It's not very often we see a bona fide hottie achieve as much success as Dame Helen Mirren. Neither have we seen many an actress come to that success the way Helen has. When she was in her 20s, a time when many actresses start to angle for bigger roles, Helen was just starting out in movies. By the time she reached the age where great roles start to dry up for other actors, Helen was just starting to get the great roles. And now, having reached a point in life where many actors decide to hang it up for good, Helen is regularly hanging up the awards and honors she gets for all her juicy roles. Time and again she proves that being a little behind in the game is no reason to stop playing.
Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironoff was born in Hammersmith, London on July 26th, 1945 to mother Kitty and father Vasiliy Petrovich Mironoff. Vasiliy was the Russian son of Colonel Pyotr Vasilievich Mironoff, a Tsarist Russian aristocrat, decorated veteran of the Russian army and an official diplomat. He and his family came to England in 1917 on a diplomatic mission, just prior to the October Revolution in Russia which unfortunately ousted his boss, the Czar of Russia. This left Pyotr a wanted man back home, forcing him to seek asylum for himself and his family in England. Pyotr later settled in England, where the now former Russian aristocrat took a job as a London cabbie to make ends meet.
In 1950, Helen's father Vasiliy changed the family name to Mirren and his own name to Basil and settled his family firmly into an English lifestyle, never making his daughter out to be anything but a true daughter of England. And thus she grew up the typical middle class Brit, attending the St. Bernard's High School for Girls where she performed in school plays. At 18, she auditioned for the National Youth Theatre and was accepted. By 20, she was playing Cleopatra in that theater company's production of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra at the Old Vic in London, already walking the road that would lead her to future stardom.
Helen spent most of the 1960s performing in various theater companies back home in England, including the prestigious Royal Shakespeare theater. Despite making it big in movies years down the line, it was often her work in the theater that sustained and nourished her as an actress, particularly in the early days of her career when movies were still few and far between. One of those first film roles was 1969's Australian comedy-drama AGE OF CONSENT. In it she played a bit of a wild child raised on an isolated island who meets and connects with an older artist looking for inspiration. Only in her early 20s and fairly green on film, Helen handled the numerous nude scenes her part called for with little trouble. Having a body pretty much made for nude scenes didn't hurt her there, nor in any of those other early films when Helen made with the nakedness (Google it, folks).
Though film roles came occasionally, the first decade or so of her career she spent mostly in theatrical and TV productions back home, doing various mini-series and TV movies. Helen remains a common face in many a British TV movie and mini-series this day. Her first major role in an international production came with the 1979, semi-softcore film CALIGULA, which told the exaggerated story of the infamous Roman ruler and his decadent lifestyle. A somewhat corny film and relatively tame by today's standards (minus the hardcore content added later), the film was still a scandalous affair for its time, raising eyebrows and even getting banned a time or two. It was, however, sufficient to get Helen's name out there, which helped get her cast in another pseudo historical drama a few years later.
In 1981, Helen was cast as Morgana in EXCALIBUR, the John Boorman adaptation of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Playing the half sister to King Arthur who later betrays him, the role was an opportunity for Helen to show off the scene chewing abilities she had already spent years honing in the theater. Unfortunately, it wasn't a very happy set for Helen, nor for her co-star Nicol Williamson, who played Merlin in the film. Helen and Nicol had worked together before in a theatrical production of Macbeth, where they engaged in a brief love affair that unfortunately ended badly, leaving both with not-so-good feelings toward the other.
Aware of their issues with one another, Boorman decided to cast them in their respective roles anyway, despite protests from both actors. His feeling was that their real life antagonism would come across well on film, giving the antagonistic relationship between their characters an air of realism. While the two of them were professional enough to keep it together during their scenes, their mutual disliking for one another did just as Boorman hoped and put a little extra snip in the air during their scenes together. EXCALIBUR went on to success across the globe and has become remembered as one of the best tellings of the Arthur legend ever put on film.
