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The Tempest - Dame Helen Mirren interview

The Tempest

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DAME Helen Mirren talks about playing Prospera – a female version of Prospero – in Julie Taymor’s adaptation of The Tempest.

She also talks about her appreciation for Shakespeare’s work in general, working with Russell Brand and getting to strap on a machine gun for films like RED

Q. You’ve done many Shakespeare productions in the past but mainly on stage, so how different is it doing Shakespeare on the big screen?
Helen Mirren: It’s very, very different. There are advantages and disadvantages. The great advantage, obviously, is the close-up, so when you have complicated monologues with complicated thoughts and emotions it’s much easier to do them with a quiet voice and allow your face to express the emotions. You don’t have that advantage on stage. You’ve only got your voice to allow the audience to know what’s happening interiorly. On the other hand, it is formal language… it’s not the way we talk naturally so one of the challenges is it to make as sound as natural as possible without betraying the verse and the poetry of it. So, that is quite a challenge.

Q. Do you think making Prospero become Prospera for this version almost gives it an extra edge? Because she’s now a woman in a man’s world… with all that brings…
Helen Mirren: I do. I think it works fantastically well and it makes me wonder if Shakespeare had access to actresses if he wouldn’t have written it for a woman in the first place. Certainly, so many of the themes in the play pop in a different way. I think that the understanding of a woman with knowledge being a scary thing – and to this day in many cultures that’s the case… you know, women are not allowed access to knowledge because a woman with knowledge is something that frightens the status quo quite a lot. So, there’s that issue.

There’s the issue of the traditional fear of women as witches and of sorcery attached to a woman. I mean, certainly in Shakespeare’s day it was women who were being burned at the stake as witches… not men. The men were thought of as alchemists. But women doing the same thing would be a witch and would be burned. So, that was very, very much a part of the world that he lived in. I think the relationships work so well with it being a woman… and especially, for me, the relationship with Caliban because the fear of the potential violence of male sexuality, coming from a woman, is really, really strong.

Q. And it also works better on the maternal level?
Helen Mirren: Yes, it also works on the maternal level with Miranda and I find that much more palatable than the slightly overbearing, patriarchal feeling that you get when Prospero is a man. You always feel he’s slightly bullying of this girl and oppressing her in some way, whereas with a woman playing the role, with the whole Ferdinand thing, you feel she knows what she’s talking about – she knows how romantic and foolish young girls can be. Yes, you think you love him but she knows she has to test this love; she can’t just hand her daughter over to this guy. She’s got to test him and has to test him to make sure that she’s not betraying her daughter to the wrong guy.

Q. How much of the part did you base on the original Prospero, or did you try and re-invent the character entirely?
Helen Mirren: No, it’s all exactly what’s on the page. It’s the original story. It’s just re-considered with a woman plying the role. When I looked at the role it was as if it had never been written for a man and I was just doing it as if it had been written for a woman. There was nothing in the text where I’d go: “Oh, a woman wouldn’t do that.” Every single moment in the play, every line, works incredibly well for a woman playing it, so it’s exactly the play as written.

Q. What was the biggest challenge? Was it the language?
Helen Mirren: I think the biggest challenge probably in filming it was being outside in the elements. If you have a very text-driven piece of work, which this is, and you’re dealing with the wind and the elements in general, it’s just technically difficult to overcome those kind of things. I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare, but mostly on television or on stage… I have done Shakespeare outside, but to do some of those lines in that environment – because Hawaii does have a magical feel about it. It’s Jurassic and it’s spiritual in some way. I mean, I’m not that kind of a person but the landscape has a certain power. So, to be speaking that language in that landscape sometimes was a very extraordinary experience.

