917 Russian Revolution stranded him there. Helen Mirren was born in Queen Charlotte's Hospital, north London, 28 years later. She developed a taste for acting at her school, a Catholic convent, and was accepted into the National Youth Theatre at 18.

By the age of 20 Mirren was starring as Cleopatra in the 1965 production of Antony and Cleopatra. Her performance as the Egyptian leader landed her an agent, as well as a place with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She began playing sexually charged roles such as Castiza in the 1966 staging of The Revenger's Tragedy; Cressida in a 1968 production of Troilus and Cressida; and Lady Macbeth in the 1974 Trevor Nunn production of Macbeth. These roles earned her the dubious title "The Sex Queen of Stratford".

Some labels are hard to unpeel. The difference is that Mirren has learned to exploit it. Following the notorious interview with Michael Parkinson in 1975 when he leeringly referred to her physical "equipment", it was clear that Mirren was not going to let a little thing like male chauvinism stand in the way of her career nor dampen her sexual allure. She would take control – and she did: the 67-year-old has never been out of work. This is a rare thing for any actress and among her peers perhaps only Maggie Smith and Judi Dench have managed to maintain such a career continuum.

In 1992, Mirren landed her breakthrough TV role as Detective Inspector Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, conveying the vulnerability beneath the tough exterior of an authoritative woman in a man's world in all its emotional complexity (including incipient alcoholism and unwanted pregnancy).

By the time the show concluded in 2006, Mirren had a cupboard full of awards and had been made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2003 Queen's Birthday Honours List. Not bad for an Essex girl whose first job was as a "blagger" for the Kursaal Amusement Park in Southend.

The remarkable thing about Mirren is her seemingly effortless ability to please most of the people all of the time. She has retained a dignity and professional kudos among her peers and the public through a string of performances and accompanying awards (including an Oscar for The Queen) while retaining the phwoar! factor that threatened to overshadow her early career. Photographs of the sixtysomething siren in a bikini can still make men go weak at the knees, while women regard her with a benign envy. Her appeal is trans-gender and pan-generational.

"Flesh sells," she says with admirable candour. "People don't want to see pictures of churches. They want to see naked bodies."

There is a great deal more to Mirren than sex, of course. The fact that she has evolved from a young, aspiring actress into a fully fledged icon is the result of consistent hard work and a refusal to be channelled into a rut. This applies as much to her personal life as to her career choices. Following a string of relationships, she finally married the US film director Taylor Hackford in 1997 after several years of happy cohabitation. She was 52 and it was her first marriage. Although she has never had any children and never expressed a desire to have them, she adopted Hackford's sons as her own. Women have never given her a hard time about this. "It was only boring old men," she said recently. "Whenever they went, 'What? No children? Well, you'd better get on with it, old girl', I'd say, 'No! Fuck off!'"

She and Hackford divide much of their time between an estate in the hills above Los Angeles and a riverside place in Wapping, on the Thames in east London.

"I still have a gypsy sense of adventure," she insists. "I don't think I have slept in the same bed for more than three or four months my whole life. I am always planting vegetables that I never get to eat and flowers that I never see flower. I have always moved around the world."

Above all, she has a sense of humour about herself that is entirely unforced. Many things about Mirren endear her to us. That she has a tattoo. And that she can still accidentally swear on daytime television – as she did recently – and then look like a naughty schoolgirl at her slip. It is amusing that she can carry off a pink dye job without looking like either a stick of candyfloss or a spinster aunt.

We like her refusal to succumb to political correctness or be conspicuously shocking, and her ready wit: she told Vanity Fair that what she values most in friends is their "ability to open a bottle of wine". On receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, she quipped about the location to reporters: "I'm actually going to finally lie next to Colin Firth, something I've been wanting to do for a very long time."

Perhaps her most endearing qualities – and what makes her the darling of media as politically polarised as The Guardian and the Daily Mail – is her attitude to her work which is respectful without being precious.

"All you have to do is to look like crap on film and everyone thinks you're a brilliant actress. Actually, all you've done is look like crap."

Looking crap is not something she needs to worry about. She has three movies in waiting, including a Phil Spector biopic, in which she plays the murderous music mogul's attorney, and another in which she reteams with Hitchcock star Anthony Hopkins in Red 2, the sequel to the comic-book adaptation about a team of retired assassins.

Clearly, she chooses projects that appeal to younger generations as well as the increasingly important grey-pound spenders. And the fact that she can slip easily from gun-toting cougar to monarch, from cop to Calendar Girl is the secret of her enduring appeal.

"I don't mind if I don't have any lines as long as I get to wear a crown," she once observed.

And, let's face it, a girl can never have too many crowns.

Dame Helen's career

Screen

Parkinson, 1975

Interviewing the 30-year-old rising star, Michael Parkinson dwelt on her propensity for nudity and her "physical attributes". In response, Mirren answered his questions calmly and stroked a long feather. As recently as two years ago, she called the interview 'enraging'.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, 1989

At the centre of Peter Greenaway's exquisitely staged drama of appetite in all its forms was Mirren, trussed up in a series of eye-popping outfits and keeping her thug of a husband, Michael Gambon, in the dark.

Prime Suspect, 1991 to 2006

In one of the best TV dramas of the Nineties and Noughties, Mirren played DCI Jane Tennison, revealing the role's grit and depth in an environment dominated by men.

The Queen, 2006

With little make-up but much physical skill, Mirren suggested, as much as anyone could, the pain experienced by the private monarch in the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Stage

Antony and Cleopatra, 1965

Mirren has played Shakespeare's Cleopatra three times, but it was her first, highly sensual, appearance, aged 20, at the National Youth Theatre, that put her on the map.

The Duchess of Malfi, 1980

Mirren was mesmerising as Webster's headstrong heroine conducting an illicit affair with Pete Postlethwaite, beneath the jealous eye of Bob Hoskins, at Manchester's Royal Exchange.

Orpheus Descending, 2000

Prowling around the Donmar stage in a cotton nightie, Mirren portrayed the transformation of a frustrated spouse to a woman discovering her sexual self in Tennessee Williams's little-seen drama.

Mourning Becomes Electra, 2002

Eugene O'Neill's epic relocation of Greek tragedy to post-Civil War America saw Mirren on vicious form as a New England matriarch who, with her lover (Paul McGann), murders her husband.

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