RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Actress Helen Mirren has led many lives on stage and on screen. There are all the royals she's played - Cleopatra, Queen Charlotte, Queen Elizabeth I and II. There's also Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in "Prime Suspect." Now Helen Mirren is telling the story of the life she knows best - her own - in a new memoir and photo album called "In the Frame: My Life and Words in Pictures."
Her narrative begins with the tale of father's aristocratic Russian roots and the family name. Not the English-sounding Mirren, but...
Ms. HELEN MIRREN (Actor): Mironov, or I guess as I'm a woman it would be Mironovna. Yes, indeed, my father was born in Russia and came to England when he was about two years old, just before the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. And basically he and his father and mother got sort of cut off by the revolution because they were upper class sort of white Russians and my grandfather was in the czarist army.
MONTAGNE: Take us back, tell us more of the story of your Russian grandfather.
Ms. MIRREN: He very much came from a long history of military people. But his wife was a countess. So they were upper middle class, if you like, land-owning people.
I had a few photographs of that, but a journalist in Russia miraculously found a cache of further photographs and I included those in the book, which were wonderful sort of Jacobean pictures.
MONTAGNE: Absolutely. I'm looking at them right now and it indeed seems out of Chekhov.
Ms. MIRREN: And of course my grandfather had five sisters. It's the Three Sisters, you know. I mean Chekhov absolutely writes about this lifestyle and the people that my family were. They were not the high aristocracy. They were sort the upper middle class people, the intelligencia.
MONTAGNE: But of course, in fact, your own father didn't grow up to live the life of the upper middle class or the life of a character out of Chekhov; he grew up to be a London cab driver.
Ms. MIRREN: He grew up to be a very overeducated London cab driver. But basically in his youth, you know, he became an extreme left wing socialist, which you can imagine to my grandfather was an absolute terrible betrayal of his class and his history.
MONTAGNE: All of this meant that your own upbringing was anything but privileged. You know, it was a little startling to read that as a kid your family, which was a happy family, but no car, no heater, no central heating.
Ms. MIRREN: No.
MONTAGNE: No refrigerator.
Ms. MIRREN: No refrigerator, no. Yes, no, absolutely. No car, no heating, no refrigerator. I mean, my mom to get hot water used to have to light the boiler, you know, which was always a traumatic experience first thing in the morning.
I mean, my upbringing was very full of contradiction. Because on the one hand we were living extremely hand-to-mouth, but on the other hand we lived a life that had a lot of reading in it, we were taken off to the library every Saturday. That was our entertainment, was to go to the library and get a book out for the week.
Certainly we had no television in our house until I left home, actually. But our entertainment of an evening was to sit around the table and talk.
MONTAGNE: There's a lovely passage in the book where you reflect on the first of your really serious work with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. And this would have been in the late 1960s. And if you would read us just a little bit of that.
Ms. MIRREN: Sure.
Then there was the experience of hearing the same language night after night and the way Shakespeare works, finding some new meaning every time. Simply to hear the reiteration of a line of beauty and complexity was to find a kind of belief. The theatre became my religion and I wanted to serve it.
Actually, that's a rather a good - accurate description. I'm quite amazed that I'm so articulate. Describing exactly how it was. And especially not just the performing of it myself but especially listening to other actors doing it.
MONTAGNE: I mean, it was an amazing (unintelligible) amazing.
Ms. MIRREN: An amazing company, and I would - when I was offstage I wouldn't go to my dressing room. I'd stand in the wings and watch, and more than watch, listen to some of these great actors and how they could turn a line, create an emotion on the line. And also that incredible experience of listening to them night after night and suddenly you'd hear something completely new in the line.
MONTAGNE: Although you talked about as a kid at one point, real early on in your career, obviously, you didn't want to or you didn't think you could actually learn all the lines. And you said thankfully your mother forced you to. But even later you would pick up a script.
Ms. MIRREN: Oh, I still. I mean, oh my God, still, every time a script arrives I look at it, I think I'll never learn those lines. It's impossible. Yes, over Hansel and Gretel I was crying at the bottom of the garden, you know, thinking I'm just - 'cause it came in a book, you know, so I'm obviously much better at it now. But I still get very intimidated if I see a whole enormous number of lines on the page. I get very intimidated by the thought of learning it.
MONTAGNE: You write that you were never given one of the roles you longed for, some of the roles you longed for - in particular Juliet. Why was that?
Ms. MIRREN: When I was, yes.
Ms. MIRREN: I don't know. You know, how do I know when they were sitting there going, oh, who should we have to play Juliet? Oh, don't let's have Helen Mirren. She's far too, I don't know, fat or whatever. I don't know why.
MONTAGNE: But on the other hand, your breakthrough role was quite a fabulous one: Cleopatra. About which you write: it's always good to be a queen.
Ms. MIRREN: Yes. You know, you get the nice clothes when you're the queen. And everybody treats you - though actually maybe you're not the leading actor on the set, somehow the queen thing rubs off and you get treated very nicely.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MIRREN: Whereas if you're the sort of - if you're playing the leading role but you happen to be, you know, the little parlor maid who's scrubbing the floor, you get treated accordingly. It's very, very strange.
MONTAGNE: One thing that occurred to me when looking at these royal roles that you play, it occurred to me that they might be brining you full circle in some sense to your father's aristocratic Russian roots.
Ms. MIRREN: I certainly know that my grandfather would've been inordinately proud of me being the queen. He would have said, oh, well, of course, you see. It had to come out in the end. But I don't know how true that is.
Don't forget on my mum's side I come from a line of real old London working-class people. And my mom was unbelievably queenly. I mean, she absolutely swarmed around the place like she was the Queen of Sheba. So you know, maybe it comes from that. Maybe it comes from just a desire to be like that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: Helen Mirren, thank you very much for joining us.
Ms. MIRREN: Thank you, Renee.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Helen Mirren's memoir is titled "In the Frame: My Life in Words in Pictures."
And you can see some pictures of her exquisite costumes and hear how it feels to wear them at NPR.org.
Ms. MIRREN: When I put those costumes on, what I felt against me was utter class. The highest level of handmade, the most expensive materials, and it made me feel like the queen.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.