To herself she's true

With her sharp tongue and lacerating wit, British actress Helen Mirren does not suffer fools gladly.


Richard Covington
December 30, 1995 5:17PM (UTC)

With her sharp tongue and lacerating wit, British actress Helen Mirren
does not suffer fools gladly. Yet in her films, she seems utterly beset by
them. Unlike the long-suffering queen in "The Madness of King George," the 1994
role that earned her an Oscar nomination, or the agonized mother in a
forthcoming film about IRA hunger strikers, in person, the outspoken
Mirren gives the impression she would send kings, sons and other fools
packing without further ado.

Inescapably regal, with a perpetually bemused look of arch skepticism,
Mirren has fashioned a long-running theater, film and television career
playing aristocratic characters -- from Lady Macbeth with the Royal
Shakespeare Company to Natalya Petrovna in "A Month in the Country" last
year in off-Broadway's Roundabout Theatre. Even as Detective Inspector Jane
Tennison in the Emmy award-winning television series "Prime Suspect," she
keeps herself serenely self-possessed in the midst of the hurly-burly of crime
solving. In contrast to some actresses over 40, Mirren's star has only gained luster the older she gets.

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Born in London, Mirren started acting in her teens with the National
Youth Theatre, performing Shakespeare over the summer school holidays. A
string of successful roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford -
on-Avon and other theaters in London was interspersed with film and
television parts. In the mid-1970s, seeking a radical new direction in her
acting, she uprooted herself from London and signed on with Peter Brook's
experimental troupe on its journeys of theatrical discovery in Africa and the
U.S., performing for tribal villagers and California grapepickers.

In the early 1980s, she met director Taylor Hackford while working on
the film "White Nights." The couple now live together in Los Angeles.
Mirren rarely works there, preferring to make movies in Europe with
European filmmakers, albeit ones backed by Hollywood studios. Among her
23 films, some of the most memorable have been Peter Greenaways "The
Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover;" James Dearden's "Pascali's
Island," Paul Schrader's "The Comfort of Strangers," and Peter Weir's
"Mosquito Coast."

Jim Sheridan, the director of "My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the
Father" is producing Mirren's forthcoming film about the IRA hunger
strikers, written by first-time director
Terry George, the Irish-
born scenarist of "In the Name of the Father."

The following interview took place over the course of a film
conference in Burgundy in France and was continued by telephone to her
home in Los Angeles.

How did the shooting go in Dublin on the IRA film "Sons and
Warriors"?

The first thing to say is that the film will probably not be called "Sons
and Warriors." The best way to phrase it is that it's a film made by Castle
Rock about the hunger strike in 1981 in Ireland. Terry George's original title was
"Some Mother's Son."

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What is your role in it?

I play the mother of a young man who has become involved in the
IRA, ends up in jail and goes off on a hunger strike.

Is IRA martyr Bobby Sands a part of the film?

Bobby Sands is mentioned and appears in the film. It's not remotely
about Bobby Sands, although it is about the hunger strike that he instigated.
It's about a fictional family really, and it's very much seen from the women's
point of view, from the mothers' point of view.

Is the film sympathetic to the IRA?

It's neither sympathetic, nor unsympathetic, I hope, because I don't
want it to be seen as a polemical piece, particularly. I think it's
sympathetic to all people who feel that in order to achieve economic and political freedom they have to fight a war. At the same time, it questions the methods that are
used, the price that has to be paid by families.

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But it's not as much of an indictment of the British system as "In the
Name of the Father"?

The British, as usual, don't come off too terribly well in it. But it would
be hard to make a movie in which the British do come off well in that
particular conflict. Still, it's not a political piece about how horrible the
British were and how wonderful the Irish are. The whole concept
of English domination over Ireland is very muddy and horribly
oversimplified by Americans and basically very, very ignorant. The Irish
themselves absolutely refute this black-and-white interpretation. This story is
not about the horrible bad colonialists against the poor, innocent, struggling,
suffering Irish.

I would see it more as a piece about
the war between the sexes, if you like, rather than a war between two
countries.

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How is it a war between the sexes?

Men go to war and women pay the price, for example -- and children
and old people. Often people engage in war without really thinking of the price that the
people they are supposedly fighting for are going to have to pay. It's done out
of a kind of maybe foolish, maybe noble sense of martyrdom, or of history or
of fighting for what is right. Actually, all around you, your loved ones are
paying the price for your sense of nobility.

Is there a resolution?

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No, because it's an ancient, ancient conflict within human nature. We
don't sit down and nicely make a resolution in the film. I would like people
to come out of the cinema arguing with each other about how to achieve
freedom.

How did you first find out about the part?

The script was sent to me two or three years ago by the writer. It
interested me, but at that time, there was a lot of IRA violence going on in
England. Profoundly innocent people were dying in shopping centers. Bombs were being exploded. I didn't feel inclined to do anything that might be seen
as perpetuating the myth of heroism in that kind of organization.

But with the peace process, I felt people would be able to look more
objectively at this moment as a crucial turning point in Irish history.
Historically, the Irish have used the hunger strike as one of their political
weapons. This concept of starving to death has been imprinted within the
Irish psyche somehow. I think it has to do with some sort of psychic memory
of the famine.

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How do you generally pick the roles you want to play?

I don't really. They pick themselves, they reveal themselves through
circumstance and accident and coincidence. Then, of course, I always look at
the last page of the script to see if my character is there. If she is, then
I'm content.

How did "The Madness of King George" come about?

