Meeting the Queen in Jerusalem

Before a packed Cinemateque audience, Oscar-winning British actress Helen Mirren dishes on her varied career, British politics and her upcoming performance in ‘The Fast and the Furious.’

June 25, 2016 22:23
Heklen Mirren

BRITISH ACTRESS Helen Mirren spoke with wit, self-deprecation and fierce intelligence about her extremely varied career, at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. (. (photo credit: STUDIO PHOST)

Dame Helen Mirren is the only actress in the world who could discuss the complexity of performing Shakespeare on film, her portrayals of Queen Elizabeth II on stage and on screen, and her excitement at appearing in the next installment of The Fast and the Furious series.

Mirren, who was in Israel to emcee the presentation of the Genesis Award to violinist, educator and human rights activist Itzhak Perlman, spoke about these and other topics in an appearance at the Jerusalem Cinematheque Wednesday night. She received a standing ovation at the packed auditorium.

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The Genesis Prize, dubbed the “Jewish Nobel,” was awarded on Thursday night in Jerusalem.

One of the greatest and most beautiful actresses of all time, Mirren spoke with wit, self deprecation and fierce intelligence about her extremely varied career. She has played everything, including the classics (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet), comedy (Arthur, Calendar Girls), noir (The Long Good Friday), drama (The Woman in Gold, in which she portrayed a woman trying to get back artwork the Nazis stole from her family), superior police procedurals (the Prime Suspect television series), and action movies (Eye in the Sky, the Red movies). She won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in the The Queen, and a Tony for her portrayal of the monarch in the 2015 play The Audience, two high points in a career filled with awards and acclaim.

Her appearance at the Cinematheque, where she was interviewed by director Benjamin Freidenberg, was the culmination of a retrospective of her work presented there.

Mirren,70, said that she was happy to be a part of the Genesis Prize ceremony because it gave her an opportunity “to appreciate and say thank you” to Perlman. She also said she was pleased to that the prize gave her a chance “to come back to Israel. I’ve only come here twice but every time I’ve come, I’ve wanted to come back.”

Mirren was in Israel first as a kibbutz volunteer in the Sixties. She also visited the country when she played a Mossad agent in The Debt, a 2010 remake of a 2007 Israeli film of the same name. The Debt, directed by John Madden, was like “manna from heaven. Scripts like that and roles like that don’t come along that often.” She was full of praise for Gila Almagor, the actress who played her role in the original film, calling Almagor’s performance “a brilliant piece of work.”

Mirren did not discuss the political situation here, although she spoke out against cultural boycotts of Israel when receiving the Career Achievement Award at the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles last year.

However, she did delve briefly into British politics when she spoke about her roles in two films about the conflict in Northern Ireland: Cal, a film for which she won the Best Actress Award at Cannes, and Some Mother’s Son, where she played the mother of an IRA member in a prison.

She said she agreed to make Some Mother’s Son when it seemed that a peace accord had been reached between the British and the IRA, but that just around the time of the film’s release, “another bomb went off and the peace collapsed, and here I was in a film humanizing” the IRA. While promoting the film, she recalled, “I got the toughest questions in southern Ireland.”

In the wide-ranging interview, the actress, whose father was a Russian immigrant to Britain (he anglicized his name to Mirren), discussed how she got into acting.

“I didn’t go to drama school,” she said, because her family did not have the money to send her, although she always knew that she “wanted to be a great theater actress.”

Mirren said she trained to be a teacher for three years, then performed in a youth theater group, the performances of which were reviewed by national critics.

“It was a great stroke of luck, which I didn’t realize at the time,” she said. “I got amazing reviews and I left college immediately.”

The teaching profession’s loss turned out to be the audience’s gain. Reminiscing about her first big movie role, in the steamy 1969 Age of Consent, in which she played the sexy young muse to an aging painter (James Mason) in the South Seas, she said she was thrilled to appear in a movie directed by Michael Powell (The Red Shoes), but that “It wasn’t his best film.”

She treated to the audience to a funny story about her arrival in Hawaii dressed in her best starlet leather miniskirt, with no one to meet her at the airport.

Talking about some of her BBC television roles that followed, among them many classics, she revealed that “they recorded over the tapes, they are lost, that precious canon of work,” and that only a few videos survive.

Inspired by Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s L’Avventura (“She made me realize what film acting could be”) and the films of Anna Magnani (“I watch her films again and again to refresh myself”), she began a stellar film career.

As she spoke, it became clear how much she has been a creative partner in many of her roles, including those she made with the acclaimed directors Peter Greenaway (for whom she starred in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover) and Robert Altman (Gosford Park). Of Greenaway, she said, “He sees his films as fine art, pure art.”

Altman “understood technique so profoundly, he threw the technique out” and took Mirren’s bold suggestion to cut a scene she considered extraneous, and to add another one later on. “It was because of that scene that I got an Oscar nomination” for her role in the film, she said.

The film for which she won her Best Actress Oscar, Stephen Frears’ The Queen, was daunting because of the queen is such a wellknown figure and because “the Brits have such a love-hate relationship with her.”

What helped alleviate her panic was her realization that “you’re just doing a portrait of her... It’s me as an artist, it’s not her... It was liberating.”

Among Mirren’s upcoming projects is her role in Fast and Furious 8, the latest installment in the action franchise. “I’m a great admirer of Vin Diesel,” said Mirren, with her trademark blend of joie de vivre, humor and grace. “I’m sure it will be great fun.”

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