She’s an Oscar winning Dame but, unlike her latest movie role, Helen Mirren isn’t scary at all, as Susan Griffin discovered...
Dame Helen Mirren is one of those women who appear unflappable, but she’d like put the record straight and announce it’s all bravado.
“The good thing is to pretend you’re not frightened, just act,” she says.
That’s easy enough for an Oscar winner to say, but the 67-year-old actress is having none of it.
“You get on with it,” she adds, shrugging. “You go, ‘OK, I’m frightened but it’s not the end of the world and it’s my business and my fear and I’ll just deal with it’. It’s just being practical.”
Mirren was given an early lesson when, at the age of 10, she was summoned to see the headmistress of her new grammar school.
“She was a Bernardine nun, dressed in black and white, and I was so frightened of her,” recalls Mirren, looking elegant in a green maxi dress and white floral print cardigan. “But she also gave me great advice. She said, ‘The only thing to fear is fear itself’.”
Fear plays a big part in her latest movie, Monsters University, and it was her former headmistress whom Mirren looked to for inspiration when creating the character of Dean Hardscrabble.
“She was scary, but kind and wise underneath,” she explains.
A prequel to 2001’s animated adventure Monsters Inc, Monsters University follows Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) as he enrols for his first term at college.
Although wide-eyed and ready to learn, Wazowski’s plans to become a professional ‘Scarer’ are soon derailed when he crosses paths with Sulley voiced by John Goodman, and the rather formidable Hardscrabble.
While it’s not the first time Mirren has voiced an animated character, the movie does mark her debut as a giant centipede, and she credits the movie’s director Dan Scanlon for helping her hone her character in the movie.
“I’m actually hopeless at voiceovers,” she insists. “I would’ve loved to have been in the room with Billy and John and watched the masters at work, but at least I had Dan helping me.”
Laughing, she recalls he had no trouble letting her know when something didn’t work.
“It’s always great to have a wonderful director,” says Mirren. “They sort of guide you and allow you to experiment and do different things and eventually the character appears.”
While the process of being tucked away in a studio all day could be isolating, there are benefits - namely you don’t have to worry what you look like.
“Oh, it’s fabulous! It’s great not to have to get up at 5am and sit in hair and make-up forever, and not to be fiddled with all day long. It just drives me mad but you have to be very patient.”
It’s why the actress would like to clarify that the high heels she insisted on wearing in the studio had nothing to do with vanity; rather they were an invaluable tool.
“What you have on your feet as an actress is incredibly important,” she explains, “and I like to have my body present because to put the energy and expressiveness in the voice [alone] is difficult.”
With 30 legs and spectacular wings, Dean Hardscrabble is a tour de force with no time for mediocrity, and her students know it. So when she witnesses the spectacular culmination of the rivalry between Mike and Sulley, she takes swift action, dashing their dreams in an instant.
But unlike her alter ego, Mirren appreciates Wazowski’s work ethic. “I think too many people think all you have to do is just have a dream and it will happen, and this movie very adroitly and elegantly teaches a lesson to young people,” she says.
“Success,” she states, “is 10 per cent inspiration and 90% sweat and hard work. Even then, there are no guarantees.”
Looking back on her own career, she admits at times it’s felt like a “hard slog”.
Born Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironoff to a Russian immigrant father and an East End mother, Mirren dreamed of stardom from a young age.
Fast forward 50 or 60 years and it’s fair to say the Oscar-winning actress has arrived.
Not one for false modesty, Mirren acknowledges that people undoubtedly put her on a pedestal now.
“Maybe other people now look at me and go, ‘Oh, she’s so scary’, but you really don’t want to feel you are. It’s not what you’re trying to be,” she says.
It’s something she was acutely aware of when she received her damehood in 2003.
“I was quite worried about accepting the honour for that reason,” she says. “I don’t want to be set apart in anyway whatsoever.”
Title aside, Mirren also has earned four Oscar nominations, winning one in 2007 for her portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen - a role she recently revived in the West End stage play The Audience. But she reiterates she’s fought for her success all the way.
“There are the privileged few who just seem to waft through life without having to ever meet any adversity or difficulty, which is really annoying,” she says.
“The rest of us, we have to struggle and fight. We get knocked back and we have to come forward again.
“Sometimes you have to do stuff you’re not familiar with or think you’ll fail horribly at. You just have to jump in at the deep end.”
And there endeth the lesson.
Monsters University is on general release at cinemas across the UK now.