On Friday, I conducted a Q & A with Helen Mirren after an opening night showing of Julie Taymor’s The Tempest at the Arclight. Dame Mirren earned a rousing round of applause at the packed house.
AT: Did you propose to Taymor the notion of changing the sex of Prospero in The Tempest?
HM: We didn’t know each other until we met each other at a function. I expressed my great admiration for her, and visa versa, she with me, and we said, as you do, “Oh, I’d love to work with you sometime,” and she said, “Well, what would you like to do?” My brain went blank at that moment, except into my mind popped a thought I had had a year before, of doing The Tempest, and playing Prospero, but as a woman. So I suggested it to her and she said,”Absolutely.” She always had thought it would be a possibility, she had directed the play twice, so she was very familiar with the text and the material.
AT: Were you shocked when she came back to you and said, “We’re actually going to do it?”
HM: I was, absolutely. And then, of course, my heart dropped. I thought, “I’ve really set myself up here.” She called me up a year later and said, “I hope you still want to do it, because I think I’m going to do it,” and I said, “fantastic, which theatre?” And she said “No, I’ve got the money to make a film!” And then I really got cold feet, because it’s not easy to put Shakespeare on film, especially a play like The Tempest. The comedies are somewhat easier, but you know the text [of The Tempest] is very complex. It’s a light–but basically a dark–story. And also I was really sticking my head above the parapet to do Prospero. I think it works really well. We did a reading before we shot any of the film, just to see if we felt that it might work, and that was actually before Julie got the money for it, just to see if this was something we could go ahead with. And when we read it, we realized how beautifully the female sensibility and experience fitted into the play.
AT: It works very well. It becomes more of a mother-daughter story; you find Prospera rooting for and protecting Miranda in a different kind of way.
HM: Yes, it’s very interested changing that dynamic, isn’t it? I don’t know how familiar any of you are with the play, but it’s played by a man and there are many many different interpretations of every actor. The great thing about Shakespeare, I would say, it’s like being the guy who carries the Olympic torch, you know, and runs toward the stadium. All the different people who carry the Olympic torch—you get that role for that short period of time, five miles of history. Before you, in Prospera’s case, were many many actors with brilliant interpretations and hopefully in the future there will be both actors and actresses, who will play this role.
The reason I had the idea of [playing Prospero] in the first place, was as I was watching Derek Jacobi playing it in the theatre, I was thinking, “God, a woman could play this role and you wouldn’t have to change a single word; you wouldn’t have to change anything!” There is no other play in the canon of Shakespeare that I can think of that this is true of. But in The Tempest it is true. Another interesting fact is one of the most famous speeches in the film, the speech that I do in the ring of fire, “Ye elves…” —it’s a great speech–was taken pretty well word for word (talk about plagiarism) from a play I think by Ovid about Medea, Medea being a woman sorceress. With Shakespeare, if you are interested, go back to the source material and check it out on your Google tonight and you’ll see. It’s unbelievable. Virtually word for word. So so so close. So, one of the most famous speeches in the play was actually written for a female character. But anyway as I was watching it, I was thinking this absolutely could be played by a woman. So I thought at that time, “well, if anybody asks me to do Shakespeare again I’ll say that’s what I want to play.”
AT: Did Taymor have to adjust the language?
HM: Nothing. I say nothing: a tiny little back story. He was the Duke of Milan, and we had to just change it to Duchess. And we did a little thing where the Duke dies, he gives her control of the Dukedom, and then her brother comes and ousts her in a coup d’etat. But so little of the dialogue was changed.
AT: You have introduced it into the canon, I think it will happen. There aren’t that many great roles for women of a certain age in Shakespeare. Here you are, you’ve reached your prime, you know what you’re doing, it must have been a great feeling to just run with it.
HM: I’m used to doing Shakespeare on the stage, except I did Midsummer Night’s Dream on film when I was very young. You know, it’s a very different thing to do Shakespeare on film. It’s wonderful in many ways because you can use your face, your facial expression, the close-up, which is a fabulous thing to have in Shakespeare, because obviously the text is complicated, and difficult to follow, so the most important thing is people understanding what you’re saying and feeling, and it’s much easier when you’ve got a close-up to help the understanding. What you lose on film is that real sense of power, that real sense of controlling the audience, which you have when you are on stage. You know, when you are on stage it’s like being the coachmen with the horses; you’ve got six horses and you’re having to control and guide them and make them go faster and hold them back; that’s the feeling of being an actor on stage with Shakespeare.
AT: Julie didn’t want you to wear makeup, how did you feel about that?
HM: Well it would have looked ridiculous if I had had makeup on, wouldn’t it? I mean, you can’t do that. Everything becomes pointless, really. So you’ve got to step up to that and say, “OK, I’m going to look like crap.”
AT: How do you feel about the double standard of men being allowed to get old and develop wrinkles, while gaining power and authority? Why can’t women be that way too? Because I think that’s what you’ve done.
HM: All they have to do it claim it, and not be afraid of it. (Audience applause.)
AT: We’ve been getting many glimpses of Taymor backstage on Spider-Man, but what was it like working with her during filming on those exposed locations?
HM: Well three-quarters of the film was shot in Hawaii, the rest was shot in a studio in New York. Indeed it was not the Hawaii of people’s holidays with the beaches and the beautiful, lush vegetation. It’s that amazing Hawaii, the newest landmass on this planet, and yet with this feel of what the world was like when it was first born; incredible volcanic fields and deserts and incredible garden of the gods that we shot in, it’s just this wonderfully different, Jurassic-feeling environment. It was quite incredible to say those amazing words of Shakespeare in that environment. There was something really extraordinary about having that experience.
