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Dame Helen Mirren - Actress

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Dame Helen Mirren.

Helen Mirren was born Ilyena Lydia Mironoff on 26 July, 1945, in Chiswick, London. She was the middle child of Basil Mironoff, a musician and cab driver, and Kitty Rogers, a working-class girl from Pimlico, whose claim to fame was that her grandfather had been the butcher to Queen Victoria. Helen's siblings are Katherine, the eldest, and their younger brother, Peter.

This future star of the stage, television and silver screen was the granddaughter of Pyotr Vasielvich Mironov, a Russian aristocrat. With strong military connections, Mironov was in London to purchase arms for the Russo-Japanese war. He became stranded in 1917 with his wife and two-year-old son when the Bolshevik revolution began. Helen and Katherine were not able to find out about their Russian connections until after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 - 1992.

Brought up in Essex, Helen's father wanted the family to integrate into English society. He refused to teach them any Russian, despite being fluent in the language himself. It was his decision to anglicise their surname.

Helen was educated at St Bernard's High School for Girls in Westcliff-on-Sea. It was here that Helen dreamed of becoming a Shakespearean heroine, especially 'Joan of Arc', after performing in the school's version of Henry VI. Recalling this, Helen went on to say:

She was portrayed as the wicked witch. I loved her for that.

After leaving school, Helen worked for a short time as a 'blagger' at the fair at Southend's Kursaal amusement park, which involved calling out and urging people onto the rides. Helen's decision to take up acting as a career didn't sit easy with her parents, who felt she needed a more steady profession. Then, when she was 18, Helen enrolled in a teacher-training college in Hampstead. That didn't last very long, as the call of the stage was too strong.

The Stage

After an audition with the National Youth Theatre, Helen was accepted into the company. In 1965 she made her stage debut in Antony and Cleopatra. She was a sensation as Cleopatra and was deemed a revelation due to her sexual presence onstage.

Two years later, Helen joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her first play was Coriolanus, starring Ian Richardson in the title role. Later, she was to meet up with future stars of stage, television and screen Patrick Stewart and Ben Kingsley. In the meantime she was learning her trade with such names as Janet Suzman, Alan Howard and Jeffrey Dench (the brother of Dame Judi).

Helen joined the International Centre of Theatre Research, accompanying the troupe on a visit to Africa in 1972. Here they swapped stories with the distant tribes. From Africa they went on to America. It was here that Helen was to become drunk on brandy as she visited a Native American reservation in Minnesota. She received a permanent reminder of her visit: a small Indian symbol meaning equality was tattooed between the thumb and index finger of her left hand. She could have had it removed, but chose to keep it as a reminder to herself that she was sometimes naughty in the past. The tattoo is mostly covered up, though fans do watch out for the tell-tale 'ink smudge' that can sometimes be seen in fleeting moments on screen.

Mirren's sexual presence, her passion for her roles and her willingness to show how an intelligent woman had the strength to use her sexuality all became her trademark in the business. However, Helen still had to run the gauntlet and ignore the smutty remarks and seedy attitudes of those she was trying to alter. Her power could be seen when she returned briefly to the stage in 1974, when she played opposite Nicol Williamson. One critic wrote of her portrayal of Lady Macbeth:

It would be mere male chauvinism to deny that Miss Mirren plays everyone else off the stage.

The Screen

After bit parts, Helen's proper debut on the screen came in 1969, when she acted opposite James Mason in Age of Consent. The director, Michael Powell, cast Helen as 'Cora Ryan', the young girl who was to inspire a jaded artist (Mason) on an island in the Great Barrier Reef. The 40-year age gap between the lovers caused a sensation, adding further to Mirren's reputation.

Towards the end of the late 1970s, Helen was well-established in her career. So when the film Caligula was being planned, who would be better to play his voluptuous mistress Caesonia? With stars such as Peter O'Toole, Malcolm McDowell, John Gielgud and Helen herself, the film was expected to be a raging success. Unfortunately, Penthouse magazine boss, Bob Guccione, was the co-producer and he brought in Tinto Brass as the director — Brass's earlier film Salon Kitty was banned after critics said it was pornographic.

Nevertheless, Caligula was filmed as an epic in 1979, all in glorious blood-drenched colour! With 'Penthouse Pets' adorning the set, the sex scenes were almost uncensored. This film isn't one for those of a squeamish or prudish nature!

Helen's screen credits continued with The Long Good Friday, in which she co-stars with Bob Hoskins. Then she played Morgana, seducing Arthur and enticing Merlin in Excalibur. Director John Boorman cast Nicol Williamson as Merlin; this ensured that the feeling of anger and animosity between the two characters was genuine, as Mirren and Williamson had grown to strongly dislike each other during their run of Macbeth a few years earlier.

It was during the filming of Excalibur that Helen met a struggling young actor called Liam Neeson. As the set for the film was in Ireland, there were many evenings spent with cast and crew in the local pub, where Helen had taken to mimicking Neeson's style of walking. He was delighted, as previously he had read she did this when she fancied a man. Soon they were lovers. Neeson accompanied Helen on her return to London, where she was quite happy to introduce her hulking toyboy to the cream of London's acting fraternity. This helped to launch Neeson's acting career.