Q. Did you feel that you almost had to make the language appeal to a wider audience for film?
Helen Mirren: With Shakespeare, you always want people to understand what you’re saying and you want people to be entertained, so whether you’re doing it in the Royal Shakespeare Company in front of a matinee full of schoolchildren, or an evening performance full of Shakespeare lovers, or in the street as a street performer, wherever you’re doing it and with whatever audience, your primary intention is for people to enjoy it, love it and be entertained by it and understand it. So, that’s what you always do.

The fight always with Shakespeare is to try and find a way… it’s not necessarily a fight because every generation there’s a whole slew of kids, like me, who fall in love with Shakespeare. It’s not because they’re intellectual or clever but they love it because they love the stories and they love the way it’s written and what it says. But you want people, too, who thought that they wouldn’t understand it, or they wouldn’t love it… you want to bring them into it because it’s such an incredible resource. It’s such a great thing, you want to have as big an audience as possible for it.

The Tempest

Q. I think it was Al Pacino that said that for American actors, in particular, they either tend to stay away from Shakespeare or view it as one of the greatest challenges they can possibly take on. So, what was it like from your point of view watching American actors [such as Chris Cooper and David Strathairn] tackle it? Did you get a sense of nerves during their first day on set?
Helen Mirren: Yes, I know Chris was very nervous. But American actors are wonderful at Shakespeare because they might have those prejudices but at the same time they haven’t listened to other people doing it over and over again and so they come to it with a very fresh and individual approach. I think they’re brilliant at Shakespeare. They don’t necessarily sound like John Gielgud but they’re absolutely great and often they bring the language to life with their own personality and approach, which is really exciting. I wish more American actors would do Shakespeare. You’re right, a lot of them avoid it because they think that they can’t do it and you have to have a British accent to be able to do it, but that’s so not true.

Q. Do you feel that by doing The Tempest you’ve almost gone back to your roots and a comfort zone because you started your career on stage by doing a lot of Shakespeare?
Helen Mirren: Yes, I think because I did so much Shakespeare when I was young I suddenly went right off Shakespeare. I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to see it, I sort of kind of had enough of it. Except in that era I would still go and see productions of Shakespeare and be blown away by the production, by the acting, and absolutely love it. So, I’m not saying I completely went away from it. But maybe, to a certain extent, I lost my own bottle about it, if you know what I mean. I lost my own courage in doing it. But then I started really missing it, I missed having that language in my mouth, I missed having those thoughts in my head. It’s a beautiful world to inhabit… it’s so full of poetry and understanding and mystery that when you’re in the world as an actor it’s a fabulous place to be.

Q. Will you be doing more Shakespeare from now on?
Helen Mirren: Well, it’s tough because there are not many roles. I don’t particularly want to do Gertrude. I want to play Hamlet but I can’t play Hamlet. I mean, Gertrude is a nice role. But the thing of living in the world of the thought… that’s the thing and the world of Gertrude’s thought is not very interesting; the world of Ophelia’s thought is not very interesting at all. The world of Lady Macbeth’s thought is interesting because it’s so f**ked up but it’s not poetically inspiring. You don’t get to say speeches like some of the speeches I got to say as Prospero/a.

Q. Are there any male Shakespearean roles you feel you could tackle?
Helen Mirren: I can’t think of any. You can’t with so many of them because you’d have to re-write and re-jiggle so much of the play. The great thing about Tempest is that you do not have to change a word. You can play it as written and put a woman in there but everything changes without having to twist or turn anything.

Q. What about other strong female roles? Is there anything you have your sights set on?
Helen Mirren: There are some great roles but I’m not really aware of them. I played one of the greatest female roles ever written a couple of years ago… actually last year I played Phedre, which is an incredible female role. And a couple of years before that I did Mourning Becomes Electra, playing Christine Mannon, and it was a play I’d never seen and I wasn’t aware of the role, because I’m a literary idiot. I don’t know anything But there was this incredible role… one of the best roles ever written for a woman; spectacular. A lot of the good roles for women now are coming out of America, I think, in the 21st Century.

