Helen Mirren Offers Intimate Portrait of 'The Queen' In her new film, The Queen, Helen Mirren portrays Queen Elizabeth II in the days after Princess Diana's death in 1997. The 61-year-old actress discusses the challenges of portraying a reigning monarch — and how she prepared for the role.
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Helen Mirren Offers Intimate Portrait of 'The Queen'

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Helen Mirren Offers Intimate Portrait of 'The Queen'

Helen Mirren Offers Intimate Portrait of 'The Queen'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Queen ELIZABETH II: (England) What I say to you know as your queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart. First, I want to pay tribute to Diana myself. She was an exceptional and gifted human being.

NORRIS: That live, televised address was unprecedented in Britain. On September 5, 1997, Queen Elizabeth II spoke from Buckingham Palace nearly a week after the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The public was openly mourning and had grown annoyed with the royal family for cloistering themselves following Diana's death. It was seen as a moment of crisis in the queen's then 45 year reign.

And it's a subject of a new film simply called The Queen. Helen Mirren portrays a mother trying to figure out how to deal privately with her ex daughter in law's death and a monarch trying to adjust to life with a newly elected prime minister.

Tony Blair was determined to modernize Britain. In the days after Diana's death, he made many phone calls trying to convince the queen that she needed to soften the stiff upper lift and address her subjects.

(Soundbite of movie, “The Queen”)

Ms. HELEN MIRREN (Actress): (As Queen Elizabeth II) (Unintelligible) as a family, and it is their wish, it is their express wish, that this should be a private funeral.

Mr. MICHAEL SHEEN (Actor): (As Tony Blair) Right, and the public then, the British people? You don't think a private funeral might be denying them a chance -

Ms. MIRREN: A chance to what? This is a family funeral, Mr. Blair, not a fairground attraction.

NORRIS: Mirren is used to portraying royalty. She was Queen Elizabeth I in an HBO miniseries earlier this year. She was Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George, and she lent her voice to the queen in the animated feature The Prince of Egypt. As always, she immersed herself in this latest role. To figure out how to play Elizabeth, the head on the stamp, and also the woman who pads around in pin curls and a pink, fuzzy robe. Details, she says, were important, down to the way the queen moves.

Ms. MIRREN: You know, she has a very specific walk, the queen, and it's very much the walk of a countrywoman. It's the walk of a woman who's used to striding across, you know, across wet fields with dogs and rain hats on.

NORRIS: That was so surprising to me, because I imagined her taking little, small, delicate steps.

Ms. MIRREN: No, no, she strides. You see her. She's got an almost a sort of dyke-y walk. You know, she almost walks like a man, you know. I must say, I did kind of nail the walk.

NORRIS: If it's possible for you to reach back before you actually took on this role, what was your impression at that time of Queen Elizabeth?

Ms. MIRREN: Well, you know, I think you have a grumpy queen, you know? I mean, would it hurt her to smile occasionally - kind of feeling? You know, is it so difficult just to crack your mouth open in a smile? Would it take an enormous amount for you to do that? You know, I was brought up vehemently anti-monarchist, and I did have a sort of rather sort of nervous moment of thinking what would - my parents are both dead - but you know, what would they think? They'd be so horrified. I think the only thing that would horrify them more was if I was to play the pope, you know.

But the humanity to see everyone as human beings, you know. And that was a very important part of the process for me.

NORRIS: Since she is such an impenetrable character, how did you get inside? What portal did you use to try to get inside the character?

Ms. MIRREN: Well, I obviously read all the biographies I could get my hands on, and I saw all the film that I could find - formal footage of opening of Parliament and, you know, Christmas speeches. And then there were a couple of sort of painfully embarrassing so-called intimate portraits, you know, where the royal family are having breakfast and talking to each other like zombies. You know, they're so paralyzed with embarrassment.

But I found as I was watching it, I was just drawn more and more towards Elizabeth Windsor as she was before she became the queen and indeed before her father became king. I found myself loving this serious girl full of a sense of duty, even though it was just the duty of being an elder sister to her younger sister, Margaret. A sense of responsibility, a sense of goodness, a sense of order. She had a very, very, almost obsessive compulsive sense of order. So there are sort of the genuine little elements in her that were really a true and deep part of her personality.

NORRIS: Where did we see that, then, that young girl?

Ms. MIRREN: In the film?

NORRIS: I mean, where in the film? I'm wondering in particular, in your mannerism or -

Ms. MIRREN: Well, I think, you know, as she stepped into the role of monarch, she brought those qualities with her. I mean, there was one little shot - it's over her shoulder, and she's on the phone with Blair, and she's very carefully lining all her pens up, you know, like little soldiers. You know, there's an extraordinary sense of consistency about her - continuum and consistency. It's the thing that she's criticized the most for, but actually in the end, one realizes it's her greatest strength.

NORRIS: Every exchange that she has, that the queen has with Tony Blair, is so interesting because it's this delicate dance between the two of them, whether they're in person or even if they're on the phone. I'd like to listen to an exchange. This is after Princess Diana has died, and Tony Blair is calling to offer a bit of advice, a delicate suggestion.

(Soundbite of movie, “The Queen”)

Mr. WILSON: (As Blair) Coming down to London at the earliest opportunity. It would be a great comfort to your people and would help them with their grief.

Ms. MIRREN: (As Elizabeth) Their grief? If you imagine I'm going to drop everything and come down to London before I attend to my grandchildren who've just lost their mother, then you're mistaken. I doubt there is anyone who knows the British people more than I do, Mr. Blair, nor who has greater faith in their wisdom and judgment. And it is my belief that they will any moment reject this mood that is being stirred up by the press in favor of a period of restrained grief and sober, private mourning. That's the way we do things in this country, quietly, with dignity. It's what the rest of the world has always admired us for.

NORRIS: Now, what we don't see there, while the two of them are talking are the occasional cutaways to people standing outside the castle and the flowers that are piling up.

Ms. MIRREN: Yes. She got that one wrong, didn't she?

NORRIS: But you hear in her voice an absolutely certainty that she's right.

Ms. MIRREN: Yes, absolutely. And she was wrong at that particular moment in time, but then that passed, and it was a moment that was created by all kinds of forces. Certainly the media, one of the forces, but not just the media. The media, you know - and you don't really know whether it's the media pushing or pulling, you know, the people pulling the media or the media pushing the people.

NORRIS: Do you imagine that the queen will at some point sit down and watch this film? Have you thought about that?

Ms. MIRREN: Well, of course I've thought about it, but I mean, I don't know. I can't imagine that they couldn resist, really. You know? There's a very good writer about the monarchy called Robert Lacey, and he was asked the same question, and his answer was well, I think the queen will say well, that could've been worse. I think I'll have a gin and tonic, please.

Well, I suspect that's about right.

NORRIS: It's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Ms. MIRREN: You, too. Thanks very much.

NORRIS: Helen Mirren. The film is called The Queen.

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