Academy-award winning actress Dame Helen Mirren has enjoyed a rich and varied career over five decades and shows no signs of slowing down.
After making her stage debut in the 1960s, she appeared on the West End and Broadway and worked steadily and successfully in feature films – from The Long Good Friday to The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover.
Her stardom has only grown with the years, with her BAFTA-winning performance in the television series Prime Suspect and her Oscar-winning performance as Queen Elizabeth II in the Stephen Frears-directed drama The Queen (2006).
In Hitchcock she works for the first time with fellow British screen legend Sir Anthony Hopkins, who plays Sir Alfred Hitchcock. She is Alma Reville – Hitchcock’s wife and, it turns out, crucial collaborator on his classic works, including the seminal shocker Psycho.
Helen Mirren spoke to us from London, to discuss great advice, playing a real person and bringing to light the woman who was crucial to the “Hitchcock touch”…
What was your first reaction when you were approached about the film?
When I was very first approached about the film, it was interesting but I was not quite sure the script really worked. Anyway, it wasn’t financed. A lot of scripts fly around like that and you never know, or can be sure, if this film is ever actually going to be made. They say “We’re working on it can we come back with another draft?” and you say, “Yes. that’s fine, of course you can.”
I went through a couple of drafts like that over, possibly, a couple of years. I can’t remember how long it was. Then Sacha [Gervasi, the director] came onboard and I met with him and he said, “I just want to hear what you feel about the script.” I thought, “Oh God – this is going to be a complete waste of time!”, because it so often is. Not because I didn’t have faith in Sacha, but because you don’t know whether the film is going to be greenlighted and you feel your brain is being picked, it’s all going to probably come to nothing. But I met with Sacha and he was absolutely delightful. He said, “Tell me where you feel the script should be worked on, developed on, what are your problems with it.” I sort of, very inarticulately, mumbled about a couple of things. Then Sacha went away and a few months later he just came back with this fabulous script that he had worked on and developed and just pulled all of the elements that were in the film already, pulled them together in a way that just made the script work and be cohesive and somehow make sense. At that point me, my agent and my husband all looked at each other and went, “Whoa! This is really good. We should say yes to this.”
People don’t know how important Alma Reville was to Hitchcock – she tells him the truth, no matter how successful he becomes…
Yes, telling you the truth but also being pro-active in the editing and the creation of the script and the writing of the script. It wasn’t just that she was a woman who said, “No, that doesn’t work Alfred.” She was someone who was absolutely proactive in the creation of the work, I think. Not to take the ultimate ownership away from Hitchcock, but Hitchcock himself said, and many other people said, “There are four hands on making a Hitchcock movie and two of them were Alma’s.”
She’s a creative force in her own right…
Absolutely. It’s very interesting, I read the book written by her daughter [Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, whose book – co-written with Laurent Bouzereau – is called Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind The Man] and that was my number one source material for the character. The daughter wrote the book about her mother, not about her father. Although she adored her father – it was a very close, little family, really very close and really suburban in a funny sort of way.
She chose to write a book about her mother, because she did want to give her mother the credit that she felt she deserved. Alma herself was very content. I think she saw it as a partnership, as a true partnership, and she knew her role in that partnership. In knowing and being confident in the truth of that, she didn’t particularly feel the need to publicise it. She knew part of the attraction of the brand, if you like, of Hitchcock’s films, was this Hitchcock character himself. That only accrued to the value of the movies anyway, if you know what I mean. She was a part of the brand, a part of the firm.
Is there a moment playing a real person, where you feel, “That’s it, I’ve got it…”?
In some roles yes. I’m so physically not like Alma. She was tiny. She was a little bird. She was really, really small. I could never be physically like her. I’m just too big. I’m not a particularly big woman but I’m big in comparison to Alma. I kind of replicated her hair to an extent, but I couldn’t do an impersonation of her. And also there is very little film of her. There are photographs but very little film of her. So I didn’t really think about that too much, quite honestly. I felt, just to give her the credit that was due to her, the authority that she had obviously, the personality… I couldn’t remotely impersonate her.
