I’m not the bloody queen!”

Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect

She had come to christen a ship.

Dame Helen Mirren arrived in New York City in early September with her husband, the director Taylor Hackford, to christen the Scenic Eclipse, a cruise ship. That’s usually the purview of queens, but as Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” Mirren has played royalty throughout her long career, from Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George to both Elizabeths—Elizabeth I (in a 2005 TV series) and, most famously, Elizabeth II in both The Queen, the 2006 film written by Peter Morgan for which she won an Academy Award, and in Morgan’s 2013 play, The Audience.

Now she has added to her queenly résumé the role of empress.

Mirren has recently taken on Russia’s Catherine the Great, in a four-part series to run on HBO in late October (with a screenplay by Nigel Williams, who wrote Elizabeth I). The empress of Russia was actually German—Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst—but she became the great Russian monarch, expanding the border as far as Crimea and the Black Sea. She ascended to the crown in 1762 after overthrowing her husband, Peter III.

A White Russian Émigré

In the empty garden of the Standard hotel on New York’s Lower East Side, Helen Mirren talked about making Catherine the Great, directed by Philip Martin (who also directed the British TV series Wallender and, suitably, The Crown). Given the fact that Mirren is half Russian (on her father’s side), one wondered whether she was drawn to the role in part because of her background. Her father, Basil Mirren (christened Vasily Petrovich Mironov) was a White Russian émigré who was taken out of Russia at the age of two. “They lived at the Russian Embassy for a while before the revolution,” something she said her grandfather, an officer in the czar’s army, referred to as “a peasant revolt—one of the many peasant revolts that had been going on time after time, actually since Catherine, funnily enough. Catherine was trying to handle all of that.”

Helen Mirren in 1969.

“Unlike my grandfather, my father never felt like an exile,” Mirren said. “I’m sure he had a very difficult time up to the age of 16 or 17, when he was basically thrown out of the public school that he was going to, financed God knows how.” When the money ran out, her grandfather, Pyotr Vassili Mironov, started driving a taxi. “At that point, he just said, ‘That’s it. Enough with the Russian. I’m British. I’m English. Forget all of that.’” As immigrants with “a weird foreign name,” they decided to change the family name to Mirren. “Almost everyone Anglicized their name to try to appear to be as British as possible, and we did.”

Complex, Nuanced, Brutal, Human

When, in 2003, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to drama, her parents had already died. “I think on one level they would have been inordinately proud, because to be the daughter of an immigrant, it was a giddy height to have reached,” she said. “But on the other hand, the whole thing of going to Buckingham Palace? My parents were fierce anti-monarchists!”

In a phone conversation, Philip Martin said that Mirren’s Russian background was one of the things that drew her to the role of the Russian empress—that, and the complexity of the character: “Catherine was an autocrat, and she was a very imposing person, but she was also very human, and I think it’s that combination that Helen captures. It’s appealing from an acting point of view of having a complex, nuanced character who’s able to be brutal in many ways, but can still be human.”

Mirren’s parents had already died when she was made a dame. They would have been proud, she says, “but the whole thing of going to Buckingham Palace? My parents were fierce anti-monarchists!”

It helped, no doubt, that Mirren is “well read on Russian history and a great film fan, so she knows all of her Russian cinema,” Martin adds. Her “Russianness” informed her acting, “particularly when we were in St. Petersburg. Helen understands the Russian soul.… She absolutely understood that emotional, summer-storms aspect of the Russian psyche.”

Dame Helen Mirren in HBO’s new Catherine the Great.

Unlike for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, in The Queen, Mirren did not have any archival footage that gave her a gesture or a manner she could use. What she did have were Catherine’s frank and emotional letters to her lover, the statesman and soldier Potemkin, which she devoured.

Like Text Messages Between Teenagers

Mirren also read the history books and the biographies, but “where you felt so close to her is in those letters,” she said. “It’s just the ease with which she writes and the familiarity and the vernacular. What a miracle that they exist, through revolutions and world wars! Incredible how they managed to keep them all, probably in some old trunk in a basement.” The letters sometimes read like text messages between teenagers. “They write love, love, love, love, love—so modern!”

