Getting into character

A conversation with Helen Mirren's director, Terry George.

Published December 30, 1995 12:34PM (EST)

How did you first make contact with Helen Mirren?

Taylor Hackford, her partner, read the script of "Some Mother's Son" a
few years ago, before I had done "In the Name of the Father," and passed it on
to Helen. Once she was interested, I didn't consider anyone else. She's perfect
for the role she's playing.

What was it about Mirren that appealed to you for this role?

There's just a great depth of humanity that she brings to the screen. For
this part, it was particularly important, because she plays an intelligent
woman caught up in a terrible dilemma.

There's a sort of tradition in war that the mothers and the wives stand
on the sidewalks and cheer with their flags. Then they wait in the train
stations, airports and docks for the bodies to come home. They're the passive

The Irish hunger strike was a unique occasion where the mothers were
forced into the position of deciding their sons' fates. It would seem a
foregone conclusion on first reading that of course a mother would save her son. But
when your son is Gerry Adams or Bobby Sands or Che Guevara, then it
becomes a real dilemma as to whether the mother should intervene at some
point to save her son's life.

So Mirren's character is in conflict over whether she should save her son's life?

Very much so. Even though the characters are fictionalized, a
composite of several mothers, it's a true story about what they went through
at the last stages of the hunger strike.

What does she choose?

Ah, you'll have to wait and see the film. I can tell you the story is about
the friendship of two mothers -- a staunchly Republican nationalist mother
and Helen's character, a schoolteacher and widow trying to keep her family
together. She's deeply concerned about just managing to have her family

How did Mirren get into character for the film?

She quietly traveled around Northern Ireland talking to people. She
has a fair knowledge of the politics. During the period when the strikes were
going on, she lived with Liam Neeson in a fairly staunch Loyalist community.
Her sister is a school teacher and is quite similar to the character Helen
portrays. She talked to her sister quite a lot about the everyday mechanics of
getting through the day.

Did she give you a whole range of emotions or home in on a single
response in one or two takes?

Basically all I had to say to her was less or more, faster or slower. It was
three or four takes max to have something to play with in the cutting room.
The basic thing is that she never wants to appear to be acting -- and she
never does. Yet the craft is amazing. A lot of the crew is the same we used for
"In the Name of the Father." So you get that same experience we got when we
were watching Daniel (Day-Lewis), you know. Actors take a performance away
out from reality and then the great ones pull it back so close to reality you
can't see the hairline gap between reality and what they're doing. That's what
Helen is capable of doing.

By Salon Staff

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