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Interview with Helen Mirren

Elizabeth in hat sky behind

HBO

You've created an incredibly diverse body of work over the years.

Helen Mirren

Well, I think that I've always had many different audiences. I mean, I have audiences who see my theater work and they're completely unaware of the fact that I've done an extremely successful television series, for example, or any of my work in the cinema. And then I have people who've only ever seen my work in the cinema and are completely unaware of any work that I've done in the theatre or on television.

Some people are aware of the whole spectrum. I've done for example experimental theater in Africa and in America and in Paris, so my work is spread over quite a large arena, and very few people are aware of the all the different arenas.

HBO

Tell us about Elizabeth I and how you came to the project. You worked with the writer Nigel Williams from the start?

Helen Mirren

Yes, I did. It's obviously a magnificent role, and I knew that Nigel was a really, really good writer. So I said yes without reading the script. I felt she had a very interesting and complicated private life, but it played out against such an extraordinarily political life and international life on a very grand stage. So I thought we needed to include that side of her life. The fact is she was maneuvering her private life around her public life, and her public life was the most important part of her life, and she consistently sacrificed her private life to her public life. And Nigel just did the most brilliant job of combining the public and the private so beautifully in the script.

HBO

She's so emotionally dynamic in terms of her being explosive in one moment and tender and vulnerable in the next.

The fact is she was maneuvering her private life around her public life, and her public life was, in fact, the most important part of her life, and she consistently sacrificed her private life to her public life.

Helen Mirren

Yes, that was very much the Elizabeth I wanted to portray, and it was one that I felt- reading all the contemporary accounts of her and doing all the research I did on her-that was very much her personality. She was very feminine, very vulnerable, kind of slightly silly sometimes, but at the same time, incredibly intellectual and very, very emotional. I mean she would fly off the handle very quickly.

She loved with great passion, great commitment. And she hated with equal passion and commitment. She was an incredibly explosive character. But I never wanted to play this sort of cold, controlling, sort of slightly mean-spirited sort of granite- like character, because she really wasn't like that.

HBO

It seems like there aren't many stories where one can explore a woman in power, and in particular, an older woman in power.

Helen Mirren

Well, of course Elizabeth was in power from the age of twenty-five onwards, and real power. Real power. She had the nay or yeah power, beyond the power of a Bush or any contemporary, because it was not a democratic power. This is before there was a real parliament in place in England. Democracy hadn't really kicked in. And it's very hard to get your head around what that must've meant to the person in power and to the people around the person in power. But yes, there are very few women in history like her, and that's why it's such an incredible gift to be handed this as a role.

People always say, Oh, it's so terrible, there aren't enough roles for women, you know? And I've always said work on getting good roles for women in real life, and then the roles for women in drama will follow.

close-up Elizabeth white collar white makeup

HBO

The two movies were researched thoroughly in terms of historical detail and period accuracy. What are your thoughts on working in the period rather than modernizing the story as other versions of Elizabeth have done.

Helen Mirren

I find that historical detail is so much more interesting than anything we can invent nowadays. I mean, they lived life on such an extreme level. My only sadness was that we couldn't get more historical detail into it, because you could really start investigating the extraordinary nature of their lives. For us the historical detail was very important. We come from a country that wants to pay attention in general to those things, and if there are a couple of things that we got deliberately wrong historically that was a very deliberate, and very thought about and argued over issue.

Like the issue of Elizabeth meeting Mary Queen of Scots which it's ninety-nine point nine percent she didn't. If she did, she did it in incredibly secrecy, which is what we sort of intimate. But it's very unlikely that she ever met Mary Queen of Scots face to face. But they had a very protracted correspondence with each other. So, to dramatize that Nigel felt that you had to actually see it. But everything else, the historical detail is pretty accurate.

HBO

It seems like there's three sides to Elizabeth: the private moments with Lester and Essex, the semi-public where she's meeting with her privy council and the icon Elizabeth, where she's almost a symbol of England.

She loved with great passion, great commitment. And she hated with equal passion and commitment. She was an incredibly explosive character.

Helen Mirren

Well, that's an incredibly accurate description. You know the set was extraordinary, and it was built almost exactly on the pattern of Whitehall Palace. And actually when you go to any of those palaces that are still existent, you see this strange configuration of rooms, and you go, How on earth did people live like this? This is very weird. You have a whole series of rooms off a corridor, one after another after another, going further and further into the inner sanctum. And usually the last room along there is the bedroom. And you see that in Russian, you see it in Italy, you see it in all these sort of medieval palaces. And so there was that sense of the inner, inner sanctum, and as you go further and further and further away from the bedroom, the rooms become more and more public.

