Late Bloomers

helen mirren, dame helen mirren, helen mirren red carpet, helen mirren palm spring gala
Dan Steinberg/AP

Dame Helen Mirren, British Actress of the Stage and Screen

January 26, 2010
by Shannon Firth
In her 20s, anxious and fearful about her career, Helen Mirren visited a palm reader. Though she wrote pages of notes during the visit, she felt so uplifited by the experience that she threw them out. In an interview, she recalled the palm reader’s one indelible prophecy: “When you’re in your 50s, you will get to be very, very famous.”

Helen Mirren’s Early Days

Dame Helen Mirren was born Ilyena Lydia Mironoff to working class parents in London, England, on July 26, 1945, according to The Independent. Helen was the second child of three, and grew up in a house with no TV, radio or washing machine.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, she described her parents as people that “loved to talk about issues like ‘Is there such a thing as a soul?” ...I was always encouraged to express my opinion,” she said.

Her mother, Kit, was British, and came from a line of butchers; her grandfather supplied meat for the Queen. Her father, Basil, was a Russian immigrant and had been a violinist for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but later took a job as a taxi driver in order to support his family, according to the BBC.

In her biography, “In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures,” Mirren offered rough sketches of both parents. “You would imagine my Russian father would be the tempestuous temperamental one, but he was calm, thoughtful, and objective. It was my mother who was passionate and unreasonable.”

After attending Catholic school, Mirren tried to please her parents by going to a teacher training school. Ultimately, however, her dream eclipsed her sense of duty and she quit her course.

Mirren’s Notable Accomplishments

When she was 19, Mirren debuted as Cleopatra in a National Youth Theatre production of “Antony and Cleopatra.” Two years later, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. Observing her intense sexuality as Lady MacBeth, one critic mused that if Shakespeare had met Mirren, it would have been a different play, the BBC reported.

Mirren was first filmed nude in 1969’s “Age of Consent” and later in “Calendar Girls” in 2003. Yet according to The Independent, she doesn’t like being labeled a sex object. “I do the tousled thing from time to time,” she said. “But at some point you decide enough of that, I had better move on." She explained the contradictory nature of a woman’s sexual power to More magazine. It’s “a powerless power,” she remarked. “And when it starts falling away, it's an incredible relief.”

Throughout much of her career, Britain benefited from Hollywood’s disregard for Mirren. In her home country, she has long been esteemed as “a masterful stage actress with a long résumé of Shakespearean and other classical leading roles,” AARP notes.

"People always tell me how much they love my work, but they never ask me to do anything,” Mirren was quoted as saying in a 1995 New York Times article. “I'm a difficult person to fit into the American film thing.”

In 1992, the British detective series “Prime Suspect” came stateside. Mirren’s performance made her both an international sensation and ‘’PBS’s ‘pinup woman’ of the decade,” according to the Museum of Broadcast Communication. “There's a stillness to her, a great tension and intelligence in her face,” Lynda LaPlante, the show’s writer, explained. This tension is integral to the character of Jane Tennison, a female detective in a man’s field who suffers privately while maintaining a fierce outward disposition.

The Rest of the Story

Apart from her role as a housekeeper in "Gosford Park" in 2001, for which she received much praise, playing royalty has become Mirren’s signature role. She was nominated for an Oscar as Queen Charlotte in “The Madness of King George” in 1995. In 2007, she won Best Actress at the Screen Actors Guild Awards (SAG) for her role in “Elizabeth I,” according to IMDB.

That same year, she played Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen,” winning an Academy Award, a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts), a SAG and a Golden Globe. Through the role, Mirren grew to love the reigning queen. "I think she's a person who is genuine, she refuses to be fake," she told W magazine, according to the BBC.

Offscreen, Mirren was nominated for a Tony for her performance in Ivan Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country” in 1995, and again for August Strindberg’s “Dance of Death” in 2002.

Although she promised she would never marry or have children, Mirren surprised herself when she fell in love with American director Taylor Hackford. The two met while working on the film “White Nights” in the 1980s. They married 12 years later, and divide their time between London and Los Angeles.

At 64, Mirren is still being cast in leading roles. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her role as the Countess Sofya Tolstoy in the “The Last Station.”

She’s also frequently lauded as a role model for older women. "My mother told me an amazingly wise thing, which is that you should never worry about getting older. Because as you reach each age you find, like a miracle, you've got the weapons or tools to deal with it,” The Independent quoted her as saying.

Watch Mirren’s interview with Morley Safer in which she describes her meeting with a palm reader and letting go of her fear.

Most Recent Features