Despite that unpleasantness, Helen's time on the EXCALIBUR set wasn't all bad. For it was while filming that movie that she met and befriended a young actor still somewhat wet behind the ears. Named Liam Neeson, this young Irish hopeful played a member of Arthur's roundtable, Sir Gawain, in the film. Having just broken into the acting business a few years before, veteran actor Helen took him under her wing and the two lived together for a brief time during the early 1980s. While their relationship didn't last more than a few years, Helen did manage to get Liam his first agent while they were together, which helped set him on his well documented path to superstardom years later.
1985 saw Helen appear in the film WHITE NIGHTS, playing the Russian girlfriend of a ballet dancer who defects from the Soviet Union, only to be forced to return home. The film was a chance for Helen to reacquaint herself with a bit of her mostly unexplored roots back home in Russia and was ironically the second time in as many years she had played a Russian. The first was her role as the commander of a Soviet spacecraft bound for Jupiter in the Peter Hyams sequel to 2001, 2010. Though her father never taught her to speak his native language, she was familiar enough with the pronunciation to deliver her lines with a convincing accent for both these films. Despite playing Russians and thus having to speak lines in Russian on more than one occasion in subsequent productions, she has yet to fully learn to speak that language.
WHITE NIGHTS was also where Helen became acquainted with the man who became her husband years later, director Taylor Hackford. The two met while making the film and began a relationship in 1986. They remained together for over a decade before marrying in 1997. Hackford has two children from previous marriages, but he and Helen never chose to have another together, thanks at least in part to Helen's self-confessed lack of any maternal instinct whatsoever.
1986 did see Helen give birth to what might be one of her first truly great film performances with that year's THE MOSQUITO COAST, playing the somewhat submissive wife to a discontented American inventor (played by Harrison Ford) who becomes disillusioned with the American way of life and moves his family to the West Indies to build a new society based on his own ideals. Though the movie was not a hit, it was one of the better films of her career up to that point and probably her best film performance of the decade.
Things stayed pretty much under the radar for Helen throughout the rest of the 80s and into the 90s. Despite approaching her 50s and still nowhere near a big Hollywood name, she continued to plug away at both film and stage productions with only moderate success. That is, until a modest historical drama focusing on the infamous King George III of England found its way to her. Called THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE, the film chronicled the period in the king's reign when dementia threatened to dethrone him, were it not for the influence of powerful men behind that throne. Helen played Queen Charlotte and delivered a memorable performance as the wife of the unstable monarch. It was sufficient to win Helen her first Academy Award nomination that year. It was also a hint at the future rewards historical dramas promised to bring her in the not-too-distant future.
Helen earned her second Oscar nom in 2001 for her performance in yet another historical film, GOSFORD PARK. Playing the head housekeeper at a British manor house during a high profile socialite party, her performance as the frank head of household was a highlight amidst highlights. It also served as yet another chance for her to show off her special knack for historical dramas. And while always a dame in nature, Helen became a Dame by title two years later when she was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, thanks to her film, TV and theater work.
In 2005, Helen got to show off yet again, playing Queen Elizabeth I in a joint HBO/Channel 4 mini-series profiling the later years of the legendary monarch's life. Sticking with the historical dramas proved a wise choice yet again. Helen's powerful performance as the ailing queen trying to hang on to power helped win the series a literal shower of awards - the highlight of them all being Helen's Emmy and Golden Globe wins for her performance.
Funny enough, this was the 6th time in her career Helen played a queen of some sort.
Now pushing 70, Helen isn't stopping to smell any roses. She's never been more popular, never been more in demand than she is right now. She's quite literally living the dream any actor hopes and prays for and she's doing it at a time in life when most folks her age can only hope to reminisce on past success. And if that wasn't enough, she still looks amazing, for any age. After 50 years in the acting business, Helen's success and longevity are a true testament to the rewards that talent and good old fashioned perseverance will deliver.