When Helen Mirren was growing up in postwar London, millions of Britons revered the royal family. Mirren's parents were not among them. "They didn't like the class system, and the royal family is the pinnacle of the class system," she says. "I was brought up very antimonarchist." Mirren recalls being "a bit cheeky" herself about the royals in her younger days: "I was a little uppity about why the queen won't smile. 'Does it hurt her to smile? Isn't that what she's there for?' "
Mirren has since tried the crown on twice. Just a month after winning an Emmy for her lusty turn as Elizabeth I on HBO, Mirren's nuanced performance as Elizabeth II has won her the best-actress award at the Venice Film Festival--and made her a top Oscar contender. In Stephen Frears's marvelous, and surprisingly intimate, new movie "The Queen," she plays Elizabeth II in the days after Diana's shocking death on Aug. 30, 1997. It was a week when Her Majesty seemed strikingly out of touch with not just her people and her new prime minister, Tony Blair, but with the entire planet. Despite an international frenzy of mourning over "the people's princess," the queen hunkered down at her summer retreat in Balmoral, Scotland, unwilling to shed a single public tear over the death of her former daughter-in-law. Millions of Britons were asking the questions Mirren had posed as a girl: Does it hurt her to show a little emotion? Isn't that what she's there for?
To play Elizabeth II, the actress immersed herself in the monarch's psychological world. "I watched a lot of film, read all the books I could," she says. "The most valuable was written by Crawfie [Marion Crawford], who was their nanny and also their teacher, the woman in charge of Elizabeth and Margaret from when they were little kids. I found myself drawn toward the young Elizabeth, the person she was before she was queen." Mirren was also struck by 20 or so seconds of film shot when Elizabeth was 12. "She's coming out of a car and she's got her little socks on and her little coat with a velvet collar and gloves. She's meeting a dignitary and she puts her hand out. She doesn't smirk, she doesn't wriggle, she doesn't look around at the cameras. She does what she has to do as well as she pos-sibly can."
That, says Mirren, is the essence of the woman who has been on the throne for more than five decades. "She's very dignified. There's a sense of self-control, of self-discipline," she says. When the queen finally was forced to make a televised speech about Diana--or face a potential crisis for the monarchy--she looked stoic and grim. In Mirren's re-creation, you see the effort it must have taken in that moment for the queen to reject her most deeply held beliefs about how she should behave.
One thing Mirren learned from playing two Elizabeths is that the rulers shared a name--and not much else. "No sycophancy was too much for Elizabeth I," she says. "She just adored being flattered and lied to, in a way. She wouldn't countenance anything else." The HBO movie depicted an aging queen losing her longtime lover and falling for a much younger man. The 61-year-old Mirren made for a sexy monarch, even without the benefit of any obvious cosmetic surgery. "Power is sexy," she says. "And if a woman is extremely powerful and extremely wealthy, she becomes sexy. It's just that women don't often have that position."
Playing the two Elizabeths back to back was "pure chance," Mirren says. But it has given her a break from being so closely identified with her role as detective Jane Tennison in the award-winning series "Prime Suspect." "Now, I'm not the policeman anymore," she says, "I'm the queen." (Until November, at least, when she makes her final appearance as the character in "Prime Suspect 7" on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre.) With no new projects lined up at the moment, Mirren says she and her husband, director Taylor Hackford, are taking a little bit of a break. They have houses in Los Angeles, the south of France and London, which Mirren still considers home. There, she's theatrical royalty, named a Dame of the British Empire in 2003. Yes, she's met the queen. "It was at a polo match," Mirren says. "I had all of a minute with her. I was with Chloë Sevigny and Chloë and I were being introduced at the same time. And I said to the queen, 'This is Chloë Sevigny. She's come all the way from Los Angeles. And I'm Helen Mirren and I've come all the way from Battersea'." That got a smile.