In Great Britain, however, Mirren is renowned as a masterful stage actress with a long résumé of Shakespearean and other classical leading roles. So much so, in fact, that she was granted a coveted knighthood and the title of “Dame” for her contribution to the culture. She has played Cleopatra three times, first seducing Antony before a live audience at the age of 19. As a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in the late ’60s and early ’70s, her daringly sensual portrayals earned her press notices as “the sex queen of Stratford” who “put the bawd into the Bard.” Legend has it that all of Mirren’s leading men fall for her, and she has returned the affections of a few; she lived with Liam Neeson for four years after they met making Excalibur (1981).
“Helen is extraordinary, and very sexy,” says Jeremy Irons, who played Mirren’s suitor the Earl of Leicester in Elizabeth I and is quick to stipulate that all romance was confined to their performances. “Beauty is what has lived in you, and it shows in your face. A great thing about Helen is that she hasn’t tried to make her face look any different. She has great inner vibrancy and inner energy. Working with Helen is like watching a Bentley purr on the road: you know if you put your foot down, there’s going to be a lot of power.”
To be a great actress has been Mirren’s lifelong ambition. Ilynea Lydia Mironoff grew up the middle child of three in the working-class London suburb of Leigh-on-Sea. Her father’s father, a csarist colonel, was in London making an arms deal during the Bolshevik Revolution and could never return home. Helen’s father, Basil, played viola in the London Philharmonic before World War II and later drove a cab. “My father was a left-wing socialist, the kind of guy who in America, if he’d been remotely successful, would have been hauled up before McCarthy in disgrace,” she says.
The family lived in genteel poverty, without television, heat, or a washing machine but with stimulating dinner-table conversation about life and art. Determined to assimilate, her parents changed the family name to Mirren, sacrificed to give their two daughters elocution training, and stressed education and financial independence.
" 'Have your own money, darling’ is what my mum always used to say,” Mirren recalls. “There was never a suggestion in my household that you didn’t have to earn your own money because you would get married. To that extent I guess my mother was a feminist.” Helen inherited from her mother, Kathleen, an intense imagination and a tempestuous nature. Although her parents hoped she would become a teacher, at 18 Mirren was accepted at the National Youth Theatre and went on to perform her fiery Cleopatra at the Old Vic Theatre. Two years later she was asked to join the RSC and cemented her status as a leading young player with a glowing (and nearly naked) incarnation as Cressida in Troilus and Cressida.
Anatomy is destiny for young actresses, and as an ingénue Mirren was inevitably cast as the sexy young thing despite her serious intentions. Eager for all kinds of experience, she got naked on the Great Barrier Reef in one of her first film roles, Age of Consent, an erotic comedy with James Mason. She danced provocatively in a cone bra in the soft-porn cult classic Caligula, in the company of such distinguished colleagues as John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole. In a behind-the-scenes archival interview on the film’s DVD she is asked why she chose to do the film. “It was an irresistible mix of art and genitals,” she says, with deadpan chutzpah. When this remark is repeated to her today, she laughs delightedly: “My big mouth!”
Mirren harbors neither embarrassment nor regret over youthful follies. “I was very grateful to Caligula in many ways,” she says. “It taught me about filmmaking, and it bought me my first house.” If she has never run from her sexy image, she was nevertheless frustrated at the one-dimensionality of available film roles. “It wasn’t like I’d had breast augmentation, but I happened to have a curvy figure and naturally blond hair,” she says. “Inside was a very fierce and thoughtful person, which is me. But it wasn’t allowed to—if it was recognized, it was sort of a scary proposition. It scared people.” Mirren might have had a more lucrative career in Hollywood, but she stayed in London, where she felt it was more likely she would find challenging work.