Curiously, after her mother died and her house was sold, Mirren re-discovered the yellowing letters of her own Russian ancestors, which had been stored for years in her grandfather’s old, paint-scribbled trunk tucked away in the basement. Her great-aunts and great-grandmother had written the story of their hard lives in post-revolutionary Russia, but almost more by omission. In Soviet Russia, “they couldn’t write the truth,” Mirren recalled. Instead, it was “‘Everything’s fine. We’re living in this one room. The family down the hall are a little bit noisy.’ Grandmother was actually dying of stomach cancer and has no medical help whatsoever, but ‘everything’s fine.’ It was devastating to read.”

In yellowing letters stored in an old trunk in the basement, Mirren’s great-aunts and great-grandmother had written the story of their hard lives in post-revolutionary Russia.

Another aspect of Catherine that appealed to Mirren was that the empress was a very sexual being, full of passion and frank about her desires. It’s an element of Mirren’s career that is almost unique among actresses roughly her age. (Mirren is 74.) As an older actress, she not only allows herself to be photographed looking like herself—without special, flattering lighting—but she lets her characters retain their sexuality. And they are still beautiful.

This phase of her career began, arguably, with Prime Suspect, in which we see the 40-ish Jane Tennison as a sexual being, and continued through the 2003 remake of Tennessee Williams’s The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, undertaken when Mirren was in her 50s. We see her in graphic love scenes in a doomed but passionate affair with a young gigolo.

As Mirren says, “People just weren’t used to seeing a 60-, 70-year-old woman on the screen. You just didn’t really know what that looked like. You had a 40-year-old woman playing the mother of a 38-year-old man, but now really things are changing. I think now when you have a 23-year-old come on and she’s a brain surgeon, that would be laughed off the screen.”

Early Mirren: Age of Consent, 1969.

Mirren entered the scene on the heels of Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave. “I was sort of the next one along, and they were the first ones to sort of ‘drop their kit,’ as we say in England. When Glenda was in Women in Love, she does a nude scene, and I’d done it in Age of Consent. It’s never an enjoyable experience, really, especially when you walk onto a set that’s 99 percent men. Not anymore—now you at least have a little bit of female support somewhere out there in the dark. But in those days, no female support whatsoever! Terrifying. You’re young, and it’s not pleasant, but Glenda was a great inspiration. She was famous for walking on in her bathrobe, dropping it, and saying, ‘O.K., everyone, this is what it looks like from the front, and this is what it looks like from behind,’ turning around. ‘Let’s get on with it.’ Amazing.”

“Things are changing. I think now when you have a 23-year-old come on and she’s a brain surgeon, that would be laughed off the screen.”

The first time Martin worked with Mirren was on the final episode of Prime Suspect, which aired on PBS and brought Mirren’s prodigious gifts to the attention of American audiences. She plays Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, whose promotion puts her at odds with her male colleagues, who go out of their way to stymie and sabotage her. “I know that when Prime Suspect happened to her, she was worried that she’d fallen into that sort of mid-career black hole that a lot of brilliant women actors are put into,” recalls Martin. Instead, “Prime Suspect put booster rockets on the second half of her career, if you like, and that was something!”

While directing Prime Suspect, Martin noticed how “Helen is very good at making people feel at ease, but other people freak out by working with her. Everyone wants to be in a scene with Helen, and then suddenly the day comes and they’re going, ‘Oh, God, I’m in a scene with Helen!’ She understands that time is precious, and I think she gets that from theater—she’s trying to get that sense of live performance.”

Mirren as Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect.

It was indeed the role of Jane Tennison that first caught the attention of Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls, Beauty and the Beast), who has just directed Dame Helen along with Sir Ian McKellen in his latest feature film, The Good Liar. “From the first episode I was obsessed with Prime Suspect,” Condon said recently. “How bold that was to play that lonely, alcoholic woman, with all her demons. She was always a wonderful actress, but when she moved into that middle period, that’s when she really came into focus for me.”

“Why Don’t I Reveal a Little More?”

