Even at the end of a long day of interviews, Dame Helen Mirren, is all class. Quietly eloquent and softly spoken, at near 60, Mirren is a striking presence. Regarded as one of the most remarkable British actresses of her generation, Mirren has nearly 80 films to her credit. Her latest, The Clearing, which premiered during January’s Sundance Film Festival, is already garnering strong reviews. Starring opposite Robert Redford, Mirren plays the wife of a wealthy industrialist (Redford) whose life is shattered when her husband is kidnapped.
A psychological thriller with an unusual tone and structure, Mirren says that in getting inside this very American character was the least of her challenges. “I mean the challenge in this film was really that it started with the script, in that it was very under written,” Mirren explains, as we chat in a Beverly Hills hotel suite. “Nothing was clearly defined on the page, it was all mysterious, and that is actually how the film has manifested itself. So the reserve in the character was on the page and was: What was she thinking here, what is going on? There were no answers to the questions on the page.”
It was Mirren and her director, first-timer Pieter Jan Brugge, who helped flesh out the character and give her the kind of dimension audiences see with such minimalist precision. “Pieter was very precise about exactly what was intellectually going on at every moment, but sometimes I had to say, ‘Pieter I can’t without words, I can’t express all of that, all I can do is think and feel and then the audience will have to take from they will from it,’ because there is no way that a close up can express all those complicated thoughts. You just have to allow the audience to make up their own minds and I think to a great extent, that is what this film does. Audiences are not used to that, but are used to being told exactly what to think every minute and if they don’t know what to think, the music tells them what to think. This film doesn’t do that.”
While so many American screen characters speak emotional volumes to mainstream audiences, this character in The Clearing is atypically reserved. She seems more British than American, and Mirren agrees that maybe that is why she was cast in the film in the first place. “We do sort of disapprove of fussy and manipulative emotionalism, and find it rather distasteful. We much prefer the slow burn, or the volcano that appears to be extinct then suddenly erupts, which is more our sort of style,” says Mirren.
Not too dissimilar from the equally restrained Redford. Mirren says that there was much about the iconic movie star that surprised her, such as “how simple and how straightforward he is, and how humble as an actor, which he has no reason to be. He was a producer on this film, he is a great director himself, is a huge movie star, so has no reason to be humble. He listened to the director, supported him every inch of the way, never tried to take control and was supportive of his fellow actors.”
In a career spanning forty years, Mirren continues to divide herself effortlessly between mainstream film, independent film, theatre and even television. As modest an actress you are ever likely to meet, Mirren says she is not especially selective as to which projects she does. “I rush in where angels fear to tread very often and I do things for all kinds of weird reasons,” she laughingly confesses. In the case of a risky film such as The Clearing, with its unconventional structure and first-time director, Mirren says that the fact it was going to be directed by a first-timer, was interesting to her. “I think the great thing about a first time director is that they are hungry, passionate and can’t wait to do it, nor are they tired and cynical of the process.”
Even after this long in the business, Mirren says that she does not feel cynical and tired. “I think the reason you don’t as an actor is because you are always working with other actors and they always bring their own energy and commitment to a project which sweeps you up in it if you are beginning to feel tired and cynical. You get swept up in THEIR energy and THEIR commitment.”
Mirren says it is important for her to return to the theatre as often as possible as well, “Only because I don’t want to lose my ability to do it and don’t want to get afraid of doing it, because I am afraid of doing it,” Mirren confesses. One would never think of this actress as being afraid of anything, never alone theatre. “It is very scary, because you are putting yourself on the line, and you get much more criticized doing plays which is unfair. It is so much harder to do a play, yet the level of criticism shoots up. You are allowed to get away with murder on screen and in the theatre you are shot down and have to go on stage the next day which is very difficult.”
Mirren’s distinguished career has been built around portraying a variety of strong women. Her first major film was in 1969’s The Age of Consent, shot in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where she played a beautiful Australian teenager. It was the beginning of a distinguished career and the first of many nude scenes for the actress. But looking back on that experience, Mirren has nothing but fond memories. “Oh I have great memories of Age of Consent. It was my first movie ever and having been flown to Australia, on Dunk Island, was incredible. Of course I took it all for granted at the time, as you do when you are young, but it was an amazing experience and really a great way to really start a film career.”
Yet it was a British TV character that would ironically catapult the British actress to international stardom, and continues to shoot a Prime Suspect once every few years. Mirren concedes that the success and accolades that followed were genuinely surprising. “You are always surprised by the success of a project. You never know, they always take you by surprise and the ones that you think are going to be a great role or you are great in, just sort of disappear and you think ‘why?’ “
With so many actresses today complaining of a lack of decent roles, Helen Mirren proves them wrong at every turn. Yet the actress is unsure as to why she continues to find these rich characters to play. “I am lucky. I mean a part of that is because I have always diversified and working in the theatre is a big part of that as there are great roles in theatre, so, that is a part of it. The reason I get pissed off with the lack of women in film is because as an audience, not as a performer, sometimes I get very angry with the kind of dismissive way women characters are treated in the writing in film. I am not talking as an actor, but purely talking as an audience. It is just that the female characters are just so often simply there to fill a function and don’t drive it. It is much better now then it used to be, but they don’t really drive the drama necessarily and I absolutely loathe this word feisty, If she is an action figure she always goes BOOM, the guy falls over and everyone goes, oh how feminist. Or if it is in a comedy they always do this fucking comedy fall and always fall over. It is so irritating.”
Fortunately we have Dame Helen Mirren to remind us of what true acting is.