"Clearing" Star Mirren Admires Yankee Attitude
LOS ANGELES--When one thinks of the films of Helen Mirren, inevitably it's the roles that saw her playing stereotypical British women that come to mind. Two of these--the senior maid in Gosford Park and Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George--have won her Oscar nominations; then there's her Emmy-winning turn as a supervisor of detectives in Prime Suspect, and her parts in Calendar Girls, Last Orders, and The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover. But Mirren has also taken on a foreign accent in three of her films.
In White Nights, The Passion of Ayn Rand, and 2010, Mirren played Russians. In an interview room of a Los Angeles hotel, she says she chose these roles because she knew the accent would come easily to her. "My family name is Mironoff and my father was born in Russia. And he came to Britain at a time [in the early 1920s] when they didn't have a lot of immigrants there," she explains. "I think my father had suffered in his youth as a foreigner and because of that he just wanted to be with his family. So we were a tight little group looking out at the world a little bit."
In her latest film, The Clearing, which opens Friday (July 2), Mirren plays a wealthy American woman whose husband (Robert Redford) is kidnapped. The film follows two separate threads: the story of the relationship between Wayne Hayes and his kidnapper (Willem Dafoe), and the tale of his wife, Eileen, as she speculates on her husband's fate.
Mirren's performance is very contained, but she says the decision to offer up a low-key character was made as much by the Dutch director, Pieter Jan Brugge, as herself. "He is a very strong director in the sense that he really wanted his vision on the screen and all of us as actors serve the director's vision. And I think if anything, she is Dutch."
Growing up in Britain in the 1950s as Ilynea Lydia Mironoff, some things appeared to be unattainable to Mirren. "When the whole idea of theatre and that imaginary world dawned on me, I was very excited about it, but still it was something that was never going to happen. I wanted to go to drama school, but that was impossible economically. I like the American attitude that there is always a way. I know now that nothing is impossible, but I didn't know that then."
A year ago, Mirren was given the ultimate tribute in Britain. She was made a Dame of the British Empire during the queen's birthday honours. She says that she considered turning it down (which she is alleged to have done in 1996 with a Commander of the Order of the British Empire honour) because she felt awkward about being elevated to a status that put her in the upper reaches of an establishment she had never aspired to be a part of.
"To me, actors shouldn't be too establishment. Our job is to be sort of antiestablishment, in a way. But on the other hand, I just know how incredibly proud my father and my Russian ancestors would have been. So I took it, I think, for that reason, and I did feel embarrassingly proud about it."
Mirren recently went to the homeland of her ancestors and said that although she has been extremely busy lately, she plans to return and find out more about her family's past. "I very much want to go back and research my Russian roots and try and find the estate that my grandfather came from and so forth. So that's something I hope to do this year with my sister. We're looking forward to it."