This is a transcript of an interview between Helen Mirren and The Independent‘s Charles Donelan.
When you accepted the Golden Globe for your performance in The Queen you shifted some of the credit to Elizabeth II for her performance in the original role, which was very gracious of you. But that same night, when Peter Morgan got up to get his Golden Globe, he made an even more obvious point of thanking the British people for protesting her insensitivity, forcing her to listen to them, and fundamentally for bringing the Queen to her senses about Diana’s death. He went on to say that speaking this kind of truth to power was one of the film’s core messages. My question for you is—which is it? Is The Queen about a brave woman who triumphs under pressure, or is it about a popular uprising that coerces a reluctant monarch?
Both are possible, and I think that, difficult as this may be to accept, both are true. The British are certainly respectful enough of the Queen, but the role she plays inevitably provokes an emotional response from them. In this case, that emotional response had a powerful impact on her, and caused her to feel threatened in her authority and in their hearts. This is part of being Queen—caring a lot about whether or not the people love you. I had the good fortune to play Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II back to back, and this was even more true of Elizabeth I, who really was in a position of actual political authority. She was absolutely terrified of losing the love and the will of the people. With Elizabeth II in The Queen, we are seeing a woman whose sense of responsibility is absolute, and for whom the trust of the people is sacrosanct. Yet here she is in this two-week crisis where other values, including her sense of decency and her feelings as a mother, come into conflict with her responsibility to the people.
There’s a sequence in The Queen involving the hunting of a stag on the grounds of Balmoral that includes a long passage in which there is no dialogue, where the Queen is on her own and her Land Rover gets stuck in a river. What did you do to prepare for that bit? Did you have an internal dynamic that allowed you to play the scene? What do you think the Queen was thinking about that stag?
Yes, the stag. You know there’s no answering that question, “What does the stag mean?” because it functions so perfectly as a symbol. There was something specific in fact that I held as my internal dynamic as you say, and it was something we talked about on set, so I know that it was remarkably close to what Peter Morgan, the screenwriter, had in mind. But that’s all I can tell you because it should remain open to the interpretation of the audience. That’s what a symbol is for, to create that kind of ambiguity and allow for multiple meanings. I have one understanding of it, you may have another, and each audience for the film should create yet another. That’s why it’s in there. I’ll say this though—it is rather important, the stag, and you’re certainly right to notice it.
We have been hearing a lot of wordplay with the term “queen” since you have started the rounds of the awards circuit, and it raises the question of whether or not actors and monarchs really do have anything in common. I suppose that actors are sometimes treated like royalty, at least while they are successful, but are actors and queens really anything alike?
Absolutely not. There is a massive difference, and a huge, essential point to be made about it, which is this: the Queen has no choice in the matter. Celebrities of all kinds, and certainly actors, have always done something at some point to court the attention of the public, and with monarchs this is just never the case. The see their role entirely differently because it is literally thrust upon them by fate and heredity, which is the opposite of choosing to act a role, no matter what anyone says to the contrary. With Elizabeth II this is especially true, as her uncle abdicated the throne and left her to carry on. There’s really no equivalent to it in any other walk of life. Monarchs step into a kind of gilded cage with no choice in the matter, and the mindset they inherit is, I think, nearly incomprehensible to outsiders. The great advantage to me of playing these two historical figures, Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, one after another is that I got to spend quite a lot of time puzzling out the thought of what that kind of arbitrary and absolute responsibility could mean.
Was there a particular audience that you were anxious about their reaction to The Queen? Or a moment when you knew it would be a hit? I heard that the positive response at the Venice Film Festival was dramatic.
Yes it was, and you are right that the reception at the Venice Festival was very important to us. That initial award, from the International Film Critics, and for best picture, confirmed for all of us who had worked on the film that it could play outside of Britain. We knew then that the story we had told had the universality of a great film, and that was a big relief.
Thanks so much, you are wonderfully articulate, and we look forward to seeing you in Santa Barbara soon. Thanks, my husband as you may know is from Santa Barbara, and we both really love the place, and the Festival. We’re looking forward to seeing all of you as well.