Helen Mirren on What It Means to Be “Linda-Lite”
What drew you to Phil Spector?
Really, it was the opportunity to work with Al Pacino and David Mamet. As you know, I stepped into this role because Bette Midler, who would have been wonderful, unfortunately had to retire because of an injury. When the call came, I was away on holiday in Italy and having a lovely time. I had been thinking, “Oh, I’m just going to take two or three months off, I’m not going to work for a while, I could do with a break” when the call came. But I couldn’t resist working with such incredible luminaries of drama and literature. They wanted me to start in four days, but I asked for a week so I could study the script and so forth. They gave me a week and then I was up and running.
What was it like to work with David Mamet, who was both the writer and director?
Mamet is one of the greatest American playwrights, so I knew it was going to be an extraordinary experience. Often when you work with writers, they’re very precious about their work. Obviously, they’re very word-oriented and very specific and very controlling, but David was the opposite. He was very, very free in the whole process.
So were you able to shape the role a little more than you might have been able to in a more traditional environment?
Well, no. Obviously I’m playing a real person, who’s very much alive, so I had to produce a certain kind of character who was Linda-like or maybe “Linda-lite.” She was very generous with her time. No one could quite be Linda. I think what I do is not an impersonation of Linda, far from it, but on the other hand there are elements of Linda in my performance.
Did you work with Linda in preparation for your role?
Yes. She wasn’t there all the time, but I met with her. The film is not a perfect, precise, forensic representation of what happened in that first trial and she was very generous – a lot of people say “Oh no, no, it didn’t happen like that,” or “I never said that,” or “That would never have happened,” not really understanding that drama is a different thing.
Were there any aspects of the real Linda that you could relate to? Was there a draw on a personal level?
Well I think whenever you have a strong woman, and Linda is most certainly that, that’s always an appealing thing. And Linda is very full of personality; she’s got a very distinctive personality.
Did you know anything about the case prior to taking the role?
I didn’t know the details but I knew it generally and I remember, very powerfully, the images of Phil – who could forget those images? I’m not a huge murder trial aficionado; I didn’t follow it day by day, deposition by deposition. One account I thought was interesting was from a journalist who covers all the big criminal trials, and she said of all the trials she’s covered, Phil Spector’s was the most troubling. I think in the sense that no matter how much evidence was produced no one could ever clearly get to the bottom of what actually happened.
The film focuses on the relationship between Linda and Phil. How did you and Al Pacino work together to create that?
We chatted off screen as well as on screen. We spent time together – as much time as I could spend I spent with him. When you’re constructing a character like Phil Spector, there’s a very powerful interior process that has to go on, so you don’t, as a fellow actor, want to intrude too much on that process. I know as an actor how much energy and concentration that needs. It was just such a treat for me to watch him work and be a recipient of his work.
Some of the most powerful scenes are those where Linda goes to Phil’s mansion for the first time. They’re very intense and spooky.
We had a wonderful location and a great set that we shot on that was brilliantly production designed. Obviously all of those elements are massively important when you’re making this kind of piece. The production design becomes a character in a way. And that was very much David’s vision – to go into this labyrinthine, mystical, strange place. And Phil certainly lived like that.
You really do feel her apprehension as she navigates those halls.
Throughout the trial Linda had a very, very bad cold that developed into bronchial pneumonia, which we replicate in the film. On top of everything else she was very sick, so that must have heightened her senses; she must have been taking drugs to combat the sickness, so surely that heightened the weirdness of the whole scenario.
Did you have a favorite scene in filming?
Well, for me, the overpowering experience really was to work with Al Pacino and to realize something that I’ve always kind of known but only from a distance – seeing up close what an extraordinary actor he is.
I think the scene where Linda’s training Phil in a mock trial, which apparently criminal lawyers do. They set it up so that the person on trial really has a sense of how they have to behave and the sorts of things that are appropriate or inappropriate to say. That was a pretty powerful scene for me to play with Al.