Helen Mirren kicks off her leopard ballet flats, pulls up her knees, and lies back on a sumptuous sofa in the living room of her Georgian-style East London home. On this brilliant winter Saturday, cobblestone streets and the river Thames are visible outside her window. “Could I have my cappuccino, please?” she asks her guest, with the kind of perfect diction that sounds like an elocution lesson. Mirren is not being a diva; it’s just that her back has gone into spasm after a week of long hours on a cold, rainy film set outside London, where she’s acting in a children’s movie called Inkheart. “I took major muscle relaxants yesterday, but I haven’t taken any today,” she says, wincing as she adjusts pillows to get more comfortable. “Once I’m lying down, I’m fine.”
Mirren’s face is strong and marvelously malleable when she speaks, her expressions cycling from imperious to amused to empathetic. She is petite, with lush curves and a slight haughtiness that is dispelled by her earthy laugh. In her slim brown pants, a T-shirt, and good jewelry she might be mistaken for the type of moneyed matron one sees shopping in Harrods, if her blood-red fingernails and two tiny crosses tattooed near her left thumb didn’t hint at untamed passions, perhaps even a wild past.
“The mesmerizing thing about Helen is that beneath the totally convincing façade of a perfectly bred English lady of a certain age, there still lurks a coiled animal waiting to spring,” says British film director Jon Amiel (Sommersby), who has been courting her for a World War I-era future film project. Most strikingly, she seems confident and comfortable with who she is, which may explain how she can play queens and other formidable figures with such verisimilitude: she utterly vanishes into them.
The year 2006 was Mirren’s incandescent year: at age 61 she came into her own as an international star, an actress of astonishing power and versatility who joins the pantheon of great British leading ladies that includes Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Vanessa Redgrave. Mirren achieved this with three triumphant screen performances: the relentless police detective Jane Tennison in the riveting, bleak, final installments of the PBS series Prime Suspect; an operatic interpretation of what she calls “the best role I will ever have in my life”—the title character in HBO’s miniseries Elizabeth I; and a nuanced, wickedly witty rendering of the reigning Queen Elizabeth in director Stephen Frears’s film The Queen.
Well before Christmas 2006, Hollywood insiders had already tagged Mirren as a shoo-in for the best-actress Oscar (at press time, nominations were not yet announced), and she has received a cascade of critics’-group honors and three Golden Globe nominations. But while she is animated when discussing the psychologies of Queens She Has Played, questions regarding her new white-hot celebrity seem to curdle her mood. “I am not a movie star, and I never will be,” she says tartly. “It just happened that I had an incredibly intense and demanding year of work.” Like it or not, however, Mirren’s rare accomplishments, combined with her platinum-blond glamour, are a “You go, girl” inspiration for mature women.
Film fans in this country have long savored Mirren’s vivid appearances, sometimes unclothed and audaciously sexual, in art movies such as Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), in which she played the savage wife. She earned supporting-actress Oscar nominations as sweet, sad Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George (1994) and as the dour housekeeper with a secret in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001). But considering her proven ability to carry a movie, she has been underused by mainstream Hollywood, where she has generally been asked to show up and make a male star look good. She played Harrison Ford’s wife in The Mosquito Coast (1986) and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s love interest in White Nights (1985); on the latter set she fell in love with the director, Taylor Hackford (Ray), and the couple have been together ever since (they married in 1997).