Helen Mirren Twists Shakespeare In 'The Tempest'

Helen Mirren i i

hide captionHelen Mirren, seen here in The Tempest, won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen.

Melinda Sue Gordon/Tempest Production, LLC
Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren, seen here in The Tempest, won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen.

Melinda Sue Gordon/Tempest Production, LLC

At an age when many female actors find their choice of roles is increasingly limited, Dame Helen Mirren is still a star — her recent films have featured her toting automatic weapons and running a brothel.

In The Tempest, Mirren switches up the gender of Shakespeare's main character, Prospero, playing the wizard as a woman, Prospera. Mirren's Prospera is a witch, "a human woman ... who dabbles in the black and the white arts of mysticism and of magic," she tells NPR's Neal Conan.

Vanessa Redgrave once played Prospero, too, but as a man. This is different, says Mirren. "I realized, watching this play," in a production with Derek Jacobi playing Prospero, "that a woman could play this role, without any change to the text at all." The discovery excited Mirren, who thought, "Wow, here's a great role for me possibly to play in the future."

Director Julie Taymor had the same idea, though separately. "We met at a party and professed the interest to work with each other." Mirren told Taymor she was interested in playing Prospero one day, and together, they made The Tempest.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Dame Helen Mirren has graced stage, screen and television for decades. She's won the Academy Award as a stoic Queen Elizabeth II. She frustrated criminals and colleagues alike as the steely detective Jane Tennison in the long-running TV crime series "Prime Suspect." And at an age when many female actors find themselves limited to mom and grandma roles, Helen Mirren's unleashed automatic weapons, run a brothel and engaged in a fiery martial power play as Leo Tolstoy's wife in a few recent films. Her latest picture, "The Tempest," recasts Shakespeare's vengeful sorcerer as Prospera.

We'd like to hear from female actors in our audience today. What kind of roles are available to you, and have they changed over time? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dame Helen Mirren joins us now from her hotel in Beverly Hills. "The Tempest" opens in select cities on Friday. And thanks very much for being with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. HELEN MIRREN (Actor): Hi, Neal. Hi. It's not my hotel in Beverly Hills.

CONAN: Oh, what is it?

Ms. MIRREN: I'm - well, I mean I'm in a - I am in a hotel in Beverly Hills, but really just to talk to you, more than anything.

CONAN: Oh. Well, it's nice for you to meet me in a hotel.

Ms. MIRREN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You must have been in "The Tempest" before.

Ms. MIRREN: No, I've never been in "The Tempest." I've seen it many times. But, you know, there are no female roles in "The Tempest," apart from Miranda. I guess Ariel could be played by a woman, though usually it's played by a man. And I guess in theory - no, no. Of course Caliban couldn't be a woman. What am I saying?

But, no. You know, I didn't play Miranda when I was young. And actually, quite honestly, I had no desire to play Miranda because I thought it was a bit of a wishy-washy role, although Felicity, who plays it in our film, I think, is brilliant.

CONAN: Yes. So - but in this picture, you play the Wizard Prospero, as we've all come to know him, but with a gender switch.

Ms. MIRREN: Yes. I play it as a woman, absolutely, as a witch, or at least a woman - an ordinary - not an ordinary woman, but a human woman, but who dabbles in the black and the white arts of mysticism and of magic.

CONAN: And the difference being - I know Vanessa Redgrave, some years ago, played the part, but as a man. What is the difference when, I guess for one thing, they had to rewrite some lines?

Ms. MIRREN: Very little. I mean, the amazing is - and I realized watching this play - I saw it about two, three years ago, which was what gave me the idea. I saw Derek Jacobi playing the role very well. But as I was watching the play, I realized that a woman could play this role without any change to the text at all. The whole - all of the relationships would work just as well with a woman in that role as a man. And, you know, it was a great sort of discovery because, in a way, it was like, wow, here's a great role for me possibly to play in the future.

CONAN: And - well, first of all, the director, Julie Taymor, did she have the same idea?

Ms. MIRREN: I think she did have the same idea in a sort of parallel universe. We didn't know each other at that point. We met at a party and professed the interest to work with each other. And Julie said, what would you like to do? And I said, well, you know, this had been sort of in the back of my mind. So I said, well, you know, if I was to do a Shakespeare again, I'd like to do Prospero in "The Tempest."

CONAN: There - you say not much had to be rewritten, but it puts a different cast on things. I mean, I think much ink has been...

Ms. MIRREN: Of course. Yes, the relationship.

CONAN: ...spilled on the Freudian relationships of Prospero in the story.

Ms. MIRREN: The relationships shift, you know. But I think the Caliban-Ariel relationship becomes very interesting, as a woman. I think those characters represent the subconscious in human - in the - in a human being. And I think especially the relationship with Caliban becomes very interesting because it's - you know, it has the sexual frisson in it that Caliban is all about. Caliban is all about sexuality and that side of our human condition. And Ariel is all about the imagination and the soul and the spirit. So it's wonderful to have a woman, you know, engaging with those two characters.

