Perhaps the ultimate thinking man's sex symbol, Helen Mirren is also one of the most respected actresses of British stage, screen, and television. With classical training, years of work on the London stage, an acclaimed television series, and dozens of films to her name, Mirren has proven herself an actress of talent, versatility, and unforgettable presence.
Born Ilynea Lydia Mironoff on July 26, 1945, in London, Mirren is a descendant of the White Russian nobility. Her father was a member of an aristocratic Russian military family who came to England during the Russian Revolution, but while Mirren was growing up, he worked in turn as a violinist with the London Philharmonic, a taxi driver, and a driving instructor. His daughter, on the other hand, knew her true calling by the age of six, when she realized she wanted to become an actress, in the "old-fashioned and traditional sense." After trying to please her parents with a stint at a teacher's college, Mirren joined the National Youth Theatre, where she first made her mark playing Cleopatra. The acclaim for her performance led the way to other work, and she was soon a member of the vaunted Royal Shakespeare Company, with whom she performed a wide range of classics.
Her stage career thriving, Mirren made her screen debut in 1968 in the somewhat forgettable Herostratus. The same year, she made a more auspicious appearance as Hermia in Peter Hall's lauded adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and her screen career soon took off. She worked steadily throughout the late '60s and '70s, starring in 1969's Age of Consent and working with such directors as Robert Altman on The Long Goodbye (1973) and Lindsay Anderson on O Lucky Man! (also 1973). In 1977, Mirren earned permanent notoriety for her work in Caligula, a mainstream porn offering from the powers at Penthouse that also starred such notables as Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud, and Malcolm McDowell.
During the subsequent decade, Mirren continued to work on the stage, and she also broadened her cinematic resumé and fan base with such films as Excalibur (1981) and Cal (1984). Her portrayal of an older woman in love with a younger man in the latter film earned her a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival and further established her reputation as an actress willing to explore the kind of unconventional relationships often ignored on the screen. The actress' willingness go beyond safe conventionality was demonstrated with her work in such films as The Mosquito Coast (1986), Pascali's Island (1988), The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), and The Comfort of Strangers (1991). She again took on the role of an older woman in love with a younger man in Where Angels Fear to Tread in 1991, proving that seven years after Cal, her powers of attraction had been in no way tempered by time.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Mirren began appearing on the television series Prime Suspect. Her character, Jane Tennison, a hard-boiled detective, proved immensely popular with viewers and critics alike, and she stayed with the series for its seven incarnations. Mirren also continued to do acclaimed work for the stage and screen, earning a Cannes Best Actress award and Oscar and BAFTA nominations for her work in The Madness of King George in 1994, and making her Broadway debut in Turgenev's A Month in the Country in 1995. The following year, she earned further acclaim for her work in Some Mother's Son, in which she played the mother of a Belfast prison hunger striker.
In 1997, Mirren found the time to marry producer/director Taylor Hackford before signing on to provide the voice of the Queen in the Disney animated film The Prince of Egypt (1998). In 1999, she played the titular teacher in Kevin Williamson's disappointing Teaching Mrs. Tingle, earning the only good reviews given the movie, and she again won over critics with her title role in the made-for-television The Passion of Ayn Rand, earning an Emmy for her performance. Back on the big screen, Mirren continued with a lighthearted role as a master gardener in Greenfingers (2000), turned up in director Hal Hartley's comic monster fable No Such Thing (2001) and earned her second Oscar nomination for her re-teaming with Altman in the director's acclaimed comedy Gosford Park (2001).
This pattern solidified for Mirren as her career moved through the new millennium. She was well received for her performance in yet another quirky British sleeper in 2003, with Calendar Girls. In it she played a middle-aged woman who raises money (as well as eyebrows) for a Women's Institute by posing nude with her peers. She also made notable appearances in movies like the thriller The Clearing (2004) and the romantic comedy Raising Helen (2004), before awing audiences with a performance in Shadowboxer (2005) as an assassin who is diagnosed with terminal cancer.
2005 would prove to be a special year for Mirren as September of that year would kick off a full 12 months of nonstop praise and excitement. Two of Mirren's projects would emerge during this period that would usher her into the upper tier of cinema's lead actresses -- a place that critics and fans had known she belonged all along. Coincidentally, these two projects would find her playing two different English monarchs who shared the same name. First, her performance as Queen Elizabeth I in the BBC miniseries Elizabeth I aired in September 2005, blowing viewers away with her ability to convey the full power and command of perhaps the most important crowned head in British history, all while confined to the small screen. Immersing herself into the opulent 16th century costumes and sets, Mirren tackled the Virgin Queen as a leader, a woman, and a human being, leaving such an impression that the miniseries was later aired in the U.S.
By September 2006, the commotion over Mirren's performance had died down just enough for her to make an even bigger splash with her acclaimed role as Queen Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears' film The Queen. Despite the shared name, playing the modern-day figure was as different from her earlier role as it could be. Taking place in 1997 after the death of the globally beloved Princess Diana -- whose divorce from Prince Charles had been a source of epic tabloid controversy -- The Queen found Mirren playing a monarch who wielded little-to-no executive power, but whose title derived all its meaning from tradition, symbolism, and national pride. Mirren handled this queen with gentle attention to detail, following her on confused journeys both personal and in the national consciousness, showing her surprise and bewilderment as the stoic exterior on which a queen's public face had always been built suddenly caused her to be reviled. Mirren's two Elizabeths were both honored with Golden Globe wins, one for Best Actress in a Drama, and one for Best Actress in a TV Movie or Mini-Series. She was further rewarded for her efforts by capturing the Oscar for Best Actress in The Queen.
In the next year she appeared in the blockbuster sequel National Treasure: Book of Secrets, but in 2009 she starred opposite Christopher Plummer in The Last Station as the wife of the dying Leo Tolstoy. For her work in that drama Mirren garnered acting nominations from the Screen Actors Guild, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the Academy. Substantial roles continued to rack up honors and acclaim for the actress in 2010, as she played an intriguing role as a former Mossad agent in The Debt, and no-longer-retired secret agent in Red, and none other than the leading role in William Shakespeare's The Tempest - with the gender of the part changed to female. Mirren would then make a comic turn in the 2011 remake of Arthur alongside British comedian Russell Brand, before delving back into drama once more with the reflective 2012 film The Door. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi