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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

The character of Queen Elizabeth II—as dutiful and restrained as Elizabeth I was histrionic—presented Mirren with a different set of challenges. When she first read Peter Morgan’s script for The Queen, a film about the dramatic week following Princess Diana’s death, “there was no way I wasn’t going to do it—the people involved were so great,” Mirren says. “And yet it was very, very scary.”

All British subjects are so intimately familiar with their queen of 55 years—her gait, her dowdy getups, her clipped cadence—that Mirren knew she would have to hit a bull’s-eye for audiences to accept her. “Every British person knows how to send up the queen’s voice, so to find that voice and make it sound real and natural was going to be hard,” she says. “And also knowing it would be under incredible press scrutiny in Britain, because it hadn’t really been done before.”

Mirren had once met Queen Elizabeth briefly at a tea reception following a polo match. “The queen was absolutely charming,” she recalls. “I had heard people say, ‘Ooh, I was so scared to meet the queen, and she was so luv-ly!’ and I would say, ‘Oh, you arse-lickers.’ And I came away saying exactly the same thing: ‘She was so luv-ly!’

“The truth is, she was—she was smiley and sparkly, not grumpy queen at all,” Mirren adds. “I think people now misread a sense of serious dignity with grumpiness.”

With hips padded under tweed skirts, Mirren practiced the monarch’s purposeful stride. As she perfected Elizabeth’s outward appearance, she searched for the key to her inner life. She immersed herself in books and newsreel footage, and at first it felt like flying blind. But something clicked after she was moved to seek out painted portraits of the queen. “I suddenly thought, ‘That’s it: you are just doing a portrait,’” she says. “‘It’s never a perfect reproduction; it’s a perception. You are like a portrait painter.’”

The movie humanizes Elizabeth by revealing how hard it had been for her to watch her father, King George VI, suffer when his brother abdicated, making George the king. Elizabeth was crowned queen at age 25, after her father’s death. “She wasn’t born to be queen, and she had absolutely no choice—it was ‘You will do this.’ And the way she took that on board is remarkable,” Mirren says. “She was a little girl who was full of a sense of order and duty and self-discipline. We are all of us the young person we once were. Now, when I see a picture of her, I always go, ‘There’s my girl.’ ”

On the day when critical scenes between Elizabeth and Prime Minister Tony Blair were filmed on a set of Buckingham Palace, notes Michael Sheen, who played Blair, the entire cast and crew were intimidated when Mirren stepped onto the set in full queen regalia. “Jolly frightening, isn’t she?” muttered Frears in his ear.

Mirren says she does not dream of any roles she has yet to conquer. “I’ve never wanted to play anything, really,” she says. “I always say what I want to play is the next thing that comes along, and it’s always surprising.”

She earned one Tony nomination in 1995 for Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country and another in 2002 for August Strindberg’s Dance of Death, and she says she’d be pleased if the future brought her back to Broadway again. In recent years she has earned raves for London stage performances as Lady Torrance in Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending and as Christine in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. “It’s tragic that a larger audience didn’t see those performances,” says Taylor Hackford. “But that’s what happens on stage. It’s combustible, it’s about getting up every day and going out and doing it, and Helen loves that.”

As for contemporary roles, screenwriters take note: Mirren jokes that she is fascinated by the notion of playing the much vilified “other woman”—Prince Charles’s wife, the former Camilla Parker Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall. She admires Camilla’s loyalty to Prince Charles and her self-sacrifice in the face of public scorn: “It made me ashamed for my country that people could be so venal and nasty.”

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