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Monsters University - Dame Helen Mirren interview

Monsters University

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DAME Helen Mirren talks about the pleasure of voicing the role of Dean Hardscrabble in Pixar’s Monsters University and why finding the right voice was the most difficult thing about getting into character.

She also reflects on her own career and some of the brave choices she has made, as well as working with the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud, and why she feels she will never stop learning. She was speaking at a UK press conference…

Q. Did you base Dean Hardscrabble on any of your old teachers?
Dame Helen Mirren: Not really, no I didn’t, although funnily enough today I suddenly remembered my headmistress. My first interview with my headmistress, when I was 10, my interview for going into grammar school and that change in going from primary school to grammar school. And the terror, the fear – she was a nun as well – I was so frightened of her, and she gave me the best advice that I’ve ever had and I’ve lived by ever since. I only remembered it after I was over my fear. She said the worst thing about fear is fear itself, the thing to fear is fear itself. She understood that. So actually she was scary but she was ultimately quite benign and wise, and I like to think that Dean Hardscrabble is like that, not just nasty and scary. She’s got a wisdom about her.”

Q. Was it difficult to get into character as Dean Hardscrabble?
Dame Helen Mirren: I was helped getting into character by Dan, every time he got it wrong [inaudible]… it’s always great to have a wonderful director. They basically guide you and allow you to experiment and do different things and eventually the character appears. It’s really a combination of the actor working with the director, and then of course the animators, who are incredibly creative people who come and visualise it. But once I’d found the voice, it’s really finding the right voice, once you’ve found the voice then the character sort of follows along quite naturally with the voice.

Q. What scares you?
Dame Helen Mirren: Well, I’m not frightened of insects at all, but centipedes I’m not quite sure about…

Q. So, how was it watching your many footed character on screen?
Dame Helen Mirren: To me, it’s just an excuse to buy lots of shoes. I can buy as many shoes as I like, I’ve got a hundred feet.

Q. Given the theme of the path not taken in the film, do you reflect on any dream that you had that didn’t work out for you?
Dame Helen Mirren: I think that it’s very annoying to go through life – and I think we all experience this – watching people who never seem to be challenged, and they just get everything they want, without having to work for it. It’s really annoying [laughs]. The rest of us who do have to struggle and fight and get knocked back and we have to come forward again – I think that’s why we identify so strongly with these two characters, because most of us have had that. There are the privileged few who just seem to waft through life without ever meeting any adversity or difficulty.

So, I think that’s what’s so incredibly endearing about these two characters. I think 99.9% of professional people have had to struggle to get where they are. All of you sitting in this room… put your hands up any of you who got here because someone put you here, not because you did it off your own effort.

Q. Who is your favourite monster of all time, and why?
Dame Helen Mirren: Do you mean monster in life? Favourite monster in the movies… well, Godzilla is pretty good, Godzilla is great… the old Godzilla, the very first Godzilla is fantastic. And Jason & The Argonauts had some good early monsters. I think the all-time scary, terrifying, über, über monster that Dean Hardscrabble would be very appreciative of is the Alien.

Q. Is this a particularly satisfying stage of your career, given the range of things you’re asked to do?
Dame Helen Mirren: I’m very lucky, it’s incredible fun. But I have to say that every stage of my career may have been a little bit different but there’s always been, from my perspective, really interesting things to do. I mean, travelling with Peter Brook through Africa was very interesting. You make choices in your career, and with some of them everyone’s looking at you going: “What are you playing that for?” You have to make those odd choices sometimes, if you have the opportunity to make choices at all. That’s a great privilege, just to be able to make choices. You have to, sometimes, just jump in at the deep and do stuff that you’re not familiar with, that you think you’re going to fail horribly at. You have to do that stuff.

Q. Such as?
Dame Helen Mirren: Well, going off with Peter Brook in Africa, that was a bold choice; Caligula [laughs], The Cook, The Thief…. oh my God, and so on.

Q. How do you control your fear?
Dame Helen Mirren: You get on with it. You go: “Okay, I’m frightened, but that’s not the end of the world. It’s only my business, and I’ve just got to get on and do what I’ve got to do.” My fear is my business and nobody else’s. I just deal with it, just being practical. The other good thing is to pretend that you’re not frightened. Act. Someone gave me that advice. Of course, you’re frightened but act as if you’re not frightened. That’s great advice.

Q. How easy was it acting with just your voice on this?
Dame Helen Mirren: Well thank you [to Dan] for giving me the opportunity, because I’m actually hopeless at voice performance. I’d love to have been in the room with Billy [Crystal] and John [Goodman] and watched the masters at work and learnt from them. Americans are brilliant at voice [performance]…. I don’t think we Brits are very good at it, weirdly. I have my theories about that but you learn and, as I said, I had Dan helping me and guiding me and telling me what worked and what didn’t work. It’s a learning process. I do like to have my body present… just to put it in the voice is quite difficult. You have to put an energy in the expressiveness which Americans are brilliant at.

Q. Who were the real life monsters who scared the life out of you?
Dame Helen Mirren: Oh gosh, well you know there were certain actors when I was young who were quite intimidating. They probably didn’t mean to be intimidating, and maybe other people now look at me and go ‘ooh, she’s so scary,’. But you really don’t want to be or feel that you are. It’s not what you’re trying to be. But when I came into the acting profession it was quite different, it was quite hierarchical. You didn’t sit at the same table as the leading actor. It was coming out of that 1950s period, you know, Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, you know, these were very, very intimidating and powerful people.

Q. Do you think being created a Dame puts up the barriers to some, when they come to meet you?
Dame Helen Mirren: Yes, probably it does. I was quite worried about accepting it for that reason. You don’t want to be set apart – I don’t want to be set apart.

Q. When you do a voice role is it nice not to have to worry about spending hours in hair and make-up?
Dame Helen Mirren: [Smiles] Oh fabulous, it’s so great not to have to get up at five in the morning for hair and make-up. And also not to be fiddled with all day long [she fiddles with Dan’s collar, to demonstrate].

Q. Do you ever stop learning as an actress?
Dame Helen Mirren: No, absolutely not. Absolutely not. You’re always overwhelmed – I am, anyway – by other people’s abilities, and wanting to learn from them. I said, I’d love to have been in the room with Billy and John and learnt how they did it, and they do it so brilliantly. No, no you don’t. And the people you learn from the most are very young people, I love working with young actors because you learn the most from them actually. So yes, it’s an ongoing process definitely.

Read our review of Monsters University

Read our interview with Dan Scanlon