AT: I understand you were acting across from Ben Whishaw’s Ariel, but he wasn’t actually there in Hawaii. He was shot separately on a stage.
HM: No, he wasn’t it Hawaii. But he was in spirit. I believed he was there.
AT: What was Julie like to work with as a director? What was your process with her?
HM: She was a bitch [much laugher from the crowd].
AT: That’s her rep! Ask Anthony Hopkins!
HM: No, no, no. So not true! She was absolutely fantastic, I loved working with her. She’s a very girly girl. She’s really strong and determined and obsessed and visionary– ike you want your director to be –but at the same time she’s really sort of girly; she can cry, she can get upset, and I absolutely loved working with her. The only trouble is she’s got an obsession with hair and how your hair should look. And that’s a hard thing to do when you are shooting in Hawaii and there’s a force ten gale. “Her hair is sticking up!” Yes, that’s because the wind is blowing! “Make it stick down!” OK. “Her hair’s not moving!” But anyway, she was fantastic. And she’s so visual. Her visual preparation and her textual preparation is enormous. She knew the play inside and out and at the same time she had this very strong visual understanding of what she wanted it to be. Frame by frame, she would say to the cinematographer, “No, I want that twig in the shot, but not that one, and I want it very slightly angled, but not like that.” I mean every frame was really carefully constructed by Julie.
AT: You’ve had a remarkably prolific couple of years, you must be exhausted. You had three films released in 2010–besides The Tempest, you play a madam in your husband Taylor Hackford’s Love Ranch and a retired spy in the thriller RED. And you play an Israeli agent in the upcoming The Debt, which was pushed back to 2011, because it’s one of those movies that Miramax let go.
HM: Yes, I play a retired, not CIA but Mossad agent. It’s a great thriller, a really good film.
AT: You must have stacks of scripts to plow through. How do you make those choices?
HM: Well there is very often a stack of not very good scripts, that will never get made. And then there’s another stack of not very good scripts that might get made. And then there’s a very small stack of really good scripts that might get made. And they are the ones that I go for, obviously, and sometimes they are big-budget movies, and sometimes they are very very low budget movies. But a really good script is amazingly rare, actually.
AT: And when you read RED, did you think it was a really good script? They turned it into a hit on the surprise image of you holding a gun.
HM: Yes, I did! It was a very funny, great script I thought. And yes it was a hit, and I hope it continues to be. Certainly in the rest of the world it’s doing really really well. It was Bruce Willis, and John Malkovich, who is so, so funny. It had a great cast; really an ensemble piece. And if you’ve got an ensemble piece and everyone is pulling their weight, you’ve got a good chance.
AT: Now you have re-teamed with Russell Brand for Arthur? What’s the concept behind that remake?
HM: We just did Arthur, we did that in New York this summer, God it was hot. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the original Arthur, it’s a very beloved film, and that’s a dangerous thing to do. On the other hand, there’s probably three generations who’ve never seen Arthur, or heard of Dudley Moore or indeed John
Gilbert Gielgud. So I guess those are the people we have to get to the cinema.
AT: The premise is basically that he’s drunk the entire time.
HM: Yes, and now there’s a whole different feeling about alcoholism. And so that has to be addressed in the film. And the John
Gilbert Gielgud character, which originally was his butler, has now become his nanny, played by me.
AT: Looking forward to it, as well as Brighton Rock?
HM: Yes, another remake actually, of a film probably not known so much in America, but it was a pretty beloved film in Britain, based on a book by Graham Green called Brighton Rock, rather good literature, and it was a black and white film, made in the fifties. Sir Richard Attenborough plays the young man in it, so that’s how long ago it was made. So we did a remake, but it’s still kind of a period piece, it takes place in the sixties.
Q: Are there any theatre roles that you would like to play? Would you consider playing King Lear as a woman?
HM: You couldn’t do King Lear as a woman. You just couldn’t, no. It wouldn’t work. Think of that, he’s so masculine, with his entourage, his drunken soldiers, the reason he gets thrown out of his daughter’s castle– because they are having too many rowdy drunken nights. It would not be possible to play Lear as a woman.
AT: Any other roles you are eager to take on?
HM: The other role have the hots for, which I actually did last year, was Phaedra, on stage, it’s a great great play and it was a role I wanted to play because of how Sarah Bernhardt was so brilliant as Phaedra, one heard, so I wanted to out-do Sarah Bernhardt. Another great play I did a couple of years ago was Mourning Becomes Electra, incredible role, one of the great great theatrical roles. That would make a good movie, an interesting film.
Q: Do you prefer classical or modern original characters?
HM: It’s great to do either. The reality is, whatever the roles is, you put your own interpretation onto it. The classical work is classical because it has eternal truths buried within it. And that’s why generation after generation, you can have it every five years, or three habits every five years, which we do in England, and each time it speaks anew to the next set of young people growing up who are now fifteen – they were ten five years ago and it didn’t mean anything to them – now it means something. They just have eternals truths in them. Likewise with Chekhov and Arthur Miller, I mean you have great great playwrights here in America, and it’s so interesting to see who will be the classical playwrights of the future and to kind of guess which ones they will be. And it’s hard to guess because you get blinded by your own culture and your own world, because you can’t see the brilliance that’s sitting right there and you’re looking at this flashy thing over here, you think it’s the bee’s knees, and this really brilliant thing that you’re not paying attention to, like the history of Van Gogh, he was never recognized in his own lifetime.
AT: Why has Shakespeare survived?
HM: Because he speaks to the human condition.