There's a moment in Julie Taymor's gender-bent film of The Tempest when Helen Mirren seems to come down hard on actors. Briskly dismissing the masque summoned for the entertainment of the betrothed Ferdinand and her virginal daughter Miranda, "Prospera," the enchantress, gently but firmly disenchants. "Our revels now are ended. These our actors,/ As I foretold you, were all spirits and/ Are melted into air, into thin air …" It's a famous speech, often read as a valediction in Shakespeare's last play; the Bard, as it were, flicking the house lights on and off to boot out the late-night groundlings.
Mirren delivers the lines in a tone of benevolent clarity, as if breaking it to her innocent daughter that Santa isn't actually up there with the elves. In the London hotel drawing room where we're talking, her mother's mink collar wound round her neck, a slash of scarlet lipstick on her mouth, Mirren is warming up the bone-slicing cold with the sparks of her merry, articulate intelligence. I tell her, in case she hadn't done it consciously, that she lingeringly enunciates actors with a curl of the lip. She breaks into one of her salty, estuary-girl laughs and says, "Oh, really? I didn't mean to insult actors. I love actors and the whole process of acting."
You believe her because she's a performer who reflects nonstop about what she's doing, onstage, film, or television, yet without ever burdening her delivery with over-considered attitude. When I saw Gielgud do Prospero at the Old Vic in the 1970s, the great man wandered about the stage in a state of vague irritability, vocalizing the "cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces," as an inward, somber meditation on the illusion-chamber of the theater itself. But Mirren's delivery is blade-sharp steel to Gielgud's tarnished silver. The she-wizard is undeluded about her conjuring because in the last resort she knows it is all nonsense, even though, as Mirren concedes, "nonsense is seductive." The nonsense-masters she had in mind, she says, are the wizards of Wall Street and their like who kid themselves that they can make castles in the air. "The solemn temples," she says, are "Goldman Sachs; the City. … They seem so solid, don't they?" But, in fact, they're just an "insubstantial pageant" that can be "melted into air, into thin air."
In the gender flip (which works so perfectly you don't give it a moment's thought after Mirren's first appearance mantled in raven-dark scales and plumes) this resolutely unbewitched tone seems right for a motherly admonition to her dewy-eyed teenage daughter. It's all very nice, the airy-fairy stuff, Prospera seems to be saying, but, look kid, we'll be out of here before you know it and if you know what's good for you you'll wise up in short order. So when Miranda, confronted with a throng of tights and capes, gasps "O brave new world,/ That has such people in't!" Prospera's sidelong comment—" 'Tis new to thee"—has the force of a different knowledge: the worldly kind.
Which isn't to say this is a prosaic film version of The Tempest, and that Mirren's version of the spell-conjurer is flatly matter-of-fact; womanly practicality, rather than magic monomania. It's just that she inhabits a mindset in keeping with Jacobean culture, finely balanced between visionary apparition and clear-eyed pragmatism. It's easy, amid the spells and spirits, to forget that this is a drama about power of various kinds—the kind of power that needs the play of illusion as well as the impact of blunt force to make itself felt. Mirren does both, but her blond witch of revenge certainly relishes the "rough magic."
I ask her, since she is seriously well-read, whether she was thinking of Renaissance women who gave no quarter—such as Catherine de Medici? "No, Simon," she says, smiling, "you would be thinking of that. I just thought of the human situation—who had betrayed you, had tried to murder you? Of someone who had lived with bitterness and anger and a desire for revenge." She mentions as an inspiration Euripides' Medea, consumed with murderous rage channeled into bloody havoc. But her motherly Prospera is a mix of tough and tender, pretty much like the actress. "Now, [the end of the play with the plotters caught in the island trap] when you could exact the most horrible revenge …," she says, letting the sentence run out thoughtfully. It's not just the fact of the torturing cramps and stings the sorcerer visits on the captive Caliban, she says, it's the enjoyment of listing them—"side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up"—that's so fierce.
It's this taste for physical and mental cruelty that the actress who played the Duchess of Malfi and guns down bad guys in Red recognizes as an authentic side of the Bard as much as his complicated interior ruminations: "Shakespeare opens fissures you don't want to look into." Some of those openings, she says, are frankly sexual. Prospera inflicts torments on Caliban because of his attempt to rape the child/girl Miranda. "All he wants to do is f*** her, really f*** her." The mother pays him back the way a threatened mother would.
Prospera was Mirren's idea. Watching Derek Jacobi's Prospero in 2002, it struck her that "a woman could do this and it wouldn't change a word" of meaning. She then went home and read through the text to make sure it wouldn't just be some sort of reflex feminist gesture. And she saw what might be gained: a different kind of protectiveness bestowed by a mother on her daughter; a different reason to make Ferdinand's road to nuptial bliss a thorny trial. "She knows what 16-year-old girls are like, swoony and dreamy, because she's been one. She needs to make sure Miranda isn't cheaply won." All thy vexations/ Were but my trials of thy love, indeed.
Then there is the male terror, in the late Renaissance, of the book-learned woman; always close in contemporary minds (not least in that of King James himself) to the sorceress; privy to dark learning locked inside a hungry mind and a potent body. And there, too, is the unconscious ruthlessness with which the dethroned Duchess of Milan obsessively imprints on her adolescent child the sinister story of her displacement. "Dost thou hear?" "Oh all right Mum,"—a daughterly eye-roll—"go on, tell me again. …" Mirren, who is happily childless, chuckles.
Meeting Taymor at a party, Mirren tried the idea out on her. "I want to do Shakespeare and there aren't many parts. I'm not interested in Volumnia or Gertrude." (Pity, since she would be a spellbinding Gertrude, trapped by erotic bonds to the murdering usurper.) Gert is a bit of a victim and Mirren doesn't really do victims. She does Lady Macbeth; the turn-on of blood. Taymor, who had already produced The Tempest twice, loved the idea but it took a year before there was a phone call telling Mirren it was going to happen. She assumed that the excited Taymor was talking about a staging, and the exhilaration of discovering it was going to be a film was tempered by a realization of what she would now be taking on; a text of fiendish complexity and eccentric word order, even by the standards of very late Shakespeare. "He's just riffing," she says, of the whole coils of serpentine lines eating themselves: "It's like late Miles Davis."
Even though the chopped-up nature of filming didn't require it, Mirren decided to commit the whole play to heart before going near the shoot (on the lava-encrusted Hawaiian island of Lana'i). "There was no way I could play the part and risk reaching for the lines." Even then, she was worried enough about memorization that she considered using an autocue. She didn't in the end but, she insists, "I'm always terrified of forgetting lines." Has she ever dried? "Only once. In a modern play. David Hare's Teeth 'n' Smiles." It was Dave King, "the classic washed-up, f*****-up comedian," playing the rock-and-roll band's road manager, "who saved my arse that night, so unlike the sweating panicky actor."
But there is another kind of internalizing that Mirren goes through, whatever role she plays. In this case she knew that Prospero's complicated relationship to Ariel and Caliban lies at the heart of the play, and Mirren's scenes with them (especially perhaps Ben Whishaw's nude teenage sprite) are poetically intense; charged with subtle erotic voltage. The two island creatures are, she says, the poles of human character: Ariel the embodiment of creativity, soul, spirit, imagination, "things that take flight." Caliban's world is sex and violence—"equally part of our valid human experience." But what Mirren needed to get the role right was "a sense of what the other characters mean to you personally … what Ariel is to me, Helen, or what Caliban means to me, Helen. What the audience thinks, what Shakespeare thinks doesn't really matter."
In case we hadn't noticed: Helen Mirren is a robustly thinking actress who, whether Queen Elizabeth II or Sofia, Countess Tolstoy (in the wonderful The Last Station), translates that care of thought into finely calibrated expression of voice and body language. So much steaming drool has been written about her undeniably permanent gorgeousness; the wide Russian eyes, the sonata of curves, the come-and-try-your-luck-sunshine Essex voice, honey on coal-tar, the voice I know from growing up almost down the road from her in Westcliff and Leigh-on-Sea (how the hell did I manage to miss her on the Southend mud or at the back of the Leigh cockle sheds?), that Mirren's exacting thoughtfulness gets short-changed.
