There Can Only Be One Queen:
Helen Mirren Takes Manhattan
by Tony Phillips
Helen Mirren saunters into the 44th Annual New York Film Festival like she owns the joint. And with the movie she’s got in tow — the title role in Stephen Frears’ The Queen — she kind of does. The Queen isn’t Mirren’s first time up in royal drag. She was nominated for an Academy Award for in 1995 for her portrayal of Queen Charlotte in Nicholas Hytner’s The Madness of King George and donned the crown again last year for an HBO miniseries on Elizabeth I, taking home an Emmy for her troubles.
But The Queen is arguably her most riveting performance to date, as either a royal or civilian, and one that will surely keep her busy this February. The film is a fictional account of the week spanning the tragic death of Princess Diana in 1997, kind of a Ten Days That Shook The World with tiaras. The peek behind closed palace doors makes for a fascinating film and if you’re thinking stodgy British bio-pic, think again. The Queen is not only a master class in acting technique courtesy Mirren, but also unexpected funny and remarkably moving.
“I think a lot about politics,” Mirren begins, “but I’m ultimately not political.” Still, she admits she comes from an anti-monarchist family and she herself was very pro-New Labor when Tony Blair first came to power, but we all know how that turned out. Mirren will only say that she’s become a bit cynical and “is holding out no hopes for a new Utopia Britain.” She absently thumbs the pearls knotted at her clavicle that remain the one constant in a week of stunning outfit changes. “Inevitably, as an actor,” she says, “you fall in love with your character. You find reasons to love them.”
Her director, Stephen Frears, has had quite the knack for the characters we love, throwing strong, ballsy women up onto the screen like Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons or Anjelica Houston in The Grifters, but in Mirren he may have just met his match. “She’s a tough cookie,” Frears says, and when I ask him a question about her that is so stupid, I can barely bring myself to repeat it here, he matter-of-factly advises, “Don’t tell her that or you’ll get your bollocks shot off!”
Thankfully, she doesn’t shoot my bollocks off, but I do witness her take apart another journalist following a press screening of The Queen at the Walter Reade Theater. Mirren is almost angelic in an ivory skirt suit with a matching lace ivory shawl, but when the intrepid reporter wants to know what it’s like to portray a celebrity like Queen Elizabeth II, Mirren stops him in his tracks before he even gets the entire question out. “She’s not a celebrity,” Mirren states bluntly. “The Queen is absolutely not a celebrity, that’s the opposite of what she is.”
Just to be sure the reporter hasn’t missed her point, she repeats, “Yeah, it’s nothing to do with celebrity and I think that’s the mistake that people make. They mix celebrity — Paris Hilton or Tom Cruise — but the Queen is a really different thing. The monarchy is really different than celebrity. It doesn’t fulfill the same function as celebrity. It’s not to do with performance, really. Of course if has to do with the ultimate performance, but it’s not to do with the kind of smiling for the cameras. It’s more to do with truly being an icon of your country, which is really different than celebrity.’
When pressed for a corollary to the Queen in the United States, Mirren replies, “I can’t think of what would be the nearest, fundamental, historical representative of your country. I don’t even mean a person, necessarily, I mean the Liberty Bell or those sculptures of the presidents in rock.” The offending party, clearly trying to backpedal away from the question Mirren found so offensive, suggests The Statue of Liberty. “Yes,” Mirren replies with all the enthusiasm of a second grade teacher. “The Statue of Liberty! The Queen is our Statue of Liberty.” And then, just to emphasize her point once more, she adds, “It has nothing to do with celebrity. It’s far beyond celebrity.”
The following day, Mirren makes time for a more informal round of interviews, this time in a navy skirt suit with a tiny canvas Hermes bag balanced out by a teeny cell phone in her other hand. She’s also got on a pair navy suede pumps, discussion of which could have easily taken up the entirety of our allotted twenty minutes, but Mirren’s still got New York on her mind. Although it’s been about five years since she’s spent a considerable amount of time in the city, when she was paired with Sir Ian McKellan for Strindberg’s Dance of Death on Broadway, she has been back for visits since and she is amazed by “the boom in real estate and the extraordinary amount of building.”
