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VAMP, DIVA OR GRANDE DAME? DOES SHE HAVE TO CHOOSE? : Helen Mirren Goes Where Other Actresses Fear to Tread, With Unparalleled Results

October 22, 1995|Bruce Shenitz | Bruce Shenitz reports on social and legal issues for Newsweek from New York. His last article for this magazine was a profile of psychologist Evelyn Hooker.

"I'm glad it doesn't say, 'The Incredible Unsexiness of Helen Mirren,' " she says. "It's such a hard thing for me to talk about. If I say, 'Oh, God, I don't think I'm sexy,' I'll sound so repulsively modest. And if I say, 'Yeah, man, I'm really sexy,' I can't win. So I prefer not to say anything at all. The truth is, an awful lot of people who meet me in the supermarket see me walking along, looking like an old bag with generic toilet tissue in my trolley, and they think, 'She doesn't look sexy at all--she must have a very good publicity agent.' "

What all of the focus on her sexual aura has obscured is that Mirren is known for the intense concentration she gives her roles. She claims that she's lazy, but according to Hytner, she "has such extreme intelligence and such fantastic instincts" that what Mirren refers to as laziness is actually an ability to move "quickly and with great emotional directness in a role."

Whether playing Ophelia or a Janis Joplin-esque rock singer in David Hare's play "Teeth 'n' Smiles" (never much of a drinker, she set out and got drunk on a park bench), the process is fundamentally the same.

"You do it a little bit like a detective," she says. "A character is basically a mystery. You have to crack the code. I always try and find as well my own separate story I want to tell. I mean a secret story, in the sense of a secret message you're trying to give the audience through the character or through the story. It's the thing that often holds me to the character and holds my need to play the character. Because you have to have a need to play it, otherwise you just feel like you're rattling around."

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Mirren's long-awaited Broadway debut was a major event of last year's theatrical season. "Prime Suspect" had boosted her name recognition phenomenally in the States but she wanted the chance to work with American actors. When she arrived in New York earlier this year, Mirren helped start a Thursday night actors' table at Cafe Un Deux Trois, a 44th Street restaurant in the theater district. "I've always loved American acting," she says. "There's a courage and an immediacy about it."

Acquaintances suggested getting together once a week after the theaters let out, and Mirren dropped off handwritten notes at theaters inviting actors to come. What started out as a small group grew to more than 100 by the time Mirren left New York several weeks later.

"People talk about community, but you don't really have any sense of it," says Jon Robin Baitz, the author of such plays as "The Substance of Fire" and "Three Hotels." "Helen took the All-About-Eve-ishness out of Gotham for a bit." A number of actors believe that the weekly gathering also helped defuse some of the pre-Tony tension that can set in before the awards ceremony. They all enjoyed having her among them. Cherry Jones, who won the Tony for best leading actress in a play for her role in "The Heiress," keeps a photo of Mirren in her dressing room.

As in command as Mirren is now, it is a mastery that she struggled to attain. A turning point--maybe the turning point, she says--was her decision in the early 1970s to put her career on hold and join Peter Brook's experimental International Centre of Theatre Research and tour Africa and the United States. "Everybody thought I shouldn't go--my agent, my fellow actors, my parents. No one thought it was a good idea--except me," she says. "On the surface of things, it was incredibly self-destructive career-wise." That word again. "But I just had a feeling that I wasn't getting where I wanted to go in terms of acting."

What did she hope to find? "Freedom. I wanted to be freer as an actress. It had mostly to do with freedom and liberty, I think. I've always admired American actors for that reason. I think the perfect [acting method] is an amalgam of the two, freedom and discipline. I was good at the discipline bit, but I wasn't very good at the freedom bit. So I was searching for freedom. And I think I was also searching for a freedom within my life. I've always been sort of a good girl who wants to be a bad girl but is really basically a good girl."

Brook's troupe toured the world for about a year, performing pieces without words--using music, gesture, chants to express themselves. To this day, Mirren says that she wasn't ready for Brook's teaching. "I went basically for an ego-driven reason, and that was exactly the opposite of what Peter Brook was about." Yet, she insists that going was "was one of the best moves of my life." It was a beginning of finding the freedom that she sought. By pursuing freedom, did she miss out on the chance to attain traditional stardom? "Sometimes I regret the whole thing," she laughs. "But mostly I don't regret any of it. That's not to say that I didn't make mistakes. I did make big mistakes, but there isn't enough time in life to regret mistakes."

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