There is nobody quite like this dame. Dame Helen Mirren, that is. From working class beginnings to a Damehood in the Order of the British Empire, Mirren has one of the most celebrated acting careers, winning three Golden Globes, an Oscar, four BAFTAs, four Emmys and of course, that ultimate validation, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironoff was born in Chiswick, England to a Russian émigré father and butcher’s daughter. She went on to early success at the Royal Shakespeare Company which she was invited to join before she was 20, launching a thriving career on stage, made all the more interesting by her uninhibited doffing of clothes, which led one critic to dub her “the Sex Queen of Stratford.” An international tour with Peter Brook’s experimental theater company followed, and she returned triumphant to the RSC and West End with several acclaimed performances including Lady Macbeth and Nina in The Seagull. On-screen she was then seen in Caligula (1979), The Long Good Friday (1979), Cal (1984), White Nights (1985 – where she met her husband, director Taylor Hackford), The Mosquito Coast (1986), Pascali’s Island (1988) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) among others.
Her biggest television success and international fame came in 1990 in the BBC series Prime Suspect, where she played Jane Tennison, a police detective of a certain age struggling to make it in a man’s world with issues of her own. Showered with accolades, the series went on for seven years while Mirren continued her film career. The Madness of King George (1994) and Gosford Park (2001) both brought Oscar nominations. She made her Broadway debut in 1995 with A Month in the Country opposite John Hurt and Joseph Fiennes.
A new highlight of her shining career came in 2006 when she portrayed Elizabeth II in The Queen, a role that swept all the major awards of the season. That same year she became the only actress to have ever played both queens Elizabeth I and II on the screen when she was cast in the title role of the TV series Elizabeth I, for which she won both a Globe and an Emmy. When asked to compare both roles she told the HFPA, “Elizabeth II was the most intimidating role I’ve ever played. Elizabeth I obviously is a much more emotional role, but this was more frightening to me because she’s so well known. She’s an icon all over the world. Everybody knows what she looks like, what she sounds like, and I knew that I had to at least get those things right, and hopefully go way beyond the simple impersonation of the Queen. I felt the script was wonderfully sensitive, funny but human. And that was why I agreed to do it. It’s a dangerous subject to wander into as an actress. So I was very, very nervous at the thought of it.” When asked if she was worried about her Damehood being taken away if the film angered the Queen, she laughed. “I think once you’re given a Damehood or a Knighthood, I don’t think they can take it away from you. Even if you do something really, really bad, I don’t think they can.”
Mirren played Queen Elizabeth II once more in 2013, this time on stage in Peter Morgan’s The Audience, which tells of the weekly meetings the Queen has with all her Prime Ministers, a role she reprised on Broadway for which she won her second Tony award. The West End production garnered her an Olivier.
After last year’s Globe nomination for her portrayal of Madame Mallory, the hard-nosed owner of a French restaurant in Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hundred Foot Journey, she’s back again with her fourteenth, this time for Best Supporting Actress playing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in Trumbo. Hopper, the woman who called her mansion in Hollywood “the house that fear built,” is played with delicious malevolence by Mirren, resplendent in Hopper’s signature hats as she threatens, cajoles and bullies studio bosses to blacklist writers opposing her so-called patriotic right-wing views. Mirren refuses to see her as a villain. “Put her in context,” she told us. “She was speaking what the majority of Americans believed. She was patriotic. She felt she was doing what was right for America in the profoundest way. I think she also knew that it was what her public wanted to hear.” And that public, 34 million strong, loved her. “Not even Fox News has 34 million these days,” Mirren continued. “It was an incredible megaphone and that power landed in the hands of a woman who was absolutely unafraid of wielding it. She was not intimated by anyone or anything.”
Next up for her is Eye in the Sky directed by Gavin Hood to come in 2016. She is an active supporter of children’s charities in the UK and is the newest face of L’Oreal Paris.