The Good Liar, based on the novel by Nicholas Searle, opens in mid-November. Mirren plays a vulnerable widow taken in by a con man—played by McKellen. Condon said that Mirren was “always very game to approach a scene five different ways: ‘Why don’t I reveal a little more in this take? You might want it later … ’ She thinks like someone who goes to the movies and loves movies and wants to be sure the story is being told right.”

Before she fell in love with movies, Helen fell in love with theater.

One of her indelible early memories is when “Mum and Dad took me to this show at the end of the Southend Pier, the longest pier in the world. It was an absolutely seminal moment in my theatrical life. They had a comedian called Terry Scott, who I thought was the funniest thing I had ever seen—but it wasn’t even Terry Scott. It was the dancing girls who came on! They pranced around in blue chiffon.... It was the magic of the lights and the movement and the fabric. That was when I wanted to be up there.”

But for young Helen, there were few opportunities to see theater.

Aristocratic and Working-Class

Her father came from aristocratic Russian stock, but her mother was a working-class Londoner. “We didn’t have a television. We didn’t go to the cinema. We went to see the Bolshoi Ballet—that was the only thing I was taken to see.” Her mother, Kathy “Kitty” Rogers, had left school at 14 to work, “but she was very clever, and she had dreams of a more interesting life, which is why she married a Russian émigré, sort of unheard of in her world. My dad was an intellectual. We couldn’t afford to go to the theater, basically, or the movies. My mum was a real intellectual snob. We were not allowed to listen to pop music. We could only listen to classical music, not that we had anything to play the classical music on, really.” Her father had been a classically trained musician, and Mirren remembers him playing Max Bruch on the viola when she was a child.

Her early interest was in ballet, which she studied until about the age of 13. “I read books about Anna Pavlova, and the visual beauty of ballet just completely entranced me—the grand star, the furs, and then I segued from that into reading about Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt, so I was very taken with the 19th-century model of big, grand sort of things. In my little dormitory in a Southend-on-Sea town that was quite funky, the grand and wonderful life really caught my imagination.”

“Desperate” for Drama School

Later on, when Mirren attended a teachers’-training college, she felt “desperate” to go to drama school. She couldn’t at first, so she bought the cheap tickets in the early days of the National Theatre. “I saw Maggie Smith and Geraldine McEwan and that generation. It was an incredible sort of theatrical education to have the opportunity to see those people on the stage.”

Mirren in The Queen.

Perhaps their shared, working-class roots were among the things that drew Mirren to Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Against All Odds, White Nights, Dolores Claiborne, Ray, Love Ranch). “He grew up in Santa Barbara, but on the wrong side of the tracks. His mother was a single mother, a waitress, and the people he grew up with were Latino, which is why he got into the Chicano culture. (Hackford produced La Bamba in 1987.) When you really look at his films and you break them down, they’re almost always about the working class. In fact, they are all about the working class,” including the Academy Award–winning When We Were Kings, the gritty 1996 film, which Hackford produced, of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle.”

Catherine the Great isn’t the first Russian aristocrat that Mirren has taken on. In 2009, soon after making The Queen, she played Countess Sophia Tolstoy, wife of the great Russian writer, in The Last Station, an adaptation of a novel by Jay Parini.

Speaking from his home in Vermont, Parini described the Tolstoys and their immediate circle as “incredibly complex figures.” Mirren and Christopher Plummer, who played the Russian novelist, “were an incredible acting duo.” Parini had been involved for 20 years in getting the film made, and he was thrilled when Mirren came on board. “We were very lucky. You couldn’t get better than Helen.” Like Martin, Parini also felt that her White Russian background drew her to the role: “I think she was very committed to her family origins and felt this gave her an element of authenticity. She had a kind of visceral connection with the Slavic material.”

