Dame Helen Mirren Discusses "The Queen"

Mirren Proves Why She's One of the Best Actresses of Our Time in "The Queen"

Dame Helen Mirren in the movie
Dame Helen Mirren in the movie "The Queen.". © Miramax Films

Director Stephen Frears (, Dirty Pretty Things) and writer Peter Morgan examine the behind the scenes events following the tragic death of Princess Diana in The Queen, starring Dame Helen Mirren, James Cromwell, and Michael Sheen.

The Queen provides a unique and enlightening glimpse into the private lives of the Royal Family as it explores Queen Elizabeth II's desire to remain secluded with her family following Diana's death. As the public outpouring of grief swelled by the hour, the Royal Family staunchly remained out of the public eye. The film reveals the struggle between the image-conscious Prime Minister Tony Blair (Sheen) and Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II over how to handle an event which, due to the Royal Family's desire to stick with tradition, threatened to bring down the Monarchy.

Helen Mirren on Transforming into the Queen: Mirren’s a beautiful woman who looks nothing like Queen Elizabeth. But in watching the completed film, the physical resemblance even threw Mirren for a loop. “I have to say even more so when I saw it on the screen. That is when it really came together. Just looking in the mirror, I couldn't see the physicality in terms of the movement. There's one shot (where I'm in the) doorway that completely blows me away. I come out and look at the flowers. I'm quite familiar with that piece of film because I watched it a lot to see what the Queen did. You can hardly tell the difference. That's the most amazing moment. Sadly, I used very little makeup. I didn't spend hours in the makeup chair with all kinds of magical things being added to my face. I did very little makeup. It had more to do with the set of the face really. The set of the head, the set of the mouth.”

Mirren paid particular attention to getting certain aspects of Queen Elizabeth II right. “The voice was terribly important. The voice and the physicality, those two elements in terms of the outward appearance of the Queen. I studied a great deal of film just to watch her: the way she walks, the way she holds her head, what she does with her hands, exactly where the handbag is held. When she wears her glasses and when she doesn't wear her glasses, which is quite interesting. When there's a tension and when there's a relaxation. Obviously, the physicality was very important.”

Having Tea with the Queen: Mirren was glad to have had the opportunity to have tea with the queen and credits that event with providing important insight into Queen Elizabeth II’s true character. “Very much so. Absolutely, because there is a twinkle to her and a relaxation about her that you don't really see in her formal moments, and her formal moments is what we mostly see. 99.9% of the time we see those formal moments and they're very familiar to us. That, to all of us, is ‘The Queen’. But there is another queen/woman/Elizabeth Windsor who is very easy and welcoming and sparkly and with the most lovely smile, and alert and not that sort of reserved and cool gravitas that she normally communicates. So I very much tried to bring that into it. Because the tragedy happened so fast in the film, I only really had a tiny space at the very beginning of the film and then a tiny space at the end of the film to bring that personality into it.”

Helen Mirren Shares Her Thoughts on the Monarchy Before and After Filming The Queen: “It did change my feelings, but not profoundly. I’m so ambivalent; I’d like to see a much more open Monarchy, myself. I used to think they were completely useless and we should get rid of them. I don’t necessarily feel that way anymore. I’m still ambivalent, I still loathe the British class system, and in many ways – in all ways, the royal family are the apex of the British class system, and it’s a system that I absolutely hate. But, the reality is, the last 40 years of life in Britain have eroded the British class system enormously. It isn’t what it was before the second World War – or even 10 years after the second World War – things have really, really changed. And always in change, there are good elements in change, and there are bad elements in change. It’s always a dichotomy, isn’t it?”

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The Relationship Between the Queen and Prince Philip: “I did a lot of research about that,” explained Dame Helen Mirren, “and that relationship is fascinating. Elizabeth was about 16 when she fell in love with Philip, and she was a young 16. She said, ‘That's the guy I want.’ Everyone in the palace and in her family disapproved of that match strongly. They didn't want her to marry him. He was a bit like Diana when he was young. He was a bit cool and trendy and hip and wild and would drive up to the palace in an open-top sports car. He was a dispossessed prince. He had no money at all. But she stuck to her guns and said, ‘That's the guy that I want.’ They even took her away on a long world tour to encourage her to forget him and she wouldn't forget him. And when she got back she said, ‘That's the guy I want to marry.’ So she did marry him and he was quite, I suspect, a macho kind of guy, quite testosterone-driven, strong and opinionated and all of those things, and then she became queen and then he had to stay in second place.

