The NYPL Podcast
Podcast #111: Helen Mirren on Women's Roles and Taking on Shakespeare
Recently at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, President Barack Obama joked about Spotlight and the primaries. He made a video with former Speaker of the House John Boehner. But there was one thing he said with full seriousness. "I don't have a joke here," Obama said. "I just think Helen Mirren is awesome." We agree. For this week's episode of the New York Public Library Podcast, we're proud to present Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren discussing getting better roles, seeing summer movies, and breathing through Shakespeare.
Despite her decorated career, Mirren did not go to the movies often as a young person. Later, she began going to see films while working at a bed and breakfast:
"I didn’t go to the films, the movies or films when I was young, mostly for financial reasons, we, you know, we couldn’t afford to go, and so and also the films that showed in Southend-on-Sea, you know, were just fifth-run, you know, horrible, horrible Hollywood, fifties Hollywood movies, and if I did accidentally go once, I found it so boring and uninteresting. So it wasn’t until I—sorry—I worked as a waitress in my aunt’s bed-and-breakfast in Brighton, and I did the breakfasts and then I had the day to myself. And it was raining, as it usually is in England in the summertime, and there was this cinema and I went in just because it was a way of getting out of the rain, and the film that was showing was L’Avventura by Antonioni, and I’d never seen a movie like that before, and I was like with it was my other great transformative moment was seeing L’Avventura like a revelation of what film could be and from that moment I saw every sort of foreign film I could possibly see and working as an usherette at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, which is a sort of quite a famous art cinema, I don’t know if it still is, I think it still is actually. Was a great way of seeing for free, you know, a lot of great movies."
Some of Mirren's most memorable roles have been in Shakespearean works. She spoke about the challenges of acting in Shakespeare's plays:
"[P]laying Shakespeare clarifies the struggle for you because you have this great requirement of technique, vocal technique, breath, technique of breath, again combined with this difficult language that you’re trying to negotiate your way through in a way that’s understandable for the audience and yet at the same time make it psychologically true and as well as all of that, making it completely, reinventing it each time you come to it. There was a very great Shakespearean actor called Alan Howard, and I was lucky enough to be in the company at the same time he was, and he had that ability, not every night, but sometimes, he had an extraordinary voice and an incredible ability with the language. And I’d watch him play the same scene many, many, many, many times and often he would just turn a line in a new way that you’d never heard before... That’s what you yearn for and fight for as a classical actor."
In response to a question about ageing as an actress, Mirren spoke of the availability of interesting roles and the importance of finding roles for women outside the stage:
"I think the reality of it is if you’re lucky enough to still be working, and that’s another issue, but if you are lucky enough to still be working then actually the roles, actually become, are so much more interesting. The roles that I’m playing now are so much more interesting than the roles I played when I was twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, you know. But there is a regret absolutely. Certain Shakespeare roles I will never play. I will never play Juliet, I never played Juliet, and I would have loved to have played her. You know, I would have loved to have played Beatrice, and those roles, you can get away wit ha lot more in the theater, luckily. No, but I have always said, and I still say it, don’t worry about roles for women in the theater or in film or television. Worry about roles for women in real life and put your energy into encouraging those, because as night follows day, the more inclusive women are in the real world, the better the roles will be in drama and certainly that’s sort of proved to be true."
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This event is produced with support from the British Council.