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Dame Helen Mirren talks Shakespeare to Stefan Pape

The Tempest
03 March 2011

When it comes to British actresses, it’s fair to say that they don’t really come any more prominent and celebrated than Dame Helen Mirren. With such an impressive back-catalogue, picking up an Academy Award for her role as Queen Elizabeth II in the Queen, as well as a number of BAFTA’s, one being for the same role, as well as three more for her work on the crime- drama series Prime Suspect.

With the impending release of her latest feature, ‘The Tempest’, hitting our screens on 4th March, she spoke to the Fan Carpet about playing Prospera in Julie Taymor’s production, and doing Shakespeare, all over again.




Having done many Shakespeare productions before, mainly on stage, how different is it doing Shakespeare on the big screen?

It’s very different. Very, very different. There are advantages and disadvantages. The great advantage, obviously, is the close-up. When you have complicated monologues with complicated thoughts and emotions, it’s much easier to do them with a quiet voice and allow your face to express the emotions. You don’t have that advantage on stage, you’ve only got your voice to allow the audience to know what’s happening. So that’s a fantastic advantage. On the other hand it is formal language, its not the way we talk naturally so one of the challenges is to make it sound as natural as possible without betraying the verse and the poetry of it. So that is quite a challenge.



Do you think that making Prospero into Prospera almost gives the film an extra edge? The fact that she is a woman in a man’s world.

I do. Yes, I think it works fantastically well, and it makes me wonder if Shakespeare had had access to actresses if he wouldn’t have written it for a woman in the first place. But certainly so many of the themes in the play pop in a different way and I think that the understanding of a woman with knowledge being a scary thing and to this day in many cultures that’s the case. You know, women are not allowed access to knowledge because a woman with knowledge is something that frightens the status quo quite a lot. So there’s that issue and the issue of the traditional fear of women as witches, and sorcery attached to a woman and certainly in Shakespeare’s day it was women who were being burnt at the stake as witches, not men. The men were thought of as alchemists, women doing the same thing would be a witch and would be burnt so that was very much a part of the world that he lived in. I think the relationships work so well being a woman, I think for me especially the relationship with Caliban because that sort of fear of the potential violence of male sexuality is coming from a woman, which I think is really, really strong.

It also works on a maternal level with Miranda, and I find that much more palatable than the slightly over-bearing patriarchal feeling you get when Prospero is a man, you always feel that he is slightly bullying of this girl and oppressing her in some way whereas with a woman playing the role with the whole Ferdinand thing, you feel that she knows what she’s talking about, she knows how romantic and foolish young girls can be and yes you think you love him, but she knows she has to test this love, she can’t just hand her daughter over to this guy, she’s got to test him, she has to test him to make sure that she’s not betraying her daughter to the wrong guy.  So I think all of that works really well as a woman.


How much of the part did you base on the original Prospero or did you try and reinvent the character entirely?

It’s all exactly as what’s on the page. It’s the original story. It’s just reconsidered with a woman playing the role and when I looked at the role of Prospera, it was as though it had never been written for a man, I was just doing it as if it had been written for a woman and there was nothing in the text that I had to go ‘ooh a woman wouldn’t do that’, or ‘oh that’s weird, how are we gonna get over this, because that’s what a man would do not a woman.’ Every single moment in the play and every line works incredibly well with a woman playing it. So yes, it’s exactly the play as written.


What was the biggest challenge you had to face when filming?

I think the biggest challenge in filming it was being outside in the elements and everything that the challenges that come when your filming along with that, if you have a very text-driven piece of work which is what this ism and your dealing with the wind, and the elements in general. It’s technically difficult to overcome those kinds of things. But as the same time because I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare, mostly on television, but it has been outside, and to do some of those lines in that environment, because Hawaii it does have a magical feel about it. It’s jurassic and it’s spiritual in some way, and I’m not that kind of a person but it really does have a certain power so to be speaking that language in that landscape sometimes was a very extraordinary experience.


Did you feel that with Shakespeare mostly being performed on stage, to a more niche Shakespeare appreciating audience, did you therefore feel that you had to tone-down the language and make it accessible to a wider audience?

With Shakespeare you always want people to understand what you’re saying and you want people to be entertained, and whether your doing it in the Royal Shakespeare Company, in front of a matinee full of school children, or an evening performance full of Shakespeare lovers, or in a street performance, wherever it is and whatever audience it is, your primary intention is for people to enjoy it, love it and be entertained by it, and understand it. So that’s what you always do, and the fight always with Shakespeare is to try and find a way, it’s not necessarily a fight because every generation there’s a whole slue of kid’s like me who fall in love with Shakespeare. They just love it, and it’s not because they’re intellectual or clever but they love it because they love the stories and they love the way it’s written and what it says, they just love it. And every generation you find these people, but you want people maybe sometimes who thought that they wouldn’t understand it and wouldn’t love it, to bring them into it because it’s such an incredible resource. It’s such a great thing that you want as big an audience as possible.


I think it was Al Pacino who said that, American actors in particular, either tend to stay away from Shakespeare or see it as one of the biggest challenges that an actor can take on. So what was it like from your point of view watching American actors tackle it? Did you get a sense of nerves when they first come to the set?