She is, in the most unpretentious sense, creative. Very occasionally, she gets a script that "reads like literature." One of them was Barrie Keeffe's script for The Long Good Friday, a classical Greek drama of bloody disintegration set in late 1970s London gangsterland. Mirren was cast as Bob Hoskins' girl, and played it hard and tight, like a cosh wrapped in satin, until the inexorably baffling terror gets to her, too. Mirren loved the script but saw "there was one huge hole"—her own part, two-dimensional gangster's moll. When the revised version came back it was "exactly the same." So "I became a real pain. I'd rewrite the scenes," turning the woman, crucially, into an upper-middle-class manager, the svelte polisher of Hoskins' rough diamond; in it for the arousing buzz of bad money and a real love of her pet thug. How did the rest of the crew feel about the rewrites? Oh, she says, Bob Hoskins is "a great guy, supportive—other actors would have taken offense. Poor John [Mackenzie, the director]. I did feel sorry for him. But only I could do it."
She comes by the tough-tender thing honestly. Her father, Vasily-turned-Basil, the son of a Russian army officer ("we had the Tsar and Tsarina on the wall in a wooden frame"), was, she says, like Tolstoy: "thoughtful and gentle, a humanist"; while her mother, West Ham, butcher's daughter, was "noisy and passionate." You can feel that Essex home of the Mirinoffs: happy uproar and pensive wistfulness for the loss of homeland culture; carriers of old philosophy having to drive cabs for a living; mastering an unfamiliar kind of Knowledge. The distance from buttoned-up Englishness takes the form in Mirren of an expansive generosity about the human comedy, the observant openness to all sorts that gives her an unparalleled range. She argued with her father over his conviction that "all cultures and races should become one." "Not a bad idea," I say. "No, not bad, but if all skins are the same color it just becomes so much human porridge. Cultural difference is what's wonderful."
Which makes her think again, of the episode in her acting life that bit very deep: the year with Peter Brook. She'd been clocked as a phenomenon early, lifted straight out of the National Youth Theater to the RSC. I'd seen her sinuous Cressida; the only version of the part that made entirely credible her betrayal of moaning Troilus to the hard man Diomed. As an understudy she watched in spellbound amazement what Brook famously did with A Midsummer Night's Dream: sweeping the stage of all the distracting impedimenta—pasteboard glades and tussocks—liberating the bounding physicality of the action; letting the roaring poetry have its head in a wide open chamber of space and sound.
Mirren would later write a letter about the clutter of over-designed staging getting in the way of the drama that was very Brookian. In 1972, wanting a way to "learn" to do something braver and broader than "conveyor-belt kultcha," she went to Paris to join Brook's experimental group, which was already in the throes of his exacting improvisation routines that were meant to culminate in a dramatization of the Persian garland of poems: The Conference of the Birds. The experience did not get off to a good start. "I was a latecomer there. In my naiveté I thought, right let's have a party, get drunk, do what we do in the pub, moan, gossip, complain. But the actors just stood around; no one spoke to anyone! It was a nightmare. Put me off giving parties forever!"
Chastened but inspired, Mirren went to North and West Africa with the Brook company, throwing down a carpet and improvising to unpredictable audiences. On one occasion "2,000 Tuareg on camels showed up. We'd heard there was a festival. Oh, let's all go and perform, we said! And there they were on their camels." "How did they react?" I asked. "Oh, with gracious bemusement. … Once in a blue moon we hit on a moment that did make for the common humanity Brook was after." A Malian actor, Malik Bagayogo, had the inspired idea of taking off a shoe; stringing a line of shoes behind him and then we all just responded to that. The shoe show made a connection." But it was hard. Unlike a script, "there was nothing to hold on to except yourself and I didn't have that to hold on to either as Brook was constantly undermining, criticizing … well no,"—she corrects—"challenging."
"I failed as an esoteric actress. I wasn't of that ilk; ultimately I'm not part of any group, not the Stanislavski group, the Grotowski group, the Brook group. I couldn't do the self-effacement. Brook thought stardom was wicked, self-deluding, and tasteless. Oh f*** it, I said; I want my name up there." Shakespeare the actor doubtless felt the same way, I say. "Yes, but you know, I still do believe Brook is the great genius of the theatre of our time, so far ahead of everyone; doing what was unthinkable. ... He truly believes in common humanity."
She pauses for a second, then adds, "I believe in common humanity too: It's sex, violence and money." Then, hastening to explain, that by the "money" bit she just means our material cares and pleasures; she gives up on the qualification, throws up her hands, and lets the Essex chuckle roll round the paneled room. "Have another cup of tea," she says. "Have a bickie." I do.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.