Helen Mirren: Queen of the Screen

She is tipped for an Oscar for her role as Elizabeth II in 'The Queen', which premiered at Venice this weekend. Elisa Bray looks at the enduring appeal of Helen Mirren

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:11


Born Ilyena Lydia Mironoff on 26 July 1945 in Chiswick, west London, to a Russian father and English mother, Helen Mirren performed on stage during her Southend school years, but was discouraged from an acting career by her parents. Her first starring role was as Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra at the Old Vic in 1965, which led to her joining the Royal Shakespeare Company and playing Cressida in Troilus and Cressida. In November 1969 she appeared (often nude) in The Age of Consent.

In an interview aged 23, Mirren said: "I've always carried around this vision of myself as 'the star' in the Elizabeth Taylor, Sarah Bernhardt tradition." She later said the sex-symbol label was a "horrible rucksack on my back, related to the way I looked - I happened to have blonde hair and big tits." (James Rampton, The Independent, 5 November 2003.)


The Seventies became Mirren's time for experimentation and in 1972, aged 27, she joined Peter Brook's International Centre for Theatre Research in France, and joined the group's tour across north Africa, which created The Conference of the Birds. She starred with Malcolm McDowell in the 1974 film O Lucky Man! and played Lady Macbeth in Trevor Nunn's 1974 production at Stratford.

"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. It was a bit of a nightmare, but it was fantastic. I did incredible things."


Mirren played her second role as Cleopatra with the RSC in the early Eighties, opposite Michael Gambon. She was nominated for a Best Actress Olivier award in 1983, but didn't win, and in 1984 she went to Hollywood where she made White Nights, directed by Taylor Hackford, her lover and future husband. She starred opposite Michael Gambon again in the 1989 film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

"I wasn't in Hollywood for work. I was there because of 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."


In the mid-Nineties, Mirren moved into a new acting realm, taking on the role of Detective Jane Tennison in the police drama series Prime Suspect. Still, she had not escaped her label of sex symbol, appearing nude on the cover of the Radio Times for her 50th birthday (she was voted the sexiest woman on television in a Radio Times poll). In 1997 she contradicted her oft-articulated determination to never get married when she wed her lover of 13 years, Taylor Hackford.

"I have traded on it. I do the tousled thing from time to time. Like now. I can do the dirty thing. Or grubby. But at some point you decide enough of that, I had better move on. Jane was a brilliant moment for me to do that [move on].Suddenly I was a woman in my forties, and I could be exactly who I was. I didn't have to be gorgeous any more - sorry, I was never gorgeous, but you know, that sex symbol thing. It was brilliant."

Present day

Contrary to her opinion that her Eighties Cleopatra was the pinnacle of her career, Mirren last week won an Emmy for her role as Elizabeth I in the Channel 4 film and is now tipped for an Oscar for her role in The Queen. She was made Dame in 2003.

"I've been very lucky, but I've made my own luck. I never let go of my theatre work and if you have that breadth of roles between theatre, television and film, hopefully the roles will be available. My mother always said, 'Don't worry about getting older, nature has a wonderful way of maturing your mental faculties so that you don't mind the physical side of ageing'."

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