Q. So how much fun is it for you be able to take a break from the weightier stuff and strap on a machine gun in a film like RED?
Helen Mirren: [Laughs] Oh, that was great!

Q. Will you be doing the sequel?
Helen Mirren: I hope so. If they get a great script and they get it so they want me in it, I’ll be there, definitely.

Q. Did you ever see yourself as a feisty action heroine?
Helen Mirren: I saw myself, absolutely. Nobody else saw me as that! But I always saw myself as that – totally [laughs].

Q. You worked with Russell brand on The Tempest and have since worked with him on Arthur. So what is he like?
Helen Mirren: He’s great. He’s really smart, he’s really kind, he’s very hard working and he’s out there as well. I don;;t know how he juggles being nice, kind, smart and hard working with being the Russell brand that we also know and love. He’s a truly extraordinary person.

The Tempest

Q. He always talks about how sexy you are in interviews…
Helen Mirren: [Laughs and blushes] That’s his business! It’s got nothing to do with me. I think he went off that whole idea when he was working with me and saw me at 5am, staggering into work. But he was as funny off the screen as he was on the screen and he was always just… not in a neurotic way, he just can’t help himself. He reminds me a little bit of Robin Williams like that – the ability just to constantly… his brain is always working.

Q. Arthur features another gender reversal for you? You’re playing the butler role originally played by John Gielgud… So, what can we expect from that?
Helen Mirren: I’m playing the nanny. I haven’t seen it yet, so I hope it’s OK. They certainly like the idea of me and Russell together. The studio like it and I think the audiences like it. But I liked the fact it was a comedy. I was nervous about stepping into John Gielgud’s very big boots with that particular film. But what can you do? You go in and do your best. But I thought the idea of working with Russell, and doing a comedy, and shooting in New York and all of those things… great. But also with a great comedy director and writer – they’re at the top of their game. I’m at the bottom of that game, so I was in a learning curve there.

Q. They do say that comedy is often taken for granted and is one of the hardest disciplines to pull off. So, do you have a greater appreciation for that sentiment now?
Helen Mirren: I do. Just the pure energy level of it… it is very difficult, especially comedy on film because you don’t get the immediate feedback: “Oh, that didn’t work, let’s think of something else.” The timing… the timing of comedy is so difficult. You’ve got to leave room for a laugh, you don’t want to kill the laugh, but on film, you can’t just suddenly stop for a laugh and then carry on. So, I think it’s a real art form, comedy on film.

Q. Did you look to anyone as inspiration?
Helen Mirren: Only the director because in the end all of that’s in his hands, so I just listened to him and did what he told me to do.

Q. Julie Taymor has done a lot of theatre work before. Do you think that her work in that form has given her more legitimacy to take on a Shakespeare play on the big screen?
Helen Mirren: Yes I do, and also the fact that she had directed The Tempest twice before in theatre, so it’s really valuable when your director with Shakespeare knows the text really, really well. There’s a lot to understand in these texts and when they really know it backwards it’s a huge help. I think, of course, she’s also directed Across The Universe, which I think is one of the most brilliant films. She’s done Frieda, she’s done Shakespeare before on film and in theatre, she’s directed non-Shakespeare films, so she was very well poised. I couldn’t have hoped for someone with more understanding, really, than her.

Q. You might have been misquoted on this but I read earlier that you said you have no maternal instinct whatsoever. One of the key themes in The Tempest is one of losing a daughter, so did that bring any extra challenge for you?
Helen Mirren: Well, what I feel personally and what I can act are two different things. Maybe one of the great pleasures of my job is being able to inhabit worlds that you are never going to inhabit personally. I found it very easy to be loving and maternal towards Felicity Jones, partly because I thought she was such a wonderful actress, so my maternal feelings towards her were really as an actress sort of loving her work. Also, she’s a lovely girl. So, it wasn’t difficult to be loving and maternal towards Felicity.

Read our review of The Tempest