By her own admission, Helen Mirren hasn’t done too badly at crafting an illustrious career.

By Helen Barlow.

Oscar-winner Helen Mirren reigns as screen royalty

Helen Mirren stars in Woman in Gold.
Helen Mirren stars in Woman in Gold.

Two years ago Helen Mirren won the Olivier Award for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in counsel with various British prime ministers. At the time of the award she was still in the middle of The Audience’s soldout run on London’s West End. When we meet, I suggest her reprisal on Broadway of the role makes her a shoo-in for the best actress Tony, to be announced on June 7.

“I don’t believe in this sort of thing,” she says dismissively, “but that’s very sweet. There are always really great performances on Broadway. So I am very happy that we can show the play to an American audience and I really hope they enjoy it and have a good night out.”

Determinedly down to earth, Mirren is actually saying these words a month prior to the Broadway run. We are talking at the Berlin International Film Festival, following Woman in Gold’s world premiere. As usual Mirren looked stunning for the event, wearing a bright green, lacy Dolce & Gabbana gown. At The Queen’s 2006 Venice awards ceremony, she had been even more adventurous, when in cleavage-revealing sapphire blue she sat beneath a towering golden lion for the photographers to snap her in nymph-like pose, clutching her trophy for best actress.

“I’m desperate not to look like the Queen. Desperate,” Mirren insisted at the time. “I just want everyone to look at me and go, ‘How could she be the Queen? She doesn’t look anything like her.’ ”

Mirren also doesn’t look anything like Maria Altmann, the Jewish refugee from Nazi Austria she plays in Woman in Gold

Interestingly, for many years Mirren avoided portraying real people. “And look where that got me,” she quips. “I always thought it’s not acting, that it’s something completely different where the mimicry gets in the way.”

Since her Emmy-winning portrayal of Elizabeth I on television, however, she has learnt to enjoy the research and then to use her imagination. She has found she’s not bad at it, having garnered an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Sofya Tolstoy in The Last Station and a win for her Queen Elizabeth II. The British dame was also nominated for her supporting role as Queen Charlotte in 1994’s The Madness of King George, though she felt safe there as the long-deceased queen was only known from paintings.

Initially Mirren was enticed by the story behind Woman in Gold. “I’d never heard about it and I don’t know why.” She ultimately came to appreciate Altmann. “She is wonderfully funny, sexy, witty and humane. A great, great woman.”

Altmann is the Viennese-American who took on the Austrian government to reclaim five Gustav Klimt paintings the Nazis had stolen from her family just before World War II. Together with her young and inexperienced lawyer, Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), she waged a legal battle over almost a decade until the paintings were handed back following a landmark ruling in the United States Supreme Court in 2006.

“They just kept battling what seemed to be insurmountable odds,” Mirren explains.

Mirren has maintained some of that queenly stiffness in her portrayal of Altmann, who was in her 80s when the action took place. And although she was unable to meet her subject – Altmann died in 2011, aged 94 – Mirren notes, “I’m sure Maria had an incredible sense of satisfaction and closure at the end of her life.”

Mirren, 69, aimed to create as close a likeness as possible, though wore little make-up and no prosthetics to add the extra years.

“That would get in the way. I mostly watched a deposition Maria gave where there was a long close-up of her. So I changed the colour of my eyes to dark brown, had hair that was a little bit wild, and adopted her Viennese aristocratic elegance. Obviously it was important to try and put myself in her shoes, so I read a lot of books like The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.”

Altmann also possessed an acerbic wit, which Mirren has in spades. “It was the biggest surprise,” co-star Reynolds says. “Helen’s a very, very funny lady and is not afraid to use potty humour, which I love.”

Like her adoring Broadway audiences, the Canadian actor admits to having a crush on Mirren. “He has to say that,” she says with a smile. “I would be very cross with him if he didn’t say that.” 

Mirren likes to feed off youthful energy and has championed previous co-stars including Russell Brand (Arthur), Andrea Riseborough (Brighton Rock) and Jessica Chastain (The Debt). “I certainly prefer working with young people to grumpy old ones,” she says. “Who wouldn’t?” 

Though for an actor to be as “open and welcoming” as Reynolds is unusual, she says. “To be generous is not a natural male trait.” 

Is it because of their egos, or is it sexism?

“I think sexism is partly it. I don’t like to pontificate about men and women, but the famous man splay… You’ve heard of the ‘man splay’? I can’t do it in my skirt, but the way men sit like this. [Mirren hilariously spreads her knees as wide as they can go.] ‘Excuse me, this is my space here, this is me.’ They invade your space without thinking about it,” she says, clicking her fingers. “A woman would generously go, ‘Oh, no, that’s your space, that’s fine.’ So men have a way, a terrible way.” 

She hesitates, realising she may have gone too far: “Please forgive me for my generalisation and please don’t put it up on a headline banner: ‘Helen Mirren says men are ungenerous!’ Do not do that. I will be very cross with you.”

1 . Sexy men

With some well-trained English vowels at her disposal, Mirren, who cut her teeth on Shakespeare, is able to get away with a lot. She is naturally a little outrageous, as Reynolds had commented. The splaying and her sitting leaning over with her elbow on her knee and her hand under her chin have actually livened up our interview. And that was her intention.

Does she have her director husband Taylor Hackford well trained?

