Helen Mirren: A real drama queen

A sex symbol and feminist for 40 years, she now takes on the most regal of roles - twice over
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The Independent Online

Accepting Best Actress award for her role in Elizabeth I at last week's Emmys, Helen Mirren joked: "My great triumph is not falling a*** over tit coming up those stairs." Having forgotten her high heels, she revealed, she had been forced to buy a pair of plastic "stripper's shoes" from Sunset Strip. The speech was vintage Mirren: witty, unpretentious and a touch bawdy.

At 61, it's extraordinary to think that Mirren has enjoyed sex-kitten status across three decades. She is repeatedly voted the thinking man's crumpet but women love her too. Her professional career blossomed when she was in her late 40s (when she played DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect) and she didn't marry until she was 52. In a world obsessed by youth, she gives mature women hope.

She has never resorted to surgery. "My mother always said, 'Don't worry about getting older darling, nature has a wonderful way of maturing your mental faculties so that you don't mind the physical side.'" And, though happily married, she can flirt for Britain. "It's wonderful to see her handle older men," says a colleague. "She lets them feel like they've got a chance. I think she believes her constituency of potential flirtatious male is generationless. She appeals to men in their 20s, 40s and 60s."

But it hasn't all been idyllic. Three years ago, she revealed to the Mirror that she had been a victim of date-rape several times. She said the "terribly upsetting and disturbing" attacks happened between the ages of 16 and 25, leaving her distrustful of men. "I was being pursued by them purely for sex and absolutely nothing else." She came to regard men as "so vile and so cruel and alien and nasty". "I felt most men despised me as a person... it was like I was a piece of meat." Forty years on, it is tribute to Mirren's confidence and innate sensuality that she could make such a revelation without becoming a victim.

In two weeks' time, we'll see her playing Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears' The Queen. The film (which premiered last night at the Venice Film Festival) focuses on the week following the death of the Princess of Wales. Mirren's performance is already generating Oscar heat.

While she has, in the past, been a critic of the institution of monarchy, Dame Helen is clearly a fan of the present incumbent of the throne, describing her as "utterly without vanity".

Mirren plays the role with padding and very little make-up. "She completely metamorphosed without any prosthetic assistance," enthuses the film's writer Peter Morgan. "When she first came on set she was very much Helen in a wig. I remember at one point she mischievously moved my hand so it came to rest on the breast of a naked statue, and she was very appreciative of one very handsome crew member: 'Cor, he's a bit of all right.' But a week later she was a totally different person. People were simpering like total idiots and almost curtsying. 'Isn't it lovely weather we're having today Ma'am?'"

Mirren's regal bearing stems from her White Russian ancestry. She was born Ilyena Lydia Mironoff to a working-class English mother and an aristocratic Russian father. Her grandfather was a Tsarist aristocrat who was in London negotiating an arms deal for the Russo-Japanese war when the 1917 Russian Revolution stranded him there.

Mirren was brought up in Southend (her father was a taxi driver and musician) and she showed an aptitude for drama but her parents encouraged her to train as a teacher. She joined the National Youth Theatre at 19 and worked with the RSC - earning the title of "the Sex Queen of Stratford" - and Peter Brook. Her first film role, when she was 24, was Age of Consent opposite James Mason.

Mirren's private life was often colourful. She lived in a commune in Wiltshire, run by Princess Margaret's old flame, Roddy Llewelyn. She had an affair with a Russian prince and a relationship with the Irish actor Liam Neeson, seven years her junior. She famously sent Warren Beatty packing. Then in 1986 she met American director Taylor Hackford on White Nights. He left his marriage and Mirren was branded the scarlet woman. Twenty years on, they have one of the happiest marriages in showbiz - they eventually tied the knot in 1997. They live in LA on the fringes of West Hollywood, not glitzy Beverly Hills.

Her breakthrough role was in 1979 in The Long Good Friday, where she cooked breakfast for Bob Hoskins dressed only in an apron. Ten years later she was still bona fide screen totty in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) and got her kit off in Calendar Girls (2003). She has never understood the fuss about nudity. "It's so unsexual and so liberating. I hate the British attitude to public nudity."

Proper character roles only came in her 40s. She was Oscar-nominated for The Madness of King George (1994) and Gosford Park (2002), but it was Prime Suspect that put her on the map (she returns for one final film in October). When it first aired in 1991, it was landmark TV. Here was a contemporary woman, fighting workplace sexism. Long before Bridget Jones, she embodied the single career woman, performing brilliantly at work but going home to mini-meals and scotch. In series three she even arranged an abortion while solving a child-related crime.

Mirren's natural authority raises everyone's game, says Jeremy Irons, who played one of the Queen's on-off favourites in Elizabeth I. "Helen is a consummate actress and I feel she is my senior as far as the business is concerned. She is a very sexy lady, and when we sat down to read-through, from that moment on, I was using all that... I was flirting with her, I was a bit frightened of her, all the right things. All through shooting, I felt I was being quite naughty."

Mirren has made brave film choices, such as Some Mother's Son about the 1981 hunger strikes in Northern Ireland (after her relationship with Leeson, she wanted to portray the confusions and complexities of a country torn by civil war). It was dismissed as IRA propaganda, but she doesn't scare easily. Her role model is her father, a socialist who fought the East End Black Shirts in the 1930s and 1940s.

She campaigned beside Blair in 1997 - "I wanted to get rid of the Conservatives; wanted to get rid of that appalling lot" - but has never joined a political party. She supports Oxfam's crusade against the arms trade and recently visited Darfur.

Mirren jokes that she has gone past "that difficult period between 54 and 58 when you're no longer a mature good-looking woman and not yet the old bird". Even male columnists, the scourge of older women, fall at her feet. Reporting from the Emmys, the Mirror declared: "Helen Mirren made the original Charlie's Angels look like three over-caked grannies out on a pension-day pulling session."

Best of all, Mirren is an unapologetic feminist. "People say, 'there aren't enough roles for women', and I've always said, 'work on getting good roles for women in real life and the roles for women in drama will follow'."