Born Ilyena Lydia Mironoff, July 26, 1945, in Hammersmith, London, England; married Taylor Hackford (a film producer and director), December 31, 1997.
Addresses: Agent —c/o Toni Howard, International Creative Management, 8942 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211.
Actress on stage, including: National Youth Theatre, c. 1960; joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, c. 1964; appeared in London stage productions with the Lyric Theatre Company, 1970s; Dance of Death, 2001. Film appearances include: Herostratus, 1967; A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1968; Age of Consent, 1969; Savage Messiah, 1972; Miss Julie, 1972; O Lucky Man!, 1973; Hamlet, 1976; Caligula, 1979; The Quiz Kid, 1979; Hussy, 1980; The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, 1980; The Long Good Friday, 1980; Excalibur, 1981; Cal, 1984; 2010, 1984; White Nights, 1985; Heavenly Pursuits, 1985; Coming Through, 1985; The Mosquito Coast, 1986; Pascali's Island, 1988; When the Whales Came, 1989; The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, 1989; The Comfort of Strangers, 1990; Bethune: The Making of a Hero, 1990; The Hawk, 1993; Prince of Jutland, 1994; The Madness of King George, 1994; Some Mother's Son, 1996; Critical Care, 1997; The Prince of Egypt (voice), 1998; Teaching Mrs. Tingle, 1999; Greenfingers, 2000; Happy Birthday, 2000; The Pledge, 2001; No Such Thing, 2001; Last Orders, 2001; Gosford Park, 2001; Calendar Girls, 2003; The Clearing, 2004; Raising Helen, 2004. Television appearances include: Cousin Bette
Awards: Best actress award, Cannes Film Festival, for Cal, 1984; BAFTA Award, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, 1992, 1993, and 1994, all for Prime Suspect ; Emmy Award for outstanding lead actress in a miniseries or a movie, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, for The Passion of Ayn Rand, 1999; created Dame of the British Empire, 2003.
British actress Helen Mirren delighted fans when she returned to the role of London police detective Jane Tennison in the cult-favorite Prime Suspect miniseries in 2003 after a seven-year hiatus. The original episodes ran from 1992 to 1996, and Mirren decided to take a break from the grisly plots and dour characters for a while. Notoriously tough and whip-smart, Mirren's Tennison is one of the most compelling crime-solvers in small screen history. "Scrappy, irritable, acerbic, and impassioned—a workaholic woman fighting for respect in a male domain," noted Maclean's writer Brian D. Johnson, "Tennison is one of the most brilliantly nuanced heroines ever created for television."
Mirren was born in 1945 in London. Her mother came from a long line of butchers in the city, but her given name, Ilyena Lydia Mironoff, betrays her half-Russian heritage from a line of landed gentry and military officials. Her father's father had come to England to negotiate an arms deal during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, and there had even been a mention of an ancestor in Leo Tolstoy's 1865-69 classic War and Peace. In their adopted land, however, Mirren's family was anything but noble. Her father had played viola with the London Philharmonic Orchestra before working as a cabdriver and later a driver's-license examiner. Her parents, who Anglicized their "Mironoff" surname to Mirren, settled in Ilford, Essex, where a teenage Mirren worked summers at an amusement park.
Mirren was educated at a convent school, where she discovered the plays of William Shakespeare and became engrossed in their intricate plots and well-drawn characters during her teen years. When the school received notice that the National Youth Theatre was holding tryouts, Mirren decided to audition, and won a spot in the esteemed governmentfunded drama program whose alumni include some of the best-known names in British theater and film.
Mirren's parents initially discouraged her ambitions, thinking it wiser that she choose a career in teaching instead, but she was determined to become an actress. At the age of 19, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, and became one of its newest stars, thanks in part to some daring new productions of classics like Antony and Cleopatra. Early on, Mirren won press attention for low-cut costumes that highlighted her buxom figure, but critics also commended her solid, somewhat smoldering performances.
