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Mirren, Mirren on the Wall

After a triumphant year playing two of England’s most formidable queens, Helen Mirren pauses to reflect on a life of exceeding expectations—even her own

Though she worked steadily in film and television throughout the 1980s, it wasn’t until 1991 that Mirren was given a screen role expansive enough for her talent: Jane Tennison, the flawed, foulmouthed detective superintendent in the gritty PBS series Prime Suspect, which ended its 15-year run last year. (Although set in London, the series was filmed in Manchester, England.) “Prime Suspect was an incredible thing for me because it allowed me to segue out of that sexy thing into something else and show the reality about me that was not related to the immediate outward look of me,” she says. As Tennison she ruled her male-dominated police precinct with hard-boiled élan, having an affair with a subordinate and messing up her personal relationships. Ardent fans on both sides of the Atlantic were dismayed to see Tennison’s pathetic slide into alcoholism in the final episodes, but Mirren was typically unsentimental. “I thought it was realistic,” she says.

'I am not a movie star, and I never will be.'

In the end it would be love, not work, that would entice her to make a home in Los Angeles. Her first meeting with her future husband, Hackford, was not promising. He kept her waiting to audition for White Nights, and she was icy. “It was a strange way to meet Helen, because she is a lovely person,” says Hackford, “but she didn’t hold back her fury.” Obviously their relationship improved once they were working together, and they discovered they shared a working-class background, a love of adventure travel, and a dedication to telling thrilling stories on film. Although she had never wanted children of her own, Mirren became a friend and supporter to Hackford’s two young sons from previous marriages. “I have to say that the thing I loved most about Taylor was his absolute, total commitment to his children,” she says.

As a young woman Mirren had vowed never to marry. But after 12 years together she and Hackford wed. She was 52. “I still sort of don’t believe in marriage,” she says, “but that’s not to say I’m not incredibly happy to be married. And the one thing I thought I’d hatelots of girlish emphasis here—“which was ‘my husband,’ I say all the time. I can’t wait for an opportunity to say it…you know: ‘My husband is over there at the moment.’ I absolutely love it.” Mirren and Hackford divide their time between London and their hacienda high in the Hollywood Hills, buffered from the madness below by acres of tropical trees and gardens they both love to tend. They keep a low profile when in Los Angeles, with Mirren playing the role of bemused observer; they rarely go to parties.

Back in London she contributes money and makes appearances for a private advocacy group called Help the Aged, which aids underprivileged retirees. “I call the generation in Britain that went through the deprivation of the Second World War the noble generation,” she says. “To see those people struggling and suffering is unbearable.”

'I always say what I want to play is the next thing that comes along.'

It’s an exceptional actress who portrays even one Queen Elizabeth in a year. Helen Mirren is the only actress who has played them both.

The Virgin Queen came first. As she typically does, Mirren prepared by immersing herself in historical research, and she discovered a monarch who veered between shrewd political strategist and flamboyant fool in love. “When Helen first came in,” recalls Nigel Williams, the screenwriter for the miniseries, “she said, ‘This is all to do with chamber pots.’ She was talking about how the Elizabethans lived, about the characters being flesh and blood. Helen is extremely precise about very small bits of behavior, about details of gesture and voice. So her performances are perfect on the outside and also felt from the inside. That’s very unusual in an actor.”

Mirren’s collaborators say that during the grueling shoot in Lithuania she never complained about the back pain that plagued her from the heavy costumes. “I read an interview with Vivien Leigh in which she said that when she made Gone With the Wind, she felt that she would never have a role that great again. And I felt like that with Elizabeth. I just told myself, ‘You absolutely do this full on, full out, all the time. It doesn’t matter how you feel, how tired you are, how much pain you are in.’ I gave it everything that I had.”

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