“And I think it’s tragic that the Plaza has become condominiums,” she adds. “I was very upset about that. That was completely New York history and somehow The Plaza had a lot of old world, New York glamour to me as a foreigner and I think it’s very sad to see it go. I don’t think I’ve ever stayed there, but I’ve had meetings there and it was always very exciting to go to The Plaza. It’s was a very sort of New York glamour, not like anywhere else.” When she learns the famed hotel recently auctioned off many of their in-room items, she’s almost more sadden by it all, but then perks up. “I would have liked one of those things,” she realizes, “a light fitting or something.”
Now that the subject of trophies has been broached, it seems appropriate to ask about all the Oscar buzz surrounding her performance, but there’s just no tactful way to do it. Fortunately, there’s another opportunity the following evening when The Queen opens The New York Film Festival with its first public screening. At the sophisticated party following the screening at that other beacon of old world New York glamour, Tavern on the Green, Mirren is finally giving gown. I remark that the ensemble would be good enough for Oscar night, but Mirren isn’t biting. Instead she wants to talk about the pack of Queen’s Corgis she commands in the film.
“Our first AD thinks I should win an award for dog handling,” Mirren laughs, “forget the Oscar, I’d be very proud of the dog handling award. I had to work with them because they were not trained dogs. They were just a pack of Corgis that were rented so I had to work with them to get them to perform. And, I mean, dogs are great. I’m good with dogs. I know how to get them to do what I want them to do. I did have treats in my pockets. That’s an essential part of the process, but they were great. I loved those Corgis, they’re very funny, funny little dogs. I can understand why the Queen likes them.”
So dog choices, fine, but Mirren is a bit more uncertain about the Queen’s fashion choices. It couldn’t have been easy for a woman who’s served three stunning looks in as many days in what I’ve come to think of as Olympus/Mercedes Benz/Helen Mirren Fashion Week. “You look at film of the Queen and she just puts the most awful things together,” Mirren begins, “she’ll put a yellow shirt with a pink thing and a royal blue cardigan on top and something else on top of that and you know she’s just gone and grabbed things out of her closet. She doesn’t think about what she wears.” But this is all said with great fondness and not the malice of the Joan Rivers “you own that much jewelry, then shave those legs!” Queen zingers. “She’s an unvain person,” she marvels, “she has no vanity whatsoever.”
But surely, that’s got to run at odds with so spectacular a clotheshorse as Mirren. And it all came to a head five years ago when Mirren actually met the Queen. I met her very briefly,” Mirren understates, “me and Chloe Sevigny were taken to meet the Queen. It lasted 20 seconds, you know, but she was absolutely charming. She was lovely. And it was in quite a relaxed circumstance. It was a tea party with lots of lots of people around and she was being very charming to everyone. She’s very good at that.”
So, did Mirren courtesy? “Oh, yeah,” she replies, “you really should. When you first meet her, you bob. You find yourself doing it whether you want to or not. The Queen herself has said, ‘I don’t measure the depth of a courtesy.’” The meeting even went a long way to changing Mirren’s mind on the monarchy. “I never used to want us to have a monarchy, but my feeling now is I’d quite like us to have a monarchy the way the Swedes do: a royal family that goes to the supermarket. I think that’s how everyone should behave, anyway. I’d like to see movie stars in supermarkets as well. I think there is some value in having an iconic representative of your country and your history and culture, but then I’m also ambivalent about it. Still, actors and big movie stars do fulfill that function in our imaginative lives that monarchies do. They seem to inhabit that dream world of privilege and wealth, but of course movie stars are actually very, very different than the monarchy because they have a choice in the matter.”
True to her word, Mirren leaves the hotel after our second meeting. We share an elevator down to the street and the entire ride is taken up by her being quizzed by a battery of publicists about those fantastic suede pumps, but once she hits the street, she’s on her own. She wanders for a bit down Park Avenue and then she turns back around, heading hlafway back to the hotel. It’s then that she notices a uniformed driver holding up a white placard containing the words H. Mirren. “Oh, hello,” she says politely, pointing to the sign, “that would be me.”