Not “a Grain of Narcissism”

Parini vividly remembers their first meeting. “I turned up on the set, and filming was in motion. My close friend, the director Michael Hoffmann, said, ‘Do you want to meet Helen,’ and I said, ‘I sure do,’ so he took me to the royal carriage at the railway station, and there sat Mirren dressed as Sophia Tolstoy in all her finery. I thought I was seeing things. I spent all these years writing the book and imagining Sophia, and here I was in a czarist royal carriage with Helen Mirren sitting there! And then I turned around and I thought I was seeing more things—there was Tolstoy standing in the doorway! It was Tolstoy’s grandson visiting the set. He looked just like his grandfather. It could not have been more extraordinary.”

When he got to know Mirren, he found her “the most open, remarkable, and kind person. Most actors are narcissists, and she doesn’t have a grain of narcissism. Amazing for an actor.”

Mirren at 20, as Cleopatra in a National Youth Theater production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Old Vic.

Parini was also impressed with her professionalism and discipline. “If you just look at the arc of her career,” he says, “she’s been able to inhabit the souls of so many disparate characters—and such a range of emotions, always doing it with integrity and authenticity. It makes her probably the greatest actor of our times. You can’t beat the British-trained actors because they have their feet in Shakespeare.”

Mirren felt lucky that the first drama she ever saw, when she was 14, was Hamlet, “not Batman III. I hardly understood a word of it, but I was completely smitten. I guess it was the poetry. I don’t think kids should be taught Shakespeare up to the age of 14, and then they should just be exposed to it. They either dig it or they don’t. If they dig it, they’re going to dig it so deeply they’re going to love it.”

Willing to Shoot out the Lights

Indeed, there is something quietly heroic in her acting that doesn’t seem dated. It’s in her perfect posture, her diction, her beautifully modulated voice, like milk poured from a pitcher. You see it in her restrained portrayal of the Russian dancer Galina Ivanova, opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov in White Nights, directed by Hackford. (The two having met during the shooting of White Nights, a love affair and a happy marriage in 1997 were soon to follow.) The way she moves, the perfectly flat back of the trained dancer, the neat ballerina’s chignon, all speak of a great discipline in the service of a great art. But she’s also willing to shoot out the lights as a performer, as she does when Countess Tolstoy desperately and histrionically tries to prevent her husband from deeding away all his copyrights to a circle of his disciples.

With Mikhail Baryshnikov in White Nights.

Discipline—technique—is only one side of the coin. Mirren admires high-flying artists, the ones who refuse to play it safe, which is why she is attracted to writers like Charles Bukowksi and the paintings of Francis Bacon, as well as the films of Jean Vigo, the French filmmaker who died in 1934 at 29 and whose two masterpieces, Zéro de Conduite and L’Atalante, are sacred touchstones for her.

We spoke briefly about Hackford’s 1973 documentary, Bukowski, featuring the poète maudit reading “The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills,” a work Hackford chose for the nervous poet to read in front of the largest audience he had ever faced. (It happens to be one of the best films of a writer’s life.) Mirren credits her husband with introducing her to a sphere of life she might not have known otherwise, such as when they drove to San Pedro to visit the notoriously wild man of letters. They spent a long night talking and watched the sunrise. “We must have drunk five bottles of wine, which somehow went down very easily,” Mirren recalled. “I was extremely intimidated at the thought of going to meet him because I had seen Taylor’s documentary.” But, instead, she met “this interesting, eclectic guy who you could absolutely sit and talk to, and he’d listen to you—just a wonderful, wonderful guy. I’m eternally grateful to my husband for giving me that opportunity.”

But it’s the work of Anglo-Irish Francis Bacon that has most inspired her. “I had a boyfriend who was a photographer, and he was a big Francis Bacon fan, and he knew where Bacon worked, in South Kensington. We never dared knock on the door, but we’d go and stand outside his studio and look up at it and go, ‘Oh, my God, Francis Bacon is in there somewhere!’”

Bacon inspired Mirren “because he taught me about the accident; it’s what as an actor you’re always desperately searching for—the freedom to allow the accident to happen. You have to go through the painful process, which paralyzes you, as you start to learn technique, and then once you’ve learned it, you get to the point where you know your technique so well that you can afford to throw it away. I’m still fighting my way towards that, actually. That is my chalice that I’m searching for, always.”

Sam Kashner is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL