I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Helen Mirren is in A Month in the Country at the Roundabout, around the corner from the Belasco where I am playing Polonius in Hamlet. I can’t remember exactly when, but I think we probably met in the early ’70s when we were in a TV version of a rare and not very consequential 17th-century play. I certainly already admired her from a distance having seen her unforgettable Miss Julie. American audiences are familiar with her extraordinary range as an actress from such varied roles as the wife in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, the Queen in The Madness of King George and as Jane Tennison in the Granada television series, Prime Suspect. We’re not exactly friends but I think we have that easy way with each other that actors have: “When you meet again you just pick up,” as Helen says in our conversation. We met at my hotel. It was a pleasure to see her again and talk.
Helen Mirren I just want to sit and gossip really, more than anything.
Peter Eyre You tired today?
HM I’m a bit psychologically tired.
PE How do you like doing the play again?
HM Wonderful, absolutely wonderful. It’s a beautiful play, and not done often enough, it’s quite difficult to do. It’s deceptive.
PE Is it the same translation you used as in London?
HM Yes, I couldn’t learn it again.
PE Whose translation is it?
HM Richard Freeborn, who is a Russian scholar but not a playwright. He didn’t adapt it, he simply translated the play and because of that it’s got to gain its own life and liveliness.
PE There’s this very interesting biography that I read years ago of Pauline Viardot, the great opera diva, I think it’s called The Life of a Genius. It’s all about her love affair with Turgenev and Turgenev’s jealousy towards Gounod who came to visit her when he was a young composer. Turgenev’s affair with Viardot lasted for such a long time and they hardly ever met. They had very little physical contact with each other, but they had one of those great correspondences.
HM That’s what they used to do before the Internet. And pre-jet plane love affairs as well. But there must have been something very satisfying about it never being consummated. Not just in the physical sense, but in the sense of getting comfortable with each other and really getting to know each other. So you’re always trembling on the edge of flirtation with someone.
PE Is the husband taken very seriously in Turgenev’s play?
HM He figures in a fairly small way until the last scene, when he has this enormous breakdown on stage. Turgenev finishes the play with the husband. The same mild mannered man suddenly becomes an explosive, bad tempered person shouting at everyone. It’s a very funny scene.
PE Was the play first done in the 1880s?
HM It was written in the 1850s. All of it is very funny but in the way I think Renoir’s films are funny, the humor’s incredibly subtle.
PE Turgenev’s a subtle writer. Do you imagine when it was first performed that it was played romantically?
HM A romantic title, a romantic theme, but I don’t think it’s written remotely romantically. The characters are quite brittle and tough with each other. It’s quite hard-edged.
PE Last year I was doing a television film in the Ukraine and I went to see Chekhov’s house, where he lived for ages, where he wrote all his letters, where he always sounded incredibly sad as if he was living in a kind of hell. He actually lived in the most wonderful house. He was a brilliant interior decorator. They show all the photographs and models of very early Chekhov productions. And you realize that The Three Sisters, which I think is the most complex and rich play ever written … When you see the photographs, even with Stanislavsky, it was played
in a rather droopy way.
HM They all look very droopy in the photos. And yet the catch of Natalya’s performance is she’s so tough and alive, and sarcastic and uncomfortable. A Month in the Country was censored in Turgenev’s lifetime. They cut the husband out and made her a widow because a married woman wasn’t allowed to fall in love with anyone else on the stage. And the result of course was that it was a terrible flop in his lifetime. It was Chekhov and Chekhov’s company that resurrected it and made it into a huge hit after Turgenev had died.
PE Has it been done here a lot, in America?
HM Oh, very little. It’s the sort of play that people think they know. They read it once and were bored by it, and they often think it’s Chekhov anyway. I try to play for the comedy of it without cheating too much. I know that people have described it—other productions in the past—as being rather long, slow.
PE It’s a very difficult play though, isn’t it?
HM It’s a difficult play. It’s deceptively simple. It’s very accessible, not intellectual. It’s not symbolic the way Chekhov is. Yet it’s very deceptive because it treads this fantastic line between theatricality and naturalism. And comedy and tragedy. Constantly balancing between those four elements. Turgenev went to his deathbed thinking he couldn’t write a play. In reality he’s written the most beautifully constructed, theatrical play. A real play in every sense of the word. It was way ahead of its time.
PE It’s one of the most complete pictures in the theatre of a woman, isn’t it?
HM Of a particular kind of woman, obviously based very much on Pauline. She’s extremely self-dramatizing but at the same time very sensible.
PE You empathize with her, don’t you?
HM One does. Anyone who’s been in love has gone through that interior monologue with themselves: I must pull myself together. This is ridiculous. I’ve got to stop this. I’ll call him tonight, I’ll tell him it’s all over. And then you’re on the phone saying, “What are you doing tomorrow?”
PE I know I shouldn’t compare a ballet with a play, but I saw Ashton’s ballet, A Month in the Country with Lynn Seymour. At the very beginning the family’s sitting around and she’s reading a book. And she suddenly jumps up and does this polonaise on her own. You got such feeling of tragedy.
HM The restlessness, which you can do in dance. In psychological acting it’s much harder.
PE But you have the advantage in that you’re Russian. You have the kind of temperament that English actresses very often don’t have. It’s what makes you unique in our little country.
HM In our big little country.
PE Was it very different, doing it again with new people?
HM It was the same spirit, and the same spirit of the same play caught up different people in the same way. Having said that, it’s wonderful to see it realized freshly in new imaginations. It’s the great pain and the great magic of theatre: there are infinite ways to play any role, and there are infinite ways of playing any line. Quite often I ask someone else to say a line for me—a bit presumptuous to ask them to do a whole speech for you. But everybody inflects a line—the difference is infinitesimal—but it’s different.
PE Are you trying to get what you had done in the London production?
HM No, I couldn’t. I wanted to take it on further, in whatever direction I could think of. Because it’s not a part that needs an interpretation. All you’ve got to do is play what’s on the page as fully and as completely and get as much of the variety in it as you can.
PE I envy you being in a company with American actors.
HM Oh, I tell you it’s wonderful. I’ve always admired American acting, learned a lot and have been a vociferous supporter of American acting, but that was American film acting because I hadn’t seen much stage acting. I had no idea how American actors rehearsed, how they behaved. Did they tell jokes? Did they have tea breaks? Did they give presents on first nights? I had no idea of the fundamental stuff. And I was absolutely bowled over by them.
PE They have a very strong dedication, don’t they?
HM Incredibly dedicated. They learned it so fast. In England, all the English actors constantly moaned and complained about how difficult it was to learn: Don’t talk to me now, I’m learning my lines! And here, by the third week they had it down. They never complained. I saw various people go through the same things that English actors go through, mostly panic. That I-want-to-go-home kind of feeling. But they never articulated it.
PE I saw Americans actors in Love! Valour! Compassion! before we started previews for Hamlet. By the end of the play I actually believed that the young actor was blind. He seemed to inhabit his part in a way that was so beyond acting. I know a lot of American actors think that English actors are so clever because they can do whatever they do. But that American ability of being able to disappear into the role and allow it to happen in a very, very deep way … I don’t know whether it’s a temperamental thing or whether it has to do with English theater being very literary.
HM Well English actors can do that, and do on a regular basis. When you think of Mike Leigh’s work …
PE But even his work is slightly pointed towards an element of Dickensian exaggeration.
HM Yes, but then life is exaggerated and Dickensian. The American acting style of naturalism has nothing to do with real life. It has nothing to do with what is natural. Go out onto the street here and sit in a coffee house and watch people. People are extreme. They’re out there.
PE There was a time, it’s past, when American theater was so tied to a naturalistic convention that it actually became a cliché. But there is an openness that actors have in the theater here, with the audience …
HM There’s a clarity about American acting and a lack of neurosis. They seem to be clear and open, and much less afraid of the process. I think for the English, maybe because of their English education and all the rest of it, to make the jump to the performance is a bit difficult. Once they do it, they soar to a heightened reality.
PE English actors have all done a bit of classical theater, so they have that extra bit of dimension. You know I was born in New York. My father was American and I grew up here until I was 14. I know I seem more English than Bertie Wooster. It’s quite odd.
HM Actually you’re like an east coast American. East coast Americans are a bit like Bertie Wooster.
PE I walk from my hotel to the theater down Sixth Avenue and past City Center Theater which is where I first saw Carmen when I was eight. And then I pass Radio City Music Hall … I find all of my childhood in New York has come back by being here. When I see how Americans are in life and the kind of American actors we’re talking about, I can’t help thinking, would I have become one of them? Would I be like that if I’d stayed here?
HM Yes, if you’d stayed. Yes.
PE Because it’s an education to come here. I remember school in America where all the kids were, at the age of 14, sexually quite advanced, and drank. I’m talking about the 1950s. And then going to England to boarding school …
HM Where they were short trousers and …
PE All they talked about were cream buns for tea …
HM Yes, and cricket.
PE I became a repressed person. Which is rather strange.