Helen's next movie, Cal, would shock her audience. She played a widow living in Ireland, who took as her lover the young boy implicated in the death of her husband. Now was the time for Helen's star to shine brightly — she was rewarded with her first major award — Best Actress — at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.

In the film 2010 (the sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 2001), Helen played a Russian cosmonaut. Sticking with the Russian theme, she went on to film White Nights. In this movie she played the lover of the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. It was during filming in 1985 that Helen fell in love with the director, Taylor Hackford.

A discussion of Helen Mirren's screen career cannot be complete without mentioning the famously controversial 1989 movie The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, with RSC players Michael Gambon as her boyfriend and Alan Howard as her lover. The characters they played had sex in the toilet, the kitchen, the meat van and anywhere else that could be found!


Having successfully split her career between the stage and screen for many years, Helen moved into television. She made a number of 'made-for-TV' films and other dramas for television. Her most memorable series to date is the part of Detective Inspector Jane Tennison in Linda la Plante's Prime Suspect.

Mirren made Tennison appear vulnerable and confused, yet she managed to make the character appear ruthless and ambitious too. This caused the character to step on many toes, especially the male police officers who resented working with a female boss. Prime Suspect was to also win Helen many award nominations: an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a number of BAFTAs during the 16 years the series ran from 1990 to 2006, with the final episode showing her retirement from the police force.

The Star Rises

At some point, especially in America, age can be a problematic issue for any actress. Helen Mirren was reaching her fifties and still at the top of her profession. Nominations and, shortly, awards were beginning to fall into her lap.

On Broadway in 2001, Helen played Alice opposite Ian McKellen as Edgar, in the Dance of Death. This play allowed Helen to demonstrate her full acting skills, as the couple bickered about their marriage.

In 2003, Mirren successfully played the title role in the remake of Tennessee Williams's The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone. This role was orginally Vivien Leigh's, but Helen made it her own and was again nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal.

Then came Calendar Girls. Helen played Tricia Stewart in the true story of a group of women from the Women's Institute. They raised money by creating a nude calendar of themselves to raise funds for a local hospital. Julie Walters, Penelope Wilton and Annette Crosbie also starred in the film.

Time moves on; in her mid-fifties, Helen is still in great demand for movie roles. She joined Michael Caine and Ray Winstone in Last Orders, a film based in the East End of London. From there Helen went on to Gosford Park, where she played the housekeeper Mrs Wilson with such conviction that she was nominated for her first Oscar.

At Christmas, 2004, a natural-history drama called Pride was shown on BBC One. This was a cutting-edge computer animation that allowed facial expressions and mouth movements to make it appear that live animals were talking to each other. Many stars provided the voices of the animals, including Sean Bean, Robbie Williams and Kate Winslet. Helen provided the voice for the lioness Macheeba.

In February, 2005, Mirren was to join a host of stars taking part in a charity performance in aid of the Asian Tsunami Appeal. One Knight Only was compered by Ned Sherrin and billed as an evening of music, comedy and drama, starring Dames Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg and Eileen Atkins, their one knight being Sir Antony Sher. Performances from other guests included Patrick Stewart, Zoe Wanamaker, Sian Phillips and Joanna Lumley.

Later that same year, Helen was to celebrate her 60th birthday and play the main role in Elizabeth I. Then she provided the voice for 'Deep Thought' in the film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The Oscar

In February, 2007, Helen Mirren received her first Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in the movie simply called The Queen. It shows the pain and turmoil within the Royal Family, as the impact of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales hits those closest to her, and the reaction of the British public towards the Monarchy.

With her ancestry, it's possible that Helen is distantly related to the Queen.

Private Life

Helen Mirren and Taylor Hackford married on New Year's Eve, 1999, at Ardesier Parish Church in Scotland, making Helen the stepmother of Hackford's two sons, Rio and Alex.

Helen became a Dame for her services to drama in the Queen's Birthday Honours List in June, 2003.

The Russian Connection

When they finally visited Russia, Helen and Katherine found that their grandfather left behind six sisters on their family estate in Gzhatsk. This later became Gagarin in 1968, after Yuri Gagarin, the cosmonaut who was born in a village nearby. During the revolution the sisters had been turfed out of their home and off their estate and moved into a cramped flat in Moscow, their status and property forever gone.

Researching further, Helen and her sister found they were descended from a noted military dynasty, the Kemenskys. One Field Marshal Mikhail Kemensky was successful in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768 - 1774 and was awarded the Order of St George of the Second Class, the highest Russian military honour. Two years later he was axed to death by the 15-year-old brother of one of his young concubines.

Mikhail's son, Nikolay, was also a general. He had a reputation for risking the lives of his men, especially after losing 1,600 men at Austerlitz. However, he was also very daring; he triumphed over the Swedes in 1808 and again in the Russo-Turkish war of 1806 - 1812.

Charity Work

Helen Mirren supports charities for human rights and poverty. To highlight this, she travelled to Northern Uganda with Oxfam in an effort to draw attention to the problems there. The UN Security Council called the situation in Uganda the 'world's forgotten crisis'. More than half a million people have been killed, with another two million displaced as refugees.

When she travels, Helen rarely carries luggage. One of the first things she asks a taxi driver is where the nearest charity shop is. She buys what she needs for her trip, then on her return puts it back.

I get the pleasure of wearing a new outfit everyday and I don't have to haul luggage around with me!

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