Is there a harder working actress, senior division, than Dame Helen Mirren? The 66-year-old Oscar-winner has two films in theaters right now, The Debt and Brighton Rock, and a third, The Door, already completed. And just last month, she stepped in at the last minute for an ailing Bette Midler, taking over her role in an HBO biopic about music producer Phil Spector.
Though a late bloomer as a full-fledged movie star, the London-born actress has worked steadily on stage, in films and on TV since she was in her early 20s. And while many actors are lucky during the course of a career, even one as long as hers, to land one iconic role, Mirren has had at least two.
She is most closely associated with playing Elizbeth II in The Queen (2006), the role for which she won an Academy Award as Best Actress (as well as Golden Globe, BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild trophies), and portraying tough lady cop Jane Tennison through seven iterations of Prime Suspect, the BBC miniseries which first aired in 1991.
Mirren is nothing if not versatile. Her recent resume includes sexpot sexagenarians (Brighton Rock), action heroes (The Debt), comic sidekicks (Arthur), tragedians (Phaedra on stage in London) and troubled Shakespearian protagonists (last year’s The Tempest).
In Brighton Rock, an atmospheric British crime drama based on a Graham Greene novel, she plays a teashop owner with criminal connections. The movie is set in the early 1960s, and Mirren sports form-fitting, hourglass costumes and a seen-it-all weariness. She has said in interviews that she drew inspiration for her character’s va-va-voom look from early Sophia Loren movies.
In The Debt, a taut thriller directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), the actress is a retired Israeli secret agent haunted by what happened during a risky mission three decades earlier (Jessica Chastain plays Mirren in the ‘60s scenes). By the end of the movie, Mirren’s character is once again calling upon her long ago training, hunting down a suspect and engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Mirren recently discussed making the movie, and getting an L.A. Fitness “best body” award, on the CBS Early Show:
To both roles, Mirren brings a sense of a woman who has lived a life fuller than most, who knows more than she’s telling, and who has an endless pool of resilience from which to draw. If there’s a fixed Mirren persona, that’s it.
The next time you find yourself discussing Dame Mirren, here’s a nifty obscure fact to drop into the conversation. Her connections to royalty go beyond her regal turn in The Queen, her portrayal of the Virgin Queen in HBO’s Elizabeth I (2005) and appearing as Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George (1994). In fact, Mirren is – drum roll, please – the great granddaughter of one of Queen Victoria’s butchers.
Maybe someday she’ll make a movie out of that story: Meating Her Majesty. We would definitely be amused.
What’s your favorite performance by Helen Mirren?