There are actresses and then there are actresses. If you ask me Helen Mirren is a role model, an inspiration, and one damn fine actress who has proved time and time again that she is one of the greatest performers currently working. This was a bit of a fan-girl interview for me because, well she’s Helen Mirren and I’m an aspiring filmmaker/actress. She has had the career and worked on the type of films that I could only dream of, she’s extremely humble, well spoken, and charming, and to top it off she’s absolutely gorgeous.
In The Last Station it should come as no surprise that she gives a stunning performance, one of which I’m sure she’ll be receiving awards for in the future. Her character is completely over-dramatic, manipulative, and yet on some level we absolutely feel for her. Mirren is one of the few actresses out there who could tackle so many emotions at once and have them come off as completely natural. Although if you ask her, she did make a mistake in one scene (although I dare you to find it), which makes you realize why her career had flourished in the way that it has, she never stops growing and bettering her work.
Even though I only got to sit at a roundtable with her, I did manage to get in a couple of questions and hopefully absorb some of her talent.
We heard there was a lot of drinking on this film.
Mirren: [laughs] I wish.
Helen, you’ve played five or six queens and now you’re a countess. What’s up with that?
Mirren: Every actress, when you get to be the age that I am always gets to play a queen or two because very often they are interesting roles that I want to write plays or films about. So it’s not just me who get to play queens. Most actresses have gotten to play a queen or two.
What was it about this lady that made you want to spend time in her skin?
Mirren: Oh my God, what do you think? High drama. That kind of volcanic creature. Also, I was sent it very soon after I’d done The Queen and as an actor your dream is to get something which is the opposite of what you’ve just done and obviously The Queen is such a repressed interior and doesn’t show any emotions or the things you do you don’t show to other people. It’s distasteful to do that. Sofya is the absolute opposite. So that sort of thing attracted me and it was a beautifully written script, beautifully. It was just great, really great.
How did you both walk the line of bringing out the likability in your character with Sofya being so over the top at times?
Mirren: Yes, you’re absolutely right, that was the danger because she was such a drama queen that you could alienate the audience really fast and that was the challenge in playing it, to play the drama full on, emotionally all the way there but not to become arch or self-conscious or theatrical with it and never to feel that she was acting it. You had to feel that this was just how she felt. This was real for her, whatever it was. All those things were absolutely real and of the moment. There was one, when I watch the film, moment when I blow it and it does become slightly arch. I look at that, those awful moments when you see yourself and you go, ‘Oh, I blew that. That’s wrong, wrong, wrong,’ and there it is and you can’t take it back. But in general we avoided that. We also sort of toned it down. There was one scene that I suggested to Michael [Hoffman] that we cut because I thought that it was just a step too far and I thought it would just push the audience away from the character, when she tries to commit suicide again with some poison. She says, ‘This is poison. I’m going to take it. I’m taking it now and if you don’t stop me I will take it.’ Then he doesn’t and then he says, ‘Go ahead. Take it.’ She says, ‘Well, I’m not going to take it.’ It was just too much and I think the audience would’ve gone, ‘Oh, please, this woman is ridiculous.’ So it was really important to keep the audience to not necessarily to like her or love her but to go along with her.
This performance has put you right on the path for more accolades and nominations. You seemed to enjoy that experience with The Queen. Are you looking forward to that with this film? What are the elements of that surreal experience that you did enjoy?
Mirren: Well, I was very lucky last time because at the same as all that was going down, and it was full on, and also at the same time I’d done Elizabeth I and so I was having to deal with all of that and so I was constantly sitting through these long, endless evenings and I was always the last one up, and oh God, it was brutal. ‘Just let me go home, please and let me drink.’ I could never drink. I’m sitting there going, ‘Oh, shit. I can’t even have a drink.’
But I was making a film in England at the same time. So literally, every weekend I was flying back to England and then I was on set but that was the best thing because I was doing a really nice film called Inkheart. It was an ensemble film. All my fellow actors were fantastic and really fun to be with and it was the thing that sort of brought me back, like, ‘This is actually what we do. This is what we do. We don’t do that. We have to do that for various reasons but this is what we really do.’ So that was a great thing for me.
It’s so important for this kind of film for things like that to happen. It’s great for the film and I honestly, genuinely feel that. It brings attention to the film. It’s a small film. It doesn’t have a big budget, or a marketing budget at all. With these little independent films, it’s getting so hard for independent films to get out there at all. In the next two or three or four years it might become even more difficult. I love the big films. Avatar. It’s fantastic. Fabulous. But the library of films has got to be broader than that and it’s wonderful that a film like The Last Station can get made. It’s getting so difficult to make a film like this. The only way another one will be made is enough people go to see it. The only way that we can get enough people to see it is if it gets recognized.
Do you believe in the cliché that behind every great man is a great woman?
Mirren: No, but I think a lot of men have been allowed to become great because of a partnership, or sometimes yes, there is a great woman behind them. I think especially any time before maybe the 1940′s or the 1950′s when women, especially a hundred years ago and more, women simply weren’t allowed to express themselves very often in the way that they wanted and they had to do it through a man who had sort of been in front. I’m sure that happened quite often but not necessarily no. I think some men are just great.
What are the things that you hope for and imagine as your career progresses, what are your goals? How do you look at what’s ahead?
Mirren: I did a play with Anne-Marie Duff, James’s wife, who was in the film as well. She plays my daughter. She’s such a brilliant actress. You know when you work with someone who’s great onstage and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, they are fantastic.’ She was absolutely brilliant, a brilliant actress. But anyway, just to work with more great actors and actresses, definitely. That’s fun.
And now we digress for a moment from countess talk and just because it’s a fun story (even though it’s a bit dated) someone asked a question on The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and I thought Mirren gave a great reply…
Can you talk about your experience of working on The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and what it was like working with Peter Greenaway?
Mirren: Funnily enough he’s like exactly any other director. It’s just the material that’s completely different. I remember a friend of mine, David Morrissey, who in a film of his and he’d read in the script that the character is riding down the hill on a bicycle and the brakes fail, there’s a dead cow in the middle of the road that he’s had an accident and it’s guts were all spilled over. The bicycle hits the cow and he falls into the innards of the cow.
So, David, goes, ‘Oh, I wonder how they’re going to do that. That’s interesting. I don’t know but they’ll find some way of doing that.’ He arrives on the set and Peter says, ‘Here’s your bicycle. It’s got no brakes. There’s the hill and there’s the cow.’ There it was, a real cow that he bought from a slaughterhouse and was cut open and it’s innards, it’s real innards were all over the place. He says, ‘Right. You just ride down, you hit the cow and you fall into the innards.’ This was his first day of filming. What he does as a director is exactly the same as any other director. ‘There’s the car. You walk across there and you open the car door and you get in and you drive off.’ He does it the same but the material is completely different. But I love working with him. He’s a wonderful director. He actually gives brilliant acting notes. He’s very good.
See Mirren in The Last Station starting January 15th!