I mean, obviously, the relationship with Miranda becomes maternal. I think in becoming maternal, that she improves her relationship. It doesn't have that rather uncomfortable patriarchal, oppressive kind of feeling that Prospera - Prospero has when played by a man.

CONAN: There must also been some conversation at some point: well, people are just going to think it's a gimmick.

Ms. MIRREN: I don't think so. No, because it's - I never thought that, I must say, because - I mean, the great thing about Shakespeare - of course, you know, we all do Shakespeare in many, many different ways. And you can say, oh, Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo and Juliet" is just a gimmick. Of course, it's not a gimmick. It's a reinterpretation of the play.

And the brilliant thing about Shakespeare is that it has the capability built into it of being constantly reinterpreted for every generation, every new era, every culture, if you like, and that is why he is the great genius of drama writing.

CONAN: You've just finished filming a remake of the 1981 film, "Arthur," in which you take on the role of Arthur's nanny, the original character being Hobson, Arthur's valet. So are you just taking parts away from men now?

Ms. MIRREN: I hope so. Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We wanted to hear...

Ms. MIRREN: It's about time, I say.

CONAN: Well, we wanted to hear from the female actors in our audience about the parts that are available to them and how they have changed over the years. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org. Let's start with Lisa(ph). Lisa, with us from Jonesboro in Arkansas.

LISA (Caller): Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi, Lisa. You're on the air. Go ahead.

LISA: I'm thrilled to be able to talk with Helen. I saw the trailers for this movie and was just positively beside myself with how exciting it was that there was going to be a female Prospero. And if I'm not mistaken, I thought that in the text there were some references to the fact that Miranda has never laid eyes on another female. And I was wondering if that came up in terms of sort of the cross-gender casting that you guys were doing and if that was at all an issue in your process.

Ms. MIRREN: No. It's Miranda has never laid eyes on another man.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MIRREN: That's in the text.

LISA: Oh, I'm sorry. Yes.

Ms. MIRREN: It's not another female.

LISA: I'm sorry. That's what I meant. And so that's there was any issues at all...

Ms. MIRREN: Oh, what a piece of work is man.

LISA: ...in terms of that otherwise?

Ms. MIRREN: No. I mean - no. I mean, the only little tiny bit of text we had to change was a little bit of the back story which...

LISA: Right.

Ms. MIRREN: ...is in that first very, very long scene which is interminable.

LISA: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MIRREN: Usually on stage when Prospero is describing all of the things that happened that brought him to the island.

LISA: Right.

Ms. MIRREN: Tiny little bit of that obviously had to be changed. It's now a duchess instead of a duke. She's someone who inherits the dukedom from her husband who dies. And I think the idea of this woman seeking knowledge, seeking education, which is the back story of Prospero, you know, because he gets caught up in all his - in his research is why his brother ousts him, is the an excuse. A much better excuse if it's a woman caught in up in research and education. You know, people are terrified of women with knowledge. That's why women...

LISA: Yeah.

Ms. MIRREN: ...all over the world are excluded from knowledge.

CONAN: Lisa, are you an actor?

LISA: I am. And actually part of what has been so exciting for me was seeing this project come to fruition is that there are such limited opportunities for female actors, especially in the classical canon. And so this is - I just feel like it's opening so many doors, especially since it's going to be available to such a wide audience. So thank you so much for the path you're blazing.

Ms. MIRREN: Yes. Thanks, Lisa. Well, it's a fun path to blaze, I have to say.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Lisa.

LISA: Thanks.

CONAN: Let's see if we could go next to - this is Janet(ph). Janet with us from Tucson.

JANET (Caller): Hi, Ms. Mirren. It's really a great honor to speak to you. I love your work.

Ms. MIRREN: Thank you, Janet.

JANET: I want to speak to the paucity of roles for women of a certain age. I'm in my 50s, and I find it - while there's loads of roles for men of the middle ages, there's really not much for women. I just finished doing "Man of La Mancha," in which I played the housekeeper, which was a wonderful experience, great role. And I've been cast at a local production called "The Pastorela," which is - it's a Christmas thing. It's very traditional. It's about the shepherd's journey, but it's all set like as if they were Mexican. And the character that I'm playing, Menga(ph), is normally played by a man but they've cast me. And the woman that plays her wife, Raquel(ph), I have a lesbian relationship with in this production.

Ms. MIRREN: That's great. Well, you know, thing - times are changing, which is great. But I always say, you know, I'm asked of this question a lot. But I will say, you know what, don't bother about changing roles for women in drama, although I am concerned that so many of my contemporary actresses, brilliant, brilliant actresses - you know, the work has dropped away from them. When work drops away, you don't make money. You know, you can't make a living. And I see brilliant actresses unable to work and rather mediocre actors continuing their careers for a much longer period of time, which is very iniquitous and unfair.

But I always say, you know, concentrate on changing the roles for women in life because the more we see women, which is happening now, and because of that, we're seeing that reflected in drama because we are used now to seeing the CEO of an engineering company who comes on CNN or maybe on NPR and it's a woman. Or the expert on, you know, on volcanic ash comes on and it's a woman. And we're seeing more and more and more and more of that. And so that's what will change the roles for women in drama.

