Helen Mirren doesn't let gender stereotypes stop her from landing the roles she wants

Helen Mirren in Eye in the Sky.

Helen Mirren has always eased into typically male roles, and is still doing so at 70, she tells Helen Barlow

FEW celebrities are as universally loved and admired as Helen Mirren. At 70, she still possesses an unbridled charisma and excesses of talent.

When the Oscar-winner performed her Olivier award-winning role in The Audience on Broadway last year patrons paid as much as US$325 for premium seating in order to view her numerous costume and physical changes as her Queen Elizabeth II zigzagged across time for her weekly meetings with British prime ministers. She was a shoo-in for the best actress Tony and of course won.

“It was very nice of course, lovely. I’m so happy that my fellow actor Richard McCabe also won [as Harold Wilson in the featured actor category],” she says, displaying her usual generosity. So there will be no more Queen? “No more Queen, no.”

Mirren’s role as Maria Altmann in Woman in Gold might not have been as awards-worthy, yet her presence in the film propelled it to box office success, at a time when that Deadpool guy, Ryan Reynolds, couldn’t attract a fly. Mirren had insisted on having Reynolds as her co-star.

As well as relishing her haughty supporting role as Hedda Hopper in Trumbo, she took on what she considered her most important role of last year, as Colonel Katherine Powell, who is at the forefront of dispatching drones in Eye in the Sky.

“Most of the world knows about drones, but we are not sure about how it all works, the moral issues, the terrible decisions that have to be made,” Mirren says.

“It’s a great movie about war in general. I didn’t realise how complicated these decisions are between lawyers and politicians. In movies it’s usually ‘Bang, bang, go, go!’ It gives great credibility to the military in many ways. It doesn’t vilify them either.”

EYE IN THE SKY

Directed by South African-born Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Ender’s Game, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and written by screenwriter Guy Hibbert, the film begins with the London-based Powell’s directive to arrest a British woman who has been working with the Somalian terrorist group al-Shabaab in Kenya.

When a drone exposes suicide bombers being armed within the targeted Nairobi house, the directive escalates to a strike. Still, all the foreign parties have to agree before an attack can launch in a non-warring country, so we watch as the action movies between a drone pilot (Aaron Paul) in Arizona, Mirren’s London-based Colonel, and a London conference including the late Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Frank Benson, the officer ultimately in charge.

“I think Alan would be incredibly proud of this movie,” admits Mirren.

The late Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Frank Benson in Eye in the Sky
The late Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Frank Benson in Eye in the Sky

The actress, who in 2008 made headlines with her svelte figure in a red bikini, here looks heftier in military garb.

“Oh it was awful,” she moans. “I was a good 10 pounds overweight so I felt like a whale.”

Still her weight adds considerable heft to her character.

“I was asking what kind of person this woman would have had to have been to have reached this point. To be a successful woman in the military means you’ve got to have been very targeted and never f**k up.

"Never for one nanosecond are you allowed to f**k up and she’s been like this her whole life. Very much a part of that is eschewing a certain feminine world as the uniform is not particularly flattering to the female shape.”

SENSE OF AUTHORITY

It had been Hood’s idea to change the character, who was originally written as a man, into a woman for Mirren to play. Given her colonel is a strong single-minded woman, Hood says he wanted Mirren because of her natural sense of authority.

“When the screenplay came to me it already was a woman and I think it’s much more interesting because it throws up the dilemma in sharper contrast,” she says.

“But I don’t know if a sense of authority comes easily to me. What I always try to do with the roles that I play is to humanise them. My job as actor is to show the vulnerabilities, the flaws, the insecurities, which are always more interesting than the strong decisions.”

Mirren tries to use references from her own life for inspiration.

The actress made headlines in 2008 with her svelte figure in a red bikini
The actress made headlines in 2008 with her svelte figure in a red bikini

“I remember my parents went through the Blitz in London and they used to say the most terrifying things were the doodlebugs, un-manned bomb deliverers that the Germans had sent over.

"They made a certain noise in the sky, but when they stopped and became silent that was the terrifying moment because they were dropping their bombs. So you’d be there listening and thinking, ‘Please don’t stop!’”

RUSSIAN ROOTS

Mirren was born Ilyena Lydia Mironoff, to a cab driver father and a mother who was the daughter of an East End London butcher. They were not as lower middle class as they seemed. Mirren’s grandfather had been a Russian diplomat and noble, while her father, an avowed socialist and anti-monarchist, didn’t believe in such aristocratic nonsense.

He renamed himself Basil, anglicised the family name and exerted a huge influence on his daughter who would attend many a political protest in her youth.

Mirren now says she feels guilty for what she terms “the passing of my radical, political attitudes” though she remains a staunch supporter of women’s rights and tries to choose movies with a social conscience.

She has defied stereotypes by playing the butler in Arthur, a female Prospero in The Tempest and by outgunning many of the famous burly men in Red.

More recently, she had no qualms about taking on the role as the fierce right-wing columnist Hedda Hopper, who supported the blacklisting of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston).

“I think she was more terrifying than I ever portrayed her,” Mirren notes. “The most terrifying thing was she was so charming. She smiled and it was all about the eyebrows, and the hats and the clothes. She was very into clothes.”

Helen Mirren doesn't let gender stereotypes stop her from landing the roles she wants

Do her roles stay with her afterwards? “Some do, yes. Some Mother’s Son has stayed with me,” she says of the seminal 1996 film which was Terry George’s directing debut where she played the mother of a hunger striker struggling to come to terms with her son’s actions.

“I think probably Maria Altmann in Woman in Gold was another. She was such an extraordinary person.”

Mirren admits she’s more relaxed about acting now, but it’s still an insecure job.

“Being insecure never goes away, but you learn to deal with it. You realize that it’s just part of what you have to put up with, or deal with. So you sort of deal with it, you don’t allow it to overwhelm you. It’s about becoming a professional I guess.”

Eye in the Sky opens tomorrow


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