I knew it was going to be a wonderful project. I love wearing crowns
and fancy dresses. You may laugh, but it's true. I don't mind if I don't have
any lines as long as I get to wear a crown, you know.

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I knew it was at least going to be interesting and classy. I'm a great
admirer of (scriptwriter) Alan Bennett's work. I couldn't turn that down easily, even though on paper the role was not particularly interesting.

Did the success of the film surprise you?

Yes, it did. It surprised me, but it also reaffirmed something I've always
believed and say over and over again, which is that the audience is constantly
underestimated by the makers of entertainment. There is a substantial market
for material that is not obvious. It's not intellectual, but neither is it
simplistic.

Do you think the success of a movie like "George" will lead to others?

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I think it has already. "George" was a part of a movement that has been
gathering force for the past two or three years. Now you see films like
"Othello," "Sense and Sensibility," and "Richard III," films which ten years
ago you would never have seen in the cinemas. It probably is a moment in
time when these things become fashionable and then die away again. That's
the cyclical nature of all art forms, not just movies.

How do you mean?

Things become interesting to audiences and then they get bored with
them. We're going through a brief moment when the classics, for want of a
better word, are interesting to the audiences. They're rediscovering them,
they didn't know they existed. They'll get bored with them and go back to
Renny Harlin.

Your films are mostly done in Europe. Does that pose any problem?

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No. They have very good airplanes these days. It's wonderful to be able
to really live in two different cultures. It's taken a long time for me to
settle into that life. It was difficult at first. I never wanted to be an exile,
feeling cut off from your culture and your country. But it's lovely to feel you really
belong in two places.

Is there any way that you benefit from living in Los Angeles?

Yes, you benefit by realizing that the world is wider and more complex
than if you just live in your one little town, even if that little town happens
to be Paris or London. Because it's a Pacific Rim town you feel the influences
and touch of those cultures that are thousands of miles away, but are gaining
influence around the world, both the Pacific Rim and of course South
America. That is what is exotic to me about Los Angeles, the connection with
Asia and with South America, and that sense of being in a city of the future.
It is a future we have to look at with trepidation because it is quite scary. But
it is nonetheless the city of the future, more so than London, Paris, New York.

Do you have films in mind that might be shot in Asia?

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Actually, there is a script I love that does take place in Asia, not
particularly to do with the Asian society.

What is it?

I would never tell you that.

It seems you've been more successful with your career the older you
get, as opposed to some people who, once they pass 30, just disappear.

I don't see it in those terms. I was very successful in the area that was
my personal ambition very early in my life, basically from age 21 onward. I
don't see myself now being any more successful. You do a bit of TV and more
people know about you. I've always had a pretty high profile even though I
was doing stuff like Shakespeare at Stratford-on-Avon. I've always been quite
in the public eye.

But there are a lot of actresses who are not as sought after as they once
were after they hit a certain age.

And actors, remember. It's not just actresses. In our profession, you're
constantly in the situation of being put out of work and being re-employed. A
lot of people nowadays are having to face that same situation. You didn't
used to. You could go into a job and be there until you retired. Nowadays,
more and more people are having to face what actors have to face all the
time, which is having to not reinvent themselves, but having to find
employment over and over again. Actors deal with this all the time,
when they're 18, 25, 30. The profession weeds people out constantly, in their
2Os, 3Os, 4Os, 50s and 60s.

What bothers you about the American film industry?

Well, the brutality of the system is terrifying because it is seen just as a
commercial venture and actors and actresses are seen as just a commodity.
That's an accepted reality in Hollywood. That's why I don't work there. I can't
accept that and they can't accept me. We don't fit.

What could European filmmakers learn from
the American film industry?

Well practicality, I think really. Sometimes I think European
filmmakers can be so unbearably pompous and arrogant and self-regarding. A
little less of that would be a good idea, and a little more of a simple kind
of attitude toward film, just like the early American filmmakers had. They
were guys who rolled into town and saw it as a great way to make money. In
the process they created an extraordinary industry, the fifth largest exporter
in America.

The French see film, very rightly, as a way of keeping their culture
alive and of selling it to the other peoples of the world. The Americans see it
as a massive marketplace.

At the moment, the British are turning their eyes away from both
understandings of the film industry. They're pretending it's just like
shoelaces. The British government are being very blinkered. The conservative
government has basically destroyed the British film industry by not
actively supporting it. The studios are empty in England; no one's making
any films; the technicians are out of work. All the films are being made
in Ireland, because the Irish government has made tax credits available
and has lent a helping hand to the industry.

Do you think there should be quotas and subsidies for European
films?

Yes, I do. I think they're right. I think the Americans have
realized they can't resist them. They try to resist. They were bullying
and greedy, and thought they had every right to be bullying and greedy.
They got slapped over the wrist by the French. People in the American
film industry have come around to the idea that you can't be aggressive,
you have to be conciliatory.

Still, there is an enormous amount of fear and jealousy by some
Europeans, and the French in particular, towards the whole concept of
moviemaking and marketing in America. They're rightfully afraid, they're
wrongfully jealous. They're jealous of the market success of the Americans.

That's the most important thing, the realization that the marketing,
all the stuff the Americans talk about is incredibly important. Yet the
French think the marketing is a conspiracy. They've been ignoring this all
along. They thought we'll just do a fabulous, artistic movie and audiences
will come. There is a certain truth in that, but it is not enough.


Richard Covington

Richard Covington covers cultural subjects and the arts from Paris.

MORE FROM Richard Covington

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