Dame Helen Mirren, Unlikely Action Hero: Moving on from ‘The Queen’

Helen Mirren in 'The Debt.' Photo by Laurie Sparham/Focus Features.

Dame Helen Mirren believes the tide has begun to turn. People no longer automatically link her to The Queen when they hear her name. “I think they’re getting away from that finally,” she says. “It was a fantastic experience for me, absolutely incredible, but I think we are probably moving on from that now, and I’ve done a lot of different things since then.”

Since winning the Oscar for her title role in The Queen four years ago, she’s had some decidedly non-regal parts: she played a brothel madam in Love Ranch, a trained killer in Red, and a nanny in Arthur.

Brighton Rock, a nourish adaptation of Graham Greene‘s classic novel, arrives on screens this Friday (August 26) starring Dame Helen as a streetwise protective tea shop manager on the south coast of Britain in the 1960s.

And in the espionage thriller The Debt (out August 31), the actress will be portraying the fictional Rachel Singer, a retired Mossad agent haunted by a botched 1960s espionage mission involving the capture of a Nazi War criminal in East Berlin. Singer is a determined woman and trained killer.


Mirren, who’s now 66, says she likes acting that requires a certain degree of physicality: “Any kind of action is great because it means you don’t actually have to act. The action does the acting for you, which is great.”

This week’s New York premiere for The Debt turned into a Dame Helen love-fest. Up and coming star Jessica Chastain, who plays a younger version of Rachel Singer, said: “It’s the ultimate compliment to share a part with her.”

And the film’s British director John Madden, who’s worked with Dame Helen before on Prime Suspect, said: “She’s brilliant at conveying the kind of knotted complexity of a character and she’s fantastic to work with.”

For all involved with The Debt, it’s been a frustrating process: the picture was finished a long time ago but sat on the shelf because of complications over ownership.

What’s finally arrived on screen showcases some strong performances but the thriller itself, while solid, is being seen as rather conventional.

Dame Helen gives a strong performance, but it’s not by any stretch a career-defining part. For many of her admirers nothing will ever top her magnificent portrayal of Her Majesty.