JANET: So it's a matter of the world changing. And so the roles change because the perspective of women in their roles in society is changing.

Ms. MIRREN: Yeah, exactly. Absolutely.

JANET: So are you finding that when you're referring to the woman that, perhaps aren't the finest actresses, do you think it's because they're younger and so their career is at an arc or it's lasting longer than, perhaps, the more mature actresses? Or you think...

CONAN: I think you misheard, Janet. She was talking about rather more mediocre actors - men continuing their careers while wonderful female actors sometimes have a hard time finding parts.

JANET: Oh, I see, I see. OK.

Ms. MIRREN: No, that was exactly what I said. As contemporaries of mine who were, you know, brilliant, brilliant actresses, now find it very difficult to find work with - whereas comparatively mediocre male actors...

JANET: Oh, I see.

Ms. MIRREN: ...are still working.

JANET: OK. Well, thank you so much for speaking to me. I'm really looking forward to seeing the film. And again, it's a pleasure to speak to you.

Ms. MIRREN: Thank you.

CONAN: Janet, thanks very much for the phone call. We're talking with Helen Mirren, her film "The Tempest" opens in select cities on December 10, I think that's Friday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Would we be correct to think that you can pretty much pick and choose what parts you're playing, that you're turning down roles?

Ms. MIRREN: Well, you don't pick and choose like that, really, because the reality is that - really good roles in really good scripts with really good directors and established producers are pretty rare on the ground, whoever you are, you know, on whatever level you are. So you certainly don't pick and choose from, you know, in that way. But obviously, there is a certain amount of choice goes on of - you know, I make very conscious choices between doing theater and doing film, for example.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MIRREN: I try to go back to the theater at least every three or four years. Last year, I did "Phaedra" at the National Theater in London. So that's a conscious choice I make.

CONAN: And do you make, obviously, "The Tempest," you get to perform Shakespeare. There was also "Red," in which you were - was it - that just a shoot-them-up and was that just a lot of fun to do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MIRREN: It was - it was great. It was absolutely great. I loved every minute. You know, I've always been a bit of a sort of babbling Bruce Willis fan, you know? And so, just a minute I heard I was being invited to be in a Bruce Willis movie, I said yes. I didn't care what the role was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And let's see if we can go next to Molly(ph). Molly is with us from Baraboo in Wisconsin.

MOLLY (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. Dame Mirren, how fortuitous, I just watched "The Last Station" last night and what a wonderful film and what a joy to watch you with your sexuality right on your sleeve.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MOLLY: The whole crowing rooster scene was just delicious. I just loved it.

Ms. MIRREN: Great. Yes. That was another great role, I have to say, and again in a wonderfully written script - screenplay.

MOLLY: Yes.

Ms. MIRREN: Michael Hoffman, the director, wrote the screenplay and it was a beautiful piece of work.

MOLLY: It was. It was a beautiful film. I was an actress in Hollywood through my 20's and into my 30's. And with golden curls and big blue eyes, I couldn't get cast to save my life. I think there was - I have this mature voice, and I just didn't jive with this whole Hollywood thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MOLLY: I started to turn gray in my early 30s, and I just decided to let it be and moved away from Hollywood. And now in my mid-40s, I am - I have a full head of gray hair. And I am so excited about the kind of roles that I can play, be it in small community theater. It's actually really exciting to me to embrace these strong, mature women roles over the kind of things that I was looking at trying to get in Hollywood.

CONAN: Can you give us a for instance, Molly?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MOLLY: On the spot, I can't. Nothing is coming to mind. But I just played a role in a play. It's a play that's never been produced before. But it - but she is woman in her mid-40s who's fallen on very hard times and owns a farm and is very challenged and I thought, I never could have done this when I was in my 20s and 30s. You know, besides not being old enough, I just feel like my age and my experience has given me so much more to put into a role like that.

CONAN: Well, congratulations, Molly.

Ms. MIRREN: I think the reality is if you can hold on for long enough, the roles are much better when you're older. They're just...

MOLLY: Yes.

Ms. MIRREN: ...much more complicated. They're more interesting. It was funny talking to Felicity, who plays Miranda so brilliantly in our film. And she's a wonderful actress but - and she looks about 10 years younger than she actually is. She's in her late 20s. She looks 16. And she said she's dying to play a role where she doesn't have to cry. She says I always have to cry in films, and - or any role that I have. Because I'm the young girl, I have to cry, you know. And she says, fed up with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MIRREN: And she's longing to sort of segue into the more mature, the older roles that are so much more interesting.

CONAN: Molly, good luck to you. Thank you.

MOLLY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And Helen Mirren, good luck with the "The Tempest."

Ms. MIRREN: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Helen Mirren joined us today from Beverly Hills. Her latest film, "The Tempest," opens in select cities on December 10th, nationally, December 17th.

Tomorrow, the Blue Ribbon Boys help us explore the joys of local bands. Join us for that.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News in Washington.

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