“No, Taylor is a man. He’s got that male thing. But like Ryan and [The Audience playwright] Peter Morgan, he looks at women as human beings. These are the men I find sexy.”

Quite obviously, and perhaps quite wonderfully, Mirren has never really cared what anyone thinks of her – ever since she took the fledgling actor Liam Neeson, seven years her junior, under her wing and into her bed after they met on John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur. Hackford, though, is “the love of her life”. A gentle giant of a man, the tall, bearded American had been Mirren’s live-in lover for a decade, after meeting on his 1985 film White Nights, when they married. They’ve now been married for 17 years and have residences in London, Los Angeles and Italy, where they are renovating an old castle. The couple share a love of art. 

“Art is my great pleasure,” Mirren explains. “My husband and I buy art. We don’t collect, but just buy stuff we like. Whether it’s expensive or not is not the issue at all.”

Would she like to own a Klimt? “Oh, yes, wouldn’t you? A nice little one. I’d have it in my bathroom so only I could look at it. I already knew the Klimt paintings before the film, because when I was a student we all had Klimt posters up on our bedroom wall, stuck on with chewing gum to make our bedsitters look a bit better,” she recalls. “He was very fashionable. Obviously I knew his work as a great artist.”

She loves Kandinsky and Goya. “Maybe Goya is my favourite,” she says, “because of the look of immediacy in his paintings and that somehow it seems like it just happened like that. But then you look at the sketches and realise it was absolutely planned and it’s a beautifully constructed thing.”

Mirren paints in her spare time and, while private, isn’t shy about her talent. “Yes, I am quite good. It’s just for myself.”

When Woman in Gold points out that Hitler, too, was a painter, it shows some of his motivation for stealing the art.

“I think a lot of people feel that if only he had been accepted as an artist, the world would be a very different place and many millions of people would have lived,” says Mirren.

It’s important now that we make amends and that we remember the history, she admits.

“The people with living memories of these events are leaving us very soon. As Maria says in the film: ‘People forget.’ It’s an ongoing human story and it’s happening as we speak, in the Middle East, in parts of Nigeria – what’s happening with Boko Haram is horrendous. I was just reading about the Crusades. That’s an unbelievable story of brutality. So it’s always been with us.”

After the five Klimt paintings were returned to Altmann and her family, they were exhibited in Los Angeles before being sold to collectors. In 2006, Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune, paid a then record $US135 million for Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Klimt’s most famous painting of Altmann’s beloved Aunt Adele. The woman in gold now hangs in Lauder’s Neue Galerie in New York and is currently part of a larger Klimt exhibition. Mirren was proudly at the opening.

Having explored her own Russian roots in her preparations for The Last Station, Mirren concedes she could personally relate to Maria’s plight.

“Yes, we were dispossessed, it’s true. But the past was so extreme and unhandleable in Maria’s case, that all you could do was live in the present and go forward. Likewise with my family – you know what happens in war. It’s always given me a slight [disdain] when I look at, ‘Oh, this is Count So-and-so and this is the Lord of So-and-so.” I go, ‘Yeah, well, one war and phhh! All gone.’ ”

2 . ‘A bit raunchy’

In 1996 Mirren declined an appointment as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Though by 2003, having relaxed her political views, she showed no resistance to receiving the female equivalent of a knighthood and becoming Dame Helen.

“I was very surprised,” she recalls. “I always thought I was a bit raunchy. I did Caligula [the banned 1979 film] after all! I was really honoured by the recognition but I tried to carry on the way I always have. My Essex girl side comes out very often.”

Mirren was born Ilyena Lydia Mironoff, to a taxi driver father and a mother who was the daughter of an East End London butcher. Mirren’s grandfather had been a Russian diplomat and noble, but her father, an avowed socialist and anti-monarchist, didn’t believe in such aristocratic nonsense. He renamed himself Basil, anglicised the family name, and exerted a huge influence on his daughter, who would attend many political protests in her youth.

Mirren now says she feels guilty for what she terms “the passing of my radical political attitudes”, though she remains a staunch supporter of women’s rights.

“My mother was very emancipated. In fact, both my mother and my father believed that women had equal rights and that women should be economically independent. I believed it and I never changed.”

Mirren has long maintained she “has no maternal instinct whatsoever” and has never wanted children, a bold thing for any woman to say, though something for which many women are grateful. On screen she has defied stereotypes by playing the butler in Arthur, a female Prospero in The Tempest, and by outgunning many of the famous burly men in Red and Red 2. Nor had she any qualms about her upcoming role as the fierce right-wing columnist Hedda Hopper, who supported the blacklisting of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, another of those men she finds sexy.

Now that she keeps her clothes on in movies, Mirren can view the controversial nudity of her early films with hindsight.

“I don’t think I was used and I don’t think it was feminist. The nudity was a part of some of the movies that I did – and that was all. It was like wearing a costume or not wearing a costume. But my whole body of work, if you look at everything that I did, all the plays, all the television, all the movies… I look at all of that, I think, ‘Well, you didn’t do too badly there, Helen.’ Every year of my life since I started work I have worked consistently throughout the year doing at least one or two or three sometimes four different projects. I have worked hard in my life, that is for sure.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2015 as "Screen royalty".

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Helen Barlow is a Paris-based film writer.

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