In the mid-1970s, Mirren left England for a time. She joined an experimental theater troupe run by Peter Brook, a renowned stage director, and visited parts of Africa and even a Native American reservation with it. Because she had never taken a formal drama course, she hoped to expand her horizons through the experience. "It wasn't something that you walk away from with a few quick, easy tricks that you've learned," she said of her time with the Brook group in an interview with Back Stage West 's Rob Kendt. "It was much more to do with understanding yourself as a person, and, it seemed at the time, constantly confronting your failures as an actor and as a person." A legacy of that time in her life is visible between her thumb and forefinger in the form of a small tattoo, which she had done on the Minnesota reservation. The design translates as "love thy neighbor."
Mirren began her career in film with a forgotten 1967 black comedy called Herostratus, about a man who sells the rights to his suicide jump to an advertising agency in exchange for a bout of luxury living. During the 1970s, she appeared in a number of feature films and television productions, but emerged as a leading actress to watch in the controversial 1979 film Caligula. It was produced by Bob Guccione, Sr., the publisher of Penthouse magazine, and retold the story of one of the Roman Empire's most debauched leaders, Emperor Gaius Germanicus Caesar, also known as Caligula. Mirren was cast in one of the female leads alongside Malcolm McDowell and Peter O'Toole in the near-pornographic epic. On her first day on the set, Mirren arrived in Rome and was scheduled to meet with O'Toole. "So I'm taken to Peter's trailer to be introduced," she recalled in interview with New York Times writer Ted Loos. "But he's wrapped in his costume—bandages that were oozing with fake sores, pus and blood. I went outside and I threw up in a field."
Caligula was a legendary debacle, and a film that interviewers still asked Mirren about years later. It was reportedly the first film to charge an admission price of $7.50, and there were rumors that its gory scenes even caused audience members to throw up. Critics were scathing in their indictments, but Mirren was pragmatic about the experience. "I was pretty young when I made that—not physically young as much as inexperienced in film," she told Loos. "And you know what? It was a great experience. It was like being sent down to Dante's Inferno in many ways."
Mirren took a more solid role as a gangster's moll opposite Bob Hoskins in the acclaimed drama The Long Good Friday in 1980, and began to win impressive leading roles afterward. She was cast as Morgana in the 1981 King Arthur epic Excalibur, and won a best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her part in the contemporary Irish drama Cal, as the widow of a slain police officer. Her first true Hollywood job came in White Nights in 1985, the Mikhail Baryshnikov ballet drama, as an aging Russian ballerina named Galina Ivanova.
Mirren also had a memorable part in the 1989 Peter Greenaway film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. She played Georgina, the wife of a ruthless mob boss. The lavish, big-budget production took place almost exclusively inside a modernist, extremely expensive restaurant at which Georgina, her loathsome husband played by Michael Gambon, and his entourage dine nightly. She carries on a torrid affair behind the scenes with a lone, bookish diner, and the revenge that her husband extracts when he discovers her transgression is suitably gastronomic and brutal. The Greenaway film called for several scenes of full-frontal nudity, and Mirren gained a reputation as being rather fearless about such requirements in the roles she took. She admitted later, however, that the first time she had to disrobe it was tough. "I just wanted to die," she told New York Times writer Bernard Weinraub. "I wanted the earth to open and swallow me up. But then you get on with it and it becomes absolutely fine."
In 1992, Mirren took on the role that would earn her legions of new fans: that of Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect. The clever but gritty mystery miniseries was set in London, and captured fans on both sides of the Atlantic when it became a Masterpiece Theater staple on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States. Tennison regularly solved some of the toughest, most gruesome cases, while challenging her male colleagues' gender biases and overcoming troubles in her personal life. The fifth installment aired in 1996, and Mirren decided to leave it behind—though she refused to allow the writers to kill off her character.
Mirren returned to her film career during the late 1990s in earnest, appearing in a slew of works. She had already earned her first Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress as Queen Charlotte in 1994's The Madness of King George. In 1999, she won an Emmy award for her title part in The Passion of Ayn Rand, the story of the feted writer. She also took the occasional fun role, such as the title character in the movie Teaching Mrs. Tingle, a dark teen comedy that featured Katie Holmes as her young nemesis in a film that gave Mirren an entirely new generation of fans.