It was a very relaxed, fun set. Did you do much ad-libbing with Anthony Hopkins?
We had a wonderful tight, beautiful script. I mean really beautiful. It didn’t need any improvisation, it was a beautiful thing. Obviously we were free to improvise to some extent, but we did very little of that, because the actual material was so good.
And working with Anthony Hopkins was a good experience?
Oh, yes. Somewhat intimidating and I feel it’s been a long time coming because, obviously we’ve been actors over a similar period of time and yet never managed to work together and I’ve always felt that he and I would be a good fit in a play or in a film and so finally I had the opportunity to work with him. Yes, a truly great actor.
So, you still get intimidated and nervous?
I’m always a bit intimidated working with big stars. But they’re ordinary human beings and you get used to it if you’re working with someone and finally you relax. The first few days I’m always terribly intimidated. But I don’t know about nervous as such. Some projects, yes, you’re nervous about, because maybe you think it’s going to be very challenging or maybe you’re not quite sure it’s going to work or not.
It was Sacha’s first narrative feature, but he seemed very confident on set…
Yes, wonderfully so. Obviously Sacha has been around, he directed the documentary [Anvil! The Story Of Anvil] and has been involved as a writer on some fairly big, Hollywood-type projects. But not overly confident. Not a “I know everything” kind of attitude – far from it: very sort of, “I know that I’m learning.” That is so much healthier than overly compensating for your inexperience by pretending to be incredibly overly experienced. So a great natural acceptance of where he’s at as a film director. There’s an ease about him. He was enjoying it, that’s what made it so fun: he was enjoying it. He wasn’t angst-ridden, he wasn’t tortured by the process, he was just having a ball. That’s not an easy attitude to have. Filmmaking is just so, so difficult. I’m amazed that any movie gets made at all. All the pressures you have of time and money and weather and location and actors and everything the directors have to deal with. So I absolutely took my hat off to him.
Do you remember the first time you saw Psycho?
No, but I remember my dad coming home and telling me about it and describing it to me and saying, “I’ve just seen the most frightening film I’ve ever seen.” And describing the scene when the character goes down the stairs and the light is swinging. I remember him describing that scene to me and it was like I was seeing it. I didn’t see it myself until many years later. I do remember my dad’s description of it.
It’s still quite shocking…
Well Hitchcock was shocking. He was out-there. His attitude to things is still sort of shocking – maybe it’s because it’s so weird and slightly eccentric and very British. And very black. I agree there is still something shocking and really disturbing about Hitch’s work and the slightly heightened quality of everything, the slight fake-ness of everything. He’s not a neo-realist, is he? It’s always slightly heightened, it heightens that feeling of disturbance about it.
Do you have any particular favourite Hitchcock films?
I think Notorious is great and Vertigo. I love Vertigo.
You’ve had a long and successful career – what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Bob Balaban, who is an actor and a producer, gave me an incredible piece of advice about film acting. I was doing a film many years ago with him called 2010, in America [released in 1984]. I was sitting there watching all these American actors, who just seemed to be all so brilliant to me and just so natural I couldn’t see how they were doing it. But Bob said, “With film acting you have to let it go. It’s like shooting with a bow and arrow: from the moment the arrow has left your bow you can’t bring it back, it’s going to land wherever it lands. You cannot bring it back. You can aim it as well as you can but the minute it’s gone, it’s gone. So just do what you do on the take in the moment and then let it go. Never go home at night and think ‘Why didn’t I do that? I should have done it like this’.” – as one tends to do sometimes, you re-rehearse the scene and you go home and kick yourself for having not done this that and the other.
That was brilliant, brilliant advice and ever since I’ve tried to follow through with that. I do it. I aim it. The take is letting the arrow go, if you like. The audience, you can’t really control what the audience think – especially after the music and the editing and the rest of it. It’s transformed into something else. You can think, “I hope they get the fact that I’m angry but secretly pleased” or something, but if they don’t and they get something else there’s nothing I can do about that. I just have to let it go.
Hitchcock will be release on DVD and BluRay on Monday, 17th June.