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Helen Mirren: Exploring the incalculable influence of a pioneering icon

English actress Helen Mirren is regarded by many as one of the most accomplished artists in her field. Known for her outstanding work in films such as The Queen and Cal, among others, Mirren’s celebrated oeuvre has earned her prestigious accolades, including the coveted Best Actress prize at the Academy Awards. On her 76th birthday, we take a look at Helen Mirren’s life and career as a celebration of her contributions to the world of cinema.

Born in London in 1945, Mirren’s father Vasily was a member of the Russian aristocracy whose family was exiled during the Russian Revolution. Although he eventually worked for the Ministry of Transport, Vasily had to moonlight as a cab driver in order to make sure that his newborn child had everything she needed. Mirren’s mother was also a working-class woman whose grandfather was Queen Victoria’s royal butcher.

“I couldn’t afford to go to drama school. To become an actor was a dangerous thing, financially,” Mirren explained in a later interview. Despite the financial constraints, she was drawn to the world of performance art and joined the National Youth Theatre when she was just 18-years-old. Due to her tremendous potential and talent, Mirren was invited to be a part of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she starred in iconic productions of Shakespeare’s works such as Troilus and Cressida and As You Like It.

While working as a theatre actress, Mirren turned enough heads to attract the attention of casting directors. She started landing credited film roles in her early 20s, appearing in films like Herostratus and Midsummer Night’s Dream. Later, she recalled how she had to face hardships and harassment in the overwhelmingly patriarchal framework of the entertainment industry: “In those days it was a very masculine world, a totally masculine world, a film set,” she commented. “And as a youngish woman you’re already slightly self-conscious and feeling a bit embarrassed and a bit under the microscope and not feeling like you really fit in.”

Although Mirren had received major honours in the early half of her acting career, including widespread critical acclaim for her performance in The Long Good Friday and the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her work in Cal, she would only keep gaining momentum as time progressed. With starring turns in projects like The Madness of King George and Gosford Park, Mirren received multiple accolades and gained global recognition as one of the great actresses of her time.

This recognition would reach new proportions in the 21st century as Mirren came to be known for her flawless renditions of British nobility. The only actress to have portrayed Elizabeth I as well as Elizabeth II, Mirren achieved unprecedented success for her interpretation of the latter in the 2006 historical drama The Queen. She ended up winning an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for her iconic performance.

Parallel to her trajectory in the world of cinema, Mirren maintained a robust career in television and won multiple BAFTAs and Emmys for her effort in Prime Suspect. She also worked on Broadway, appearing in productions of work by artists like Ivan Turgenev, August Strindberg and Tennessee Williams, among several others. For her mastery on the stage, she garnered prestigious prizes like a Tony Award as well as a Laurence Olivier Award.

In the last decade, Mirren’s stature as an actress has only continued to grow and prosper. Her body of work is evidence of her versatility, ranging from crime thrillers like Brighton Rock to popular animated films like Monsters University. Mirren also starred as Alfred Hitchcock’s wife in the 2012 biopic about the great filmmaker and earned a Golden Globe bid for her performance in the 2014 comedy-drama The Hundred-Foot Journey.

Mirren’s relatively recent appearances in productions such as Collateral Beauty and Luc Besson’s Anna have kept her in the public spotlight. She is set to diversify her oeuvre even further in the future with an upcoming part as a villain in the superhero film Shazam! Fury of the Gods, as well as plans to portray the former prime minister of Israel: Golda Meir, in a future biopic about the politician that is currently in production.

When she was asked about the representation of women in the entertainment industry, Mirren said: “When roles for women in real life change, then you will see change in the film industry. If we happen to see a [female] president of the United States, and a world expert on marine biology comes on television and it’s a woman, or the female head of a petroleum company on the news.”

Adding, “I think what’s galling to me is when you see someone who’s supposed to be a high-level surgeon in a film and she’s being played by a 28-year-old actress. They wouldn’t even be qualified yet, never mind eminent… The more those roles change for women in life, the more people get used to that image – seeing an older woman’s face. They become more familiar with it. It’s not uncharted territory, visually, so it’s not such a shock to the system any more.”

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