Mirren earned her second Oscar nomination for her part of the prim housekeeper in Robert Altman's Gosford Park in 2001. Her Mrs. Wilson was just one member of Altman's ensemble cast, who gather at an English country manor in 1932 for a hunting party. As Observer critic Ed Vulliamy noted, "Mirren's lines are few, but in a film of few sharp edges, the intensity of her taut control, giving way to an outpouring of grief at the end, gives her the commanding role."
Finally, Mirren decided to return to Prime Suspect as Jane Tennison. Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness began airing in the spring of 2004 with a story about a murdered Bosnian woman that Tennison begins investigating just as her bosses are pressuring her to retire. Mirren initially agreed to return to the role after believing that enough time had passed, but on her first day on the set, "there I am putting on what looks like exactly the same costume I wore seven years ago," she recalled in an interview with Times of London journalist Paul Hoggart. "My heart just dropped and I thought 'My God! What am I doing? I'm going backwards!'" After a few days, however, Mirren watched the footage that had been shot. "I thought: 'This is going to be great. You're an idiot.'"
Mirren still likes the stage, telling W 's Peter Braunstein that "I've made a conscious decision to keep doing theater, to stay viable, because you lose your courage if you don't." She has worked regularly in London over the years, and has also appeared on Broadway, most notably in the August Strindberg revival of Dance of Death during the 2001 season. The play, a gripping, claustrophobic marital drama, featured fellow British stage veteran Ian McKellen as her spouse.
Regularly hailed on lists of Britain's most enticing actresses in fan polls, Mirren remained unhesitant about disrobing on-screen. She starred in Calendar Girls in 2003, based on a true story of a group of English women who decided to pose nude for a charity calendar for their local hospital. She has also been known to take on romantic lead roles opposite younger men, and was slated to appear in a British television production as Queen Elizabeth I in the tale of the regent's romance with the much-younger Earl of Essex. In an intriguing royal twist, Mirren—who was created a dame by Prince Charles in 2003—was also set to appear as the second Queen Elizabeth, the mother of the Prince, in another British telefilm fictionalizing the British royal family's reaction to events following the 1997 car-crash death of Diana, the Princess of Wales.
Mirren was once romantically linked with the actor Liam Neeson, but in 1997 wed her longtime boyfriend, American director Taylor Hackford, whom she had met on the set of White Nights. She has said that she would love to play America's most famous housewares doyenne on screen. "I don't understand the vilification of Martha Stewart," Mirren told Loos in the New York Times interview just after Stewart was found guilty of obstructing a federal investigation. "She doesn't deserve Lady Macbeth. In a way, she's more like Rosalind from As You Like It. She's mouthy, pushy and opinionated—kind of wonderful and kind of difficult."
Mirren spent some early years in her career wondering if she should have heeded her parents' warnings about her choice of vocation. She admitted there was a time in her life in her mid-twenties when she "was really depressed . I went to a hand-reader, this Indian guy in a funky neighbourhood," she told Vulliamy in the Observer article. "He said: 'The height of your success won't happen until you're in your late forties.'"
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Entertainment Weekly, January 22, 1993, p. 30; September 15, 1995, p. 116; January 9, 2004, p. 61; April 23, 2004, p. 70.
Independent (London, England), September 20, 2001, p. 7; November 5, 2003, p. 14.
Maclean's, January 20, 1997, p. 70.
Mirror (London, England), July 23, 2004, p. 11.
New Republic, April 23, 1990, p. 26.
New York Times, April 23, 1995, p. H5; April 11, 2004, p. AR8.
Observer (London, England), January 20, 2002, p. 3.
People, March 16, 1992, p. 16.
Sunday Times (London, England), November 7, 1999, p. 4.
Time, December 30, 1996, p. 148.
Times (London, England), October 23, 1975, p. 11; November 8, 2003, p. 10.
W, January 2002, p. 30.