Yes, I know that Chris Cooper was very nervous, but American actors are wonderful at Shakespeare. Because they might have those prejudices but at the same time they haven’t listened to other people doing it over and over again and so they come to it with a very fresh and individual approach and I think they’re brilliant at Shakespeare. They don’t necessarily sound like John Gilbert, but you know they’re absolutely great and they bring the language to life with their own personality and they’re own approach which is really exciting and I wish more American actors would do Shakespeare. You are right, a lot of them avoid it because they think that they can’t do it, and you have to have a British accent to be able to do it, and that is so not true.


As for yourself, in the early stages of your career you spend a long while at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Do you feel that by doing the Tempest you’re almost going back to your roots? And being in your comfort zone?

I think so, yes. Because I did so much Shakespeare when I was young I suddenly went right off Shakespeare. I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to see it, I just sort of had enough of it, except in that era I would still go and see productions of Shakespeare and be blown away by the production and by the acting and absolutely love it so I’m not saying I completely went away from it, but maybe to a certain extent, I lost my bottle about it. I lost my own courage in doing it but then I started really missing it, I missed having that language in my mouth, I missed having those thoughts in my head. You know it’s a beautiful world to inhabit, the Shakespeare world, it’s so full of poetry and understanding and mystery that when your in that world as an actor it’s a fabulous place to be and I kind of missed that.


Do you think there’s a chance you might start doing more Shakespeare from here on?

It’s tough because there are not many roles. I don’t particularly want to do Gertrude, I want to play Hamlet but I can’t play Hamlet. Gertrude is a nice role but the thing of living in the world of the thought that’s the thing and the world of Gertrude’s thought is not very interesting. The world of Ophelia’s thought is not very interesting at all, the world of Lady Macbeth’s thought is interesting because it’s so fucked up, but it’s not poetically inspiring. You don’t get to say speeches that I got to say as Prospera.



So do you feel that there are there any other males Shakespearian roles that you could tackle?

Not really, I can’t think of any. Can you?

King Lear? Or Queen Lear in this instance.

You couldn’t because you’d have to twist and rewrite and re-jiggle so much of the play. The great thing about the Tempest is that you do not have to change a word. Everything – you can just play it as it was written, and you just put a woman in there, you don’t have to twist or turn anything. With King Lear, you have the drunken Lear and his band of drunken knight’s right at the beginning which is why he keeps getting thrown out of his daughter’s castle, that wouldn’t fit with a woman for starters. And there that sense of patriarchy and power at the beginning you sense that he’s been a bullying and patriarchal guy for his whole life, and now he’s getting his comeuppance. None of that would work. I don’t know what other play would work. Maybe Timon of Athens, but I don’t know.


So how fun is it for you to take a break from the weighty stuff and strap on a machine gun for Red? And will you be doing a second Red?

It’s great! I hope so, if they get a great script and they get it finances, and they want me in it, I’ll be there, definitely.


Did you ever see yourself in a feisty action role?

I’ve always seen myself as that, but nobody else saw me as that, but I always did, totally.


You worked with Russell Brand on the Tempest, and your working with him again on Arthur. What is he like to work with?

He’s great. He’s really smart, he’s really kind and he is very hard-working, and he is out there as well, all of that. I don’t know how he juggles being nice and kind and smart and hard-working with being the Russell Brand that we also know and love. He is a truly extraordinary person.


Because I always imagined it might be quite difficult to get any work done on set with a stand-up comedian around?

He is incredibly hard-working. Amazingly hard-working. But yes, he was as funny off-screen as he was on-screen. Not in a neurotic way, he just can’t help himself. He reminds me a little bit of Robin Williams like that. His brain is always working. 


As for the director, Julie Taymor, she has done much stage work in the past, would you say that her work in the theatre and her past-experiences have given her more legitimacy and knowledge to take on a Shakespeare play and put it on the big-screen?

Yes I do, and also the fact that she had directed the Tempest twice before in the theatre, so it’s really valuable when your director knows the text really, really well. It’s a great help because there’s a lot to understand in his text and all the connections, and when they really know it backwards it’s a huge help. She’d also directed Across the Universe which I think is one of the most brilliant films, a really brilliant, brilliant film. She’s done Shakespeare on film, and she’s done Shakespeare in the theatre, so you know she was very well poised, I couldn’t have hoped for someone with more understanding than her.


Lastly, you have been quoted as saying that you have “no maternal instinct” – and because one of the key themes to the Tempest is that of losing a daughter, did you therefore find the role of Prospera challenging in any way?

What I feel personally and as an actor are two different things you know, and maybe one of the great pleasures of my job is being inhabit worlds that you never going to inhabit personally. I found it very easy to be loving and maternal towards Felicity Jones, partly because I thought she was such a wonderful actress hat my maternal feelings towards her were really as an actress, sort of loving her work, and also she is a lovely girl incidentally, so it wasn’t difficult to be loving and maternal towards Felicity.



Dame Helen Mirren Photos | The Tempest Film Page