Interview: Helen Mirren on voice acting and stage fright

Helen Mirren is honoured on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame with a star. Picture: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty
Helen Mirren is honoured on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame with a star. Picture: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty
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As she returns to cinemas in Monsters University, Helen Mirren tells Siobhan Synnot about stage fright, ‘hopeless’ voice acting and being thrown off a film set by Al Pacino

People may look at me and think “She is scary,” says Dame Helen Mirren. Well quite, especially since she’s rather good at characters who can bring strong men and women to their knees with one look.

There was DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect; vulnerable on the inside, principled and tougher than a three-hour boiled egg on the outside. She has played formidable Elizabeths I and II, assassins in Red and The Debt, ruled an island as Prospero in The Tempest, traditionally a male role, and even subdued Russell Brand as his nanny in a remake of Arthur.

Yet in person, she’s not the grandest of dames. She laughs a lot, and when she waves her hand to demonstrate a point, there’s a glimpse of that little tattoo she had etched between her thumb and first finger in an act of youthful rebellion. She also dresses simply and approachably, in bright colours like today’s unfussy knits. “As you get older, you realise some things make you look like a mad old bat,” is her fashion tip. Also: don’t be afraid to head for the 30 per cent off rail. Dame Helen loves a bargain.

In Pixar’s Monster’s University, however, she’s imperiousness itself, even when cloaked as a dragonish cockroach who heads up a college where Monsters study to scare children. In a film about facing up to fears, it’s appropriate that Dame Helen admits that she was initially fearful as to whether she could pull of the voice of an animated insectoid.

“I’m actually hopeless at voice performance,” she shrugs. “I’d love to have been in the room with Billy Crystal and John Goodman and watched the masters at work and learnt from them because Americans are brilliant at voice performance. I don’t think we Brits are very good at it, weirdly. I do like to have my body present – just to put it in the voice is quite difficult. You have to put energy into the expressiveness which Americans are brilliant at.”

Mirren’s gift for self-possessed characters and the emotional undercurrents beneath are, apparently, the opposite of herself. On stage, she admits she still feels anxious: “Even now I still suffer terribly from stage fright. Not every night, but at the beginning and on occasion I get sick with fear, and not necessarily when I’m expecting it.” One of the best pieces of advice at dealing with panic came from a former headmistress, who gave her the consoling saw that the worst thing about fear is fear itself.

“I have lived by this ever since,” said Mirren. “You have to get on with it. My fears are my business and nobody else’s and I deal with it. The other thing is to pretend that you are not frightened. Act.”

Rather than act, her parents always hoped their strong-willed daughter would become a teacher, and she trained for three years to make sure she had a second career to fall back on. Her first role was a walk on in a Norman Wisdom film, and by her twenties, she was gathering renown as a stage actress, although she had a lot of other jobs before acting became a vocation.

“I had a Saturday job in a lingerie department,” she says. “And I’ve been a postman and for a while I worked on a darts stall at a fun fair.”

Mirren was born Ilyena Lydia Mironoff to an English butcher’s daughter and the son of a Russian immigrant who settled in London during the 1917 revolution. She says it was an anti-monarchist household – quite a surprise when you consider the fact she’s won an Oscar and an Olivier award for her portrayal of the current Queen. “But I’m absolutely an Elizabethan,” she allows. “My family were very republican, and I still am a republican, but that doesn’t prevent me from admiring the woman. In fact, I’ve always insisted on seeing the whole royal family as human beings.”

Her initial go-round with Stephen Frears for The Queen won her an Oscar at last, but she still felt apprehensive when the same writer, Peter Morgan, got in touch to propose The Audience: “When Peter told me he had written this play and asked me to read it, I sent him a two word e-mail: ‘You bastard!’”

For 60 years, Elizabeth II has met her prime ministers in a weekly audience at Buckingham Palace with an unspoken agreement never to repeat what is said. The National Theatre production of The Audience breaks this silence, with Morgan imagining a series of pivotal meetings between the Downing Street incumbents and their Queen. “It’s very different from The Queen. It jumps backwards and forwards in time and I have to play her from 25 to 87. The way they age or make me look younger from scene to scene is truly quite amazing.”

There’s talk of the play going to Broadway, but she’s back in cinemas shortly after Monsters University in mid-July, repising her gun-toting assassin in Red 2, following the success of Bruce Willis’s squad of agile geriatric spies three years ago. In the last Red, Brian Cox lifts her up and carries her off to a romantic coupling, only slightly distracted by Mirren whispering impishly off-camera that “My bloody husband can’t do this”

This time, she strikes a Jane Bond pose, with a high speed shootout and chase in a sports car, and yet again she can’t resist shooting down the glamour: “That car was difficult to get into, and impossible to get me out,” she marvels. “They are made for teenage boys, and it took three people to haul me out.”

She was also keen to take the gloss out of the usual high body counts, requesting that Victoria shot to disable, rather than shoot to kill because “I get terribly upset when I see films where people are just randomly shot. I think they all have families to go to, children at home.”

At 67, Mirren is at the top of her game. In a 45-year career, she’s gone from the Royal Shakespeare Company to screen notoriety in the racy Caligula to movie classics such as Excalibur and The Long Good Friday. A more recent highlight came when she worked opposite Al Pacino in a TV biopic of Phil Spector, written and directed by David Mamet. Pacino plays Spector in an entertaining series of Wall of Hair wigs. Mirren plays his dogged defence lawyer, trying to steer a not guilty verdict during his trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson.

It was the first time Pacino and Mirren had worked together – but not the first time they met. Mirren had hoped to lurk on set while her husband Taylor Hackford directed Pacino in Devil’s Advocate. “There were hundreds of people and I’d hoped to keep a low profile,” she recalls. “But Al somehow spotted me and spoke to my husband. Taylor came over and said to me that he didn’t want me there. It’s an actor’s thing; you don’t want to be looked at by your peers.”

So when the two of them squared up for the Phil Spector film, aired on TV last month, Mirren wasn’t afraid to remind him of the ejection: “I said, ‘Al, this is one set you cannot throw me off.’”

• Monsters University is in cinemas from Friday. Red 2 follows on 2 August