Helen at home

Helen Mirren. Courtesy of Phil Stafford/Shutterstock.com

Helen Mirren. Courtesy of Phil Stafford/Shutterstock.com - Credit: Archant

Leigh on Sea’s Dame Helen Mirren has amassed a tidy collection of accolades — an Academy Award, four BAFTAs, and three Golden Globes among them —

but family and home will always come first, she tells Camilla Davies

Dame Helen Mirren and her long-time husband Taylor Hackford divide their time between an estate in the Hollywood Hills overlooking Los Angeles, a riverside retreat in Wapping on Thames and a 16th century villa in Puglia, Italy.

Of course, with the days ever shorter and frosty forecasts ahead, a spell in Italy may tempt the best of us, but this Oscar-winning actress certainly hasn’t forgotten her Essex roots. In fact, Helen remains refreshingly down-to-earth, calling acting, ‘a very democratic but equalising world’.

Helen’s earliest forays into the dramatic arts came at St Bernard’s High School for Girls in Southend, where she took part in school productions, before she took up residence in ballerina Anna Pavlova’s former home in North London while she was studying acting. Her performance as Cleopatra in the National Youth Theatre’s production of Anthony and Cleopatra prompted theatrical agent Al Parker to sign her up.

Now 69-years-old, Helen has enjoyed a prolific stage and screen career, becoming well-known — and well loved — for the strong, independent women she portrays. From her Royal Shakespeare Company performances, to her days as DCI Tennison in Prime Suspect and her award-winning portrayal of HM The Queen, to her 2014 summer flick The Hundred-Foot Journey, Helen is a force to be reckoned with.

‘And why not?’ she laughs. ‘Why shouldn’t women be strong and independent? When I first arrived in Hollywood, it was totally dominated by men — women have come a very long way since then in this business. There are more good parts being written for women now and although we still have some way to go, it’s remarkable to see how much things have progressed — I’m happy to have witnessed that change.’

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Helen has not simply witnessed the shift; she’s implemented it. After all, her motivation has always been authentic art, not artifice. Take photo shoots, for example: ‘If I’m working with a real art photographer, I would always let them do what they want because that’s the way to get at least the most interesting pictures — not necessarily the best — but the most interesting. I think artists should be allowed artistic freedom.

‘When it comes to nudity, I never did it because I thought I was making an ideological statement or that I felt empowered by the experience. It was more of a personal statement and feeling of liberation than anything else.’

Famously forthright, Helen is not one to shy away from being vocal about her opinions, especially concerning women and equality.

‘I see myself as someone who is willing to stand up for women and defend our place in society since we do represent half the population. Even though things have improved, women still have to struggle to maintain our place,’ she explains.

Back in the 1970s, Helen might have quickly learned that a lot of men didn’t appreciate an assertive woman who had her own ideas, but that didn’t stop her. She credits her parents, who were initially against the idea of her becoming an actress, for raising her to stand by her convictions — and not to be reliant on men, financially or otherwise.

‘My parents wanted me to become a teacher instead, so that I would have a reliable income and career!’ she smiles. Thankfully, their enduring support allowed Helen her independence and the chance to start her astonishing career. Another strong character in Helen’s life is her husband.

‘What was wonderful about meeting Taylor Hackford was that things were very easy and harmonious between us from the beginning. It was one of those things where you know that this person is right for you and that you can get along very well together.’

Explaining the couple’s connection, Helen explains: ‘It is hard to define, but something which we both recognised. We were also both at an age and at a time in our lives where we had gone through several relationships and we had lived a bit. All that gives you a much better perspective on how to live and what you want from your work and what you expect in a relationship.

We were very lucky to have found each other and we still feel the same way.’

Meeting on the set of White Nights, where Helen played the lead and Taylor the director, so the couple understood each other’s professional needs, too.

‘Of course, he’s accustomed to me going away for several months at a time to work on a film,’ she says. ‘We knew what the demands of the business

were from the start and so we never questioned those things.’

Appreciating that she is a strong individual, she explains: ‘I needed that too in any man I was going to spend time with because I could be very strong-willed myself. Instead of creating friction between us,it actually enhanced our relationship.’

True to form, Helen’s work has taken her across continents. ‘I still consider myself more of a European actress than a Hollywood one,’ Helen says, ‘When I first came to Hollywood in the 1970s I didn’t really enjoy a lot of the roles that were being offered to women at the time and I gravitated more towards art house cinema.’

She was first inspired by William Shakespeare. ‘When I was 15 or so I saw a production of Hamlet that transformed the way I saw the world,’ she explains. But her great awakening came when she saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Aventura. ‘I saw the possibilities in that kind of filmmaking,’ she explains. ‘I was drawn to that immediately.’

She’s also been in Glee and hosted SNL — some lighter entertainment to balance her big film roles and stage work.

Helen, like most actresses, considers herself incredibly fortunate to have endured such popularity and acclaim throughout her career. ‘I’ve been able to stay healthy, find good work and enjoy the company of a wonderful man,’ she smiles. But we suspect there’s more to it than that.

‘Even though sometimes it’s so easy to be able to relax in Italy where we found this place (nine years ago) or travel together, I can never find the willpower to say “no” to a very good part when one comes along. I often tell my husband, “I’ve done enough, I’m not going to keep pushing myself.” But he’s so used to hearing me say that he doesn’t even pay attention to me anymore when I make that kind of a declaration. The terrible truth is that I simply cannot resist a good role.’