Interview: Dame Helen Mirren
PUBLISHED: 11:59 13 June 2016
Raised in Southend, Dame Helen Mirren is an inspired actress who has become something of a national treasure while remaining true to her Essex roots. Jake Taylor asked her how
There are many things that define a sense of Britishness: a cup of tea, for example, an English rose, or perhaps, Dame Helen Mirren. The quintessentially British actress may well have won an Oscar for a stunning portrayal of the nation’s monarch in The Queen, but in many ways Helen’s feisty nature, fearless independence and tendency to say exactly what she means have made her just as much of a national treasure as HM herself.
Now, at the age of 70, Helen continues to wow fans worldwide with her apparent ability to defy the effects of ageing, while also continuing to light up Hollywood blockbusters with seemingly effortless ease.
Having grown up in Southend on Sea, Helen isn’t one for looking back on her childhood with rose-tinted glasses. While attending the premiere of her film The Tempest in 2010, Helen cheekily described her home town as, ‘a place where people get drunk, throw up, or have a fight and a one night stand’ – although she was quick to add that in this respect, Southend was a lot like any average British town on a Saturday night! Later, when accepting an honorary degree from the University of Essex, Helen said that in fact her upbringing in Southend had been ‘wonderful’.
‘My mum and dad were sort of escapees from the East End,’ said Helen, ‘and they thought that Southend was nirvana because there was a beach and there was air; they thought that it was a great place to bring up three kids, and they were right!’
Having gained a ‘great education’ from St Bernard’s Convent school – despite the fact that Helen’s ‘extremely left wing communist family’ had some problems with her and her sister going to a grammar school – Helen decided from a young age that she wanted to be an actress, commenting that treading the boards was, ‘the only thing that I was any good at’.
However, Helen didn’t believe she had a chance of realising her dream. ‘At that time only posh people became actors,’ she explains. ‘I thought that I would go a different route – I’d sit on Southend seafront and hope that a producer might drive by and screech to a stop and say, “You’re the one for me!”’
Of course, that particular fantasy never came to fruition and Helen’s eventual rise to stardom was a product of hard graft, raw talent and the ability, as a fledgling talent, to stick up for herself in the male-dominated world of the silver screen.
‘It took time before I overcame all my insecurities and anxieties in my twenties,’ she recalls. ‘I gradually learned to take charge of my life and learn to handle myself in a man’s world – and certainly the film business was very much driven by men in those days, and still is to a large extent. You can’t just think that if you believe in yourself it’s going to happen for you. You have to work for it to happen.’
Fighting against stereotypes is something that has been instilled in Helen, via her left-wing parents – education was as important for their two girls as it was for their boy – and her enduring status as an original, outspoken Essex girl. An outlook to be independent and not have to rely on a man for financial security is part and parcel of Helen’s timeless beauty. Despite her apparently advancing years, and three-decade long marriage to film director Taylor Hackford, those infamous shots of Helen in a red bikini led even Russell Brand to declare his undying admiration for the stunning septuagenarian.
But looks aside, how does Helen feel about being a role model to generation after generation of aspiring female actresses? ‘I’m just very fortunate,’ she says with humility. ‘I’m lucky that I’ve been able to hold on for as long as I have,’ adding that she does like to ‘keep it interesting’ in terms of the roles she chooses to take.
Perhaps the idea of ageing has been more at the forefront of Helen’s thoughts than usual – she recently starred in military drama Eye in the Sky, a film made more famous for being Alan Rickman’s last appearance before his untimely death early this year. Helen, who starred opposite Rickman in a production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in 1998, explains that, in Eye in the Sky, ‘the Alan you see up on the screen is much closer to the real Alan Rickman we all knew and loved’.
After such a long and varied career, it’s entirely understandable that Helen shows some signs of taking it easy. She admits to spending some of her days, ‘gardening, going to markets and occasionally enjoying parties in the most scenic settings you can imagine,’ namely her and husband Hackford’s villa in the idyllic setting of Salento, Italy.
Despite this apparent nod to the prospect of a potential European retirement, you can still see that, deep down, Helen’s as British as they come. ‘I’m a rebel and so I have no fear in speaking my mind and asserting my point of view,’ the star reminds anyone thinking her youthful feistiness is in any way diminished. ‘Women in particular need to keep speaking out until the politicians in Hollywood give women greater equality and our fair share.’
As for the prospect of turning 71 this year? ‘When I think about it, it seems impossible!’ she laughs. ‘Fortunately I’m someone whose nature it is to live very much in the present and not get depressed about my age or appearance – one good thing about getting old is that even though you might not look as good as you once did, you don’t give a toss!’