The other thing to understand is that they were constantly surrounded by people. They were never, ever, ever alone. Ever. Night time, day time, there was always someone around them. Privacy was sort of unheard of. So their emotional lives were played out against a sense of constant attendants.

HBO

You've really managed to humanize her. Was that something you were going after from the start?

Helen Mirren

I wanted to pull the audience into Elizabeth, not have them sitting on the outside watching it like a beautiful pageant. I wanted to pull them into the visceral experience of being in there with her. It seemed to me that she was an amazingly sort of human person. Of course she branded herself brilliantly and was able to be an icon, but like everybody else you know, she was also fallible and foolish and vulnerable. Certainly vulnerable to falling in love.

HBO

What are your thoughts about her sex life? The big question.

Helen Mirren

The big question. Did she or didn't she?

HBO

Did she or didn't she.

She knew that her body as a woman was also a political body. It was something to be bought and sold politically. That's why she was always flirting with foreign princes.

Helen Mirren

Well, no one will ever know. Logically, it seems to me highly unlikely that she would ever have jeopardized her body or her political position. It was very dangerous physically for women to get pregnant. She loved her position as a monarch more than she loved anything, and she loved a lot of things. She loved riding, she loved men, she loved dancing, she loved blood sports. She loved reading, she loved music. She was a great lover, but she loved power more than anything. More than all of those things put together.

And her position on the throne was very tenuous. She came to the throne a bastard. There were constant attacks on her from within England and from without England, on her claim to the throne. So I think if she'd found herself pregnant with an illegitimate child, it would've been an absolute disaster. She could've easily been deposed. And so I don't think she would've ever jeopardized her position like that.

She knew that her body as a woman was also a political body. It was something to be bought and sold politically. That's why she was always flirting with foreign princes. She was supposed to be a virgin, and she used it as a political pawn to keep her enemies at bay. So the practical side of my brain doesn't think that she would ever have jeopardized that. But having said that, I suspect she did everything else. She probably had sex in the Clintonian sense. I did not have sex with that woman. You know? I wouldn't be surprised if she got up to a lot of those kinds of sexual games.

HBO

Ah, the "Clintonian" sense...

Helen Mirren

Yes.

HBO

Kind of like people who say, Oh, I just Lewinskied.

Helen Mirren

I just Lewinskied. Oh [LAUGHTER] they are terrible.

HBO

Have you heard that one?

Helen Mirren

Poor Monica. No, I haven't heard that one.

HBO

Let's talk a bit about the costumes. They say there were thousands of dresses discovered after Elizabeth's death.

Helen Mirren

Yes, she had over two thousand dresses. I mean covered in jewels and gold thread and whatever. She adored clothes. People would give her wigs as presents. I thought that was interesting. She wore wigs not towards the end of her life because she probably had to, but also they wore wigs the way people might wear hats or jewelry. It was an extra accouterment in your outfit. So yes, she loved interesting and wonderful pieces of clothing. And when you see the portraits, you see this sort of extraordinary surreal nature of her outfits. They were very excessive. Even for the day, they were thought of as excessive.

HBO

In some of the really over-the-top gowns, it's almost like she's no longer herself. She's become a symbol.

Helen Mirren

Well, they were very into wearing symbols, all kinds of complicated symbols. You'd wear favors of someone that you wanted to say, you know, tip a wink to in court, you're in my favor. I mean, all sort of strange animals mean different things. When she was flirting with the idea of marrying the Duke of Anjou, and this is true, and I had them make me one...she walked around with a veil with a fleur de lys printed all over it, kind of the way people wear sports shirts nowadays. But the symbolism of what they were wearing was very important.

HBO

Why do you think this story still speaks to audiences?

Helen Mirren

She's just such an extraordinary character. I mean, just the phrase, "Virgin Queen" is already a sort of fascinating idea, isn't it? And especially a virgin queen who then carries on left right and center these extraordinary relationships with all kinds of men. And the Elizabethan Age in the history of Great Britain is one of the great golden eras, and Elizabeth was very much a part of that. She was only a part of it because a lot of other things were happening around the world that gave that age its aura and its power. But she was the person in power, and she was a queen.

And then queens are always fascinating characters, especially queens who equip themselves extremely well. That don't fall prey to their circumstances or to men. It's much harder for a woman to do that than a man. Much harder. She's earned our respect over the many generations that have come after her. As each generation looks back they look back with incredible respect that has never been diminished or undercut. On the contrary, each time a historian relooks at Elizabeth, they come away even more amazed at what she did and what she achieved.

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