We were lucky enough to get tickets to an hour-long talk Helen Mirren gave about her career as a benefit for the National Youth Theatre, which gave her a start in theatre.
She was a delight.
Taking the stage in street clothes, she looked tall and stylish, wearing black ankle boots with stiletto heels and a black flowered slightly full skirt. Although miked, she was noticeably hoarse and said she was pleased to be able to conserve her voice, as she really has to project in her eight weekly performances as QEII in The Audience. (By the way, The Audience ends its West End run this weekend but in a while, may move to Broadway.)
Surprisingly, she said she didn’t go to drama school, instead, she trained to be teacher, at the insistence of her parents, who wanted her to have “something to fall back on.” She began in the theatre, rather than on screen, and spoke eloquently of the magic of theatre, of being in the wings noticing the smell of backstage, the roughness of its ropes and pulleys and paint, contrasted with the formality of the “house.
Part of an actor’s job is “to make it look easy,” she told the audience, “but it isn’t, really.” She spoke about the different techniques each medium required in order to make acting seem natural. For example, she said Shakespeare “takes a huge amount of breath,” something she had to learn.
“After a few years, I suddenly realized that I had the breathing technique without thinking about it, I was in control.” And while some actors warm up for an hour before a performance, she warms up vocally only five or 10 minutes.
(Above is the set for her play and the same chairs were used for her interview.)
She was asked how she evaluated parts.
“When I’m sent a script, I read the last page first to see if my character is on it.” The audience laughed. “If she isn’t, I look at the very last scene. If she’s not there, then I check for her last scene. A character needs a great exit, dramatic impact, and if it doesn’t have that, then I have no business doing it.”
When a young actor asked if there were anything she wished she’d known when she was young, she said, “Yes. Don’t be up your own bum: self important and over emotional about stuff. Just get on it with it. And pick up cues! Learn to think fast. Just bloody think fast and if you can’t, then just don’t think, just do it!”
At one point, her memory failed her, as it does for many of us in her general age group. She’s 67. “Oh,” she said, frustrated, “I can’t think of the name of it. God damn it! I’ll think of it in a bit.”
We can relate, girlfriend. We can relate.