He wanted her, which is interesting, and Mountbatten, his uncle, was encouraging the Queen to change her name to his name, and if she'd done that, he would have become king and she would have become his consort, but she refused. She said, ‘I'm the Queen and you're not going to be the King. You're going to be my consort.’ And I think that made life very difficult for them in the early stage of their marriage. When they were trying to sort out how to live together it was very difficult, but they got through it and I think they now have a very solid relationship. I think they're good friends now. I think they support and rely on each other, and they enjoy the same hobbies. They found a way of living together. He has managed to deal with being three steps behind the Queen his whole life. It's difficult for a man. They found a way of living together, which I think is admirable and quite sweet.”

Adding a Little Humor to a Very Serious Film: “I think you can’t do the story without a laugh or a smile coming off your face, because as people are as serious as they are and gravitas – there’s something intrinsically funny about them as well. They live in this peculiar world that we - none of us - can comprehend. I loved the delicacy of the humor in the piece. It’s never a joke, it’s always a laugh that comes naturally after a situation.”

Reaction from the Royal Family: Mirren hasn’t heard anything from the Royal Family. “No, and I don't think we ever will. It’s dangerous for them to either say we think it's wonderful or we hate it because they're not film critics. They would be very careful to [not] say or do something that could be used by the distributors of the film. They'll be completely above it.”

As for Prime Minister Tony Blair’s camp, Mirren says that’s another issue. “I don't know. Maybe Peter Morgan [the writer] or Stephen [Frears, the director] will know. Usually, that sort of information filters down over a couple of years. Eventually, you get the word one way or another. It's received a huge amount of attention in England, this film, in terms of the print press. Everywhere you looked for a couple of weeks you couldn't get away from it. Obviously, the profile is really, really high. One knows that surely they couldn't resist looking at it at least.”

The News of Diana, Princess of Wales’ Death: Mirren recalls she was in America when the news broke Diana had been killed in a car crash in Paris. Mirren says she remembers feeling relieved she wasn’t in Britain at that time. “What happened there was disturbing,” said Mirren. “The public reaction was weird to me.”

Mirren’s not talking about an over-reaction to the death but how the public conducted themselves during that time. “It all became about them, it became about them. They appeared it was about her, but it wasn’t about her, it was about them. It was weird, I don’t know; I was really glad not to be there. And it was kind of a circus, like the carnival coming to town, and it was a carnival of death, and a sort of carnival of grief – but a carnival, none the less.”

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The Press and the Culture of Celebrity: Mirren said, “It’s not Americanized – you read that tabloid journalism started in Britain; it didn’t start in America. Americans are conservative and polite by comparison, and intelligent. It actually sort of started in Australia – Rupert Murdoch brought it to Britain, and then spread it into America. It didn’t start [in America] so… You know what? It’s the name of the game. What can you do? You just have to deal with it.

I think what one forgets about the Monarchy is that, for example, in the Regency period, there was a huge amount of political satire. I mean, if you saw some of the cartoons that were put into the newspapers or put up on walls of the Regency era, you’d be absolutely horrified. They were so venal in attacking and critical, and far beyond anything that we do. There was a cartoon that I remember that had the queen – I can’t remember, it was a princess, or the queen – and it was like the equivalent of Princess Diana, except it wasn’t Princess Diana, but that sort of personage. And this cartoon shows her sitting on a rock, by the seaside. It’s only when you look really closely, you realize the rock is made up of a huge pile of penises, saying, ‘That is what her sexual life is all about.’ Shocking, seriously shocking.

And so the Monarchy has come in and out – not necessarily in their favor, but in and out of an atmosphere of overt criticism or freedom of people feeling free to criticize. And, one forgets they’ve been through a lot over hundreds of years. You know, Charles I got his head chopped off by the people, so they know all of that. They know where they’re coming from, they know their history better than we do. And one tends to just see it – I see it, I think that they see themselves in the context of history very strongly. These tempests come and go, and they wash over them, and they’re still standing. They find ways of dealing with it, ‘Oh, that was a bit dodgy.’

Above all, what a monarch needs is the love of the people. If all of Britain loathes the Monarchy, they’d be gone like that. But the reality is we don’t. We criticize them, we torture them, we secretly buck their phones, and then put the results in the newspapers. We satirize them; we make movies about them. But we’re allowed to do that, and in a way, all of those things, ultimately just build a love – a weird kind of love for them. It’s like a family. It’s very much a family relationship, really.”