Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the length of the Broadway run for “The Audience.” It is 19 weeks, not 12. This version has been updated.
And so, we are granted an audience.
But how to address the reigning queen, literally, of Broadway, and goddess of film and PBS police procedural? To call her Dame Helen seems simultaneously too Downton and too informal, while Ms. Mirren appears not to suit her at all.
“How about ‘you aging slut?’ ” she says, tendering that smile, and spring blooms.
Helen Mirren turns 70 this year. Yes, true.
She looks exquisite, which is to say Mirrenesque, without appearing to have undergone the major cosmetic reconstruction of, well, so many of her peers. Her figure, though she claims to do minimal exercise, remains an inspiration, as evidenced by the paparazzi photos taken a few years ago of her in a red bikini.
Mirren’s career, entering its fifth decade, is in high gear and full blossom. While other actresses rightly cry foul over the indignities of Hollywood chucking them like last week’s leftovers, Mirren resides in a rarefied realm along with Meryl Streep, while exuding considerably more heat. This year, in leather and demonstrating serious sizzle, she became L’Oreal’s latest spokesmodel. She is famous for her Jean-Paul Gaultier bondage ensemble in Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.” And this top actress is equally famous for the many movies in which she removes her top.
Mirren is reprising her Oscar turn as Queen Elizabeth II in a 19-week Broadway run of “The Audience,” a play about the monarch’s weekly meetings with the prime minister. She’s fresh off an Olivier Award for playing the same role in London’s West End and is garnering fantastic reviews — “Smashing,” gasped the New York Times.
And yet it was a role the actress was dead-set against repeating. When first informed of the part, she wrote playwright Peter Morgan, who also penned “The Queen,” a slap of an e-mail that read, in its entirety, “You bastard.”
She was angry “because he knew that it would be incredibly challenging. It would be something I would not want to do, and yet not want to let go of,” says Mirren of the role that requires her to be onstage for almost the entire two hours, aging from 27 to 88 and undergoing multiple changes in costume (including that leather armor of a handbag) and prime ministers.
“You want to go forward,” Mirren says, perched on a loveseat for an interview at a Central Park South hotel. “I thought, ‘This is really a bad idea, Helen.’ It will mean that, for the rest of your life, you will be known as the woman who played the queen, as opposed to the actress who played all these other roles.”
She wasn’t keen on doing the part the first time. “Oh, my God, play the queen? No. I was sick of unfair, cheap shots. I don’t mind criticism. but when I read the script, I thought it was a sensitive, thoughtful portrait. But I thought I had said goodbye, thank you, that was brilliant, on to other things.”
This day she is attired in pearls, pumps, cashmere and silk charmeuse, a buffet of gray and champagne, while exhibiting considerable décolletage, the lady and the taunt. There is a certain irony in the thought that Britain’s most seductive dame is perhaps best known for her portrayal of its dowdy, Corgi-besotted monarch.
Mirren told her husband, director Taylor Hackford — he directed her in “White Nights,” she married for the first time at age 52 — that she wasn’t going to do the play. Not again. But the talent involved, including Morgan, director Stephen Daldry (two Tonys) and set and costume designer Bob Crowley (six Tonys), proved impossible to resist. Though Mirren is a constant in the British theater, “The Audience” marks only her third turn on Broadway.
M eanwhile, Mirren appears in one or two movies a year, of late creating a United Nations of strong characters: French, Hungarian, Israeli, Russian. This season brings “Woman in Gold,” opening April 1 and based on the six-year odyssey of the late Maria Altmann, who sued the Austrian government to regain her family’s Nazi-looted trove of Gustav Klimt masterworks, including the 1907 “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.” Bloch-Bauer was Altmann’s aunt, the only woman Klimt painted twice, and the first portrait is sometimes referred to as “the Mona Lisa of Austria.” Altmann’s story has already inspired four documentaries, a play and several books, though Mirren knew nothing of her story until she read the script.
“Maria was very regal,” Mirren says. “Highly educated, very intellectual, incredibly cultured, very beautiful taste, and to see that world and that culture trampled into the dust, spat upon, basically in the most brutal, cruel, savage, mundane, banal way, and to see the triumph of stupidity over the world that they came from is just unspeakable.”
Says director Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn”), “You don’t have to be a genius to think of Helen Mirren for that part.” In the 1970s, Curtis worked as Mirren’s personal assistant when she performed in “Measure for Measure” in London. “My joke is that I would make cups of tea back then, and that’s what I did now,” he says.
The movie was shot primarily in London, with a feast of British thespians playing Americans (Jonathan Pryce as Justice William Rehnquist!), and the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House filling in as an unconvincing Supreme Court. Curtis’s wife, Elizabeth McGovern (“Downton’s” Countess of Grantham), appears as a California judge.
Maria Altmann represents another handbag and wig role for Mirren, playing opposite a very beige Ryan Reynolds as her attorney, Randol Schoenberg, grandson of the composer Arnold Schoenberg.
“I think Maria would be thrilled with the movie,” Schoenberg says of his client, who died in 2011 at age 94. He sees much of her in Mirren. “She was the same sort of character — smart and sexy, brilliantly smart — but she could also be really funny.”
We know how the story turns out, triumphantly and munificently, as the exquisite gilded portrait of Altmann’s aunt hangs less than two miles from where Mirren sits, at the Neue Galerie. It was sold to Ronald S. Lauder in 2006 for $135 million, which is an awful lot of blush.
M irren has always worked, and worked steadily, but it was her seven-season role as detective Jane Tennison in “Prime Suspect” that brought her renown in America. “I think the nice thing about getting older is that you drop away that being ‘the girlfriend of.’ You unfortunately become ‘the mother of’ or, indeed, ‘the grandmother of.’ But at least you’re not ‘the girlfriend of’ anymore, and that’s great, because there is more power in being ‘the mother of.’ You’re just the character.”
She was born Helen Mironoff, the daughter of a civil-servant father descended from Russian aristocrats who had lost everything, and grew up working-class. Playing regal characters comes easily. She seems to lead with that nose, not quite retrousse but distinctive, portraying Elizabeth I in the HBO miniseries (she’s the only actress to play both Elizabeths) and Queen Charlotte in “The Madness of King George,” but, she says, “I think that’s because of the limitation of female roles in historical drama. Very often the strong roles are the queens.” She has also portrayed her share of housekeepers, including in “Gosford Park” and “The Door.”
Mirren will continue to play the current monarch, the one who made her a dame a dozen years ago, seven times a week through June 28. Then she hopes to be finally done with the crown.
“I just want the thing that I don’t know anything about yet,” she says. “It would be wonderful, a surprise.” And what, precisely, would that be?
“I’m gagging to be in a ‘Fast and Furious’ movie. Gagging,” Mirren says. (Apparently, gagging means dying for something in British. She is not choking to drive a hot car.)
“I so loved doing ‘Red.’ I’m ready for another ‘Red.’ Or an equivalent. Because it’s such fun doing that stuff. I’d love to be a driver in ‘Fast and Furious.’ I’m a really good driver. Tell them!” she says, gesturing at a reporter to write this down as an open invitation to the producers of the carbon-monoxide-charged septet of capers. “I do my own stunts. I drove my own Land Rover in ‘The Queen.’ ”
Imagine Vin Diesel, the Rock and Dame Helen together for the first time. In Mirren’s unpredictable career, anything is possible.