HM Of course the other side of that repression is the English necessity for self-discipline, the purity and the decency in self-control. The difference between the real nasty extremes of both qualities can be seen in school children. The loud American child in the supermarket, running up and down the aisles screaming, “I want that! Give me that!”, and the nasty extreme of the British child in his little school uniform, not daring to move, incredibly tense and saying, “Yes sir, no sir.” There’s a beauty and a bad side to both. American actors have a natural affinity with the acting process that does go back to schools. Even Americans who are not actors speak with great spontaneity. Have you found this with Americans? People are always getting up and making speeches at dinner parties. And the British find that terrifying. In auditions Americans get right into it—boom! But then you often feel that that’s it, that they’re not going to go any further. That’s the weird thing about auditions here, you’re expected to do your performance.
PE In England you sort of mumble, and you think it’s rather bad form to act. If you act, it’s a sign that you’re desperate. If someone doesn’t try too hard at a reading or an audition it’s a sign that something wonderful is going to happen.
HM Yes, during the rehearsal.
PE Many American actors don’t get a chance to work in the theater anymore, do they?
HM That’s right. And what’s demanded of them in terms of film is a finished performance for the audition. The director wants to see what an actor is going to do, and once they’ve seen it and they like it, that’s what they’re buying. They don’t want the reading to be an indication of what could happen. They don’t want to be surprised. (laughter) That’s terrible, isn’t it?
PE I saw A Language of Their Own by Chay Yew the other day at the Public Theater, and just before the curtain went up I thought, Christ, I hope this isn’t one of those plays where people come forward and talk to the audience. And of course the lights went up and immediately somebody came forward and said something like, “John and I have been together for three weeks.” All the four actors have the ability to talk directly to the audience in a completely natural, communicative way. I was won over.
HM Yes, public speaking. They love it.
PE But they show themselves. What American actors have is something very fundamental to American life, believing that everything is possible. And that life’s out there to be had.
HM The Americans I do know are generous: with their time, their emotions, with their money … . Generous in their support—this is my feeling about the people that I’m working with.
PE The other day I took this child to the Plaza because she loves Eloise.
HM Who’s Eloise and what’s the Plaza?
PE The Plaza Hotel. Eloise is a character created by Kay Thompson, this free spirited little girl who goes to the Plaza and has all these adventures. Young American girls read it. And there is a painting of her in the lobby. Anyway, the Plaza is always very full in the late afternoon because people have tea or drinks, tourists go there … . The waiter gave her so much attention and time. He showed her the cakes and the picture. It’s like the dressers backstage at this theater who are just phenomenal …
HM That’s funny, I just was saying to my dresser the other day that she’s the best dresser I’ve ever had in my life.
She always gives me a little squeeze on my shoulder before I go down. She says, good show. I love it, a little squeeze.
PE And they do your costumes for every performance. We had just done the English performance of Hamlet in the Hackney Empire. If they could see what the backstage was like …
PE I love that spirit. I love being here. Do you love being here?
HM Yes, I do. I do. I’m in a bit of a trauma at the moment from being slacked off by the New York Times. It was absolutely devastating.
PE I was sitting in a restaurant the other day and I suddenly heard this man’s voice at the other table, going on and on about your performance, giving his lunch companions your resume, “She’s the wife in King George … “
HM (laughter) Yes, well Peter, there’s been fantastic response from people who have just come to see it.
PE When some critic suddenly pours venom, it strikes at something so fragile in you, doesn’t it?
HM And you always think you’re over it and of course you’re not, you’re even more vulnerable each time. It’s not to do with insecurity, it’s a double view. You’re secure in one sense because you say to yourself, all I can do is what I do. And yet on the other hand it’s constantly shifting where the world is sunny outside and yet it seems to be raining.
PE It’s very odd the duality one has as an actor. On the stage one thinks: this is what I do and this is where I belong. And the other part of one thinks, I’m a complete fraud and had better stop now. Most actors think that. But somehow that duality is what feeds you as an actor.
HM Yes, well you’re always challenging yourself in that sense. And with the reviews, you’ve got to put your chin up and deal with it and get on. We’re slightly off the hook at the Roundabout because it’s a subscription audience. Although it’s Broadway, it’s not a normal Broadway thing. What’s the situation with Hamlet?
PE We have a limited run. When I played Hamlet years ago, I had one review that said this Hamlet doesn’t look like he would drink blood but does look like he would enjoy a cup of hot cocoa.
HM And a cream bun. (laughter)
PE Years later I thought it was probably true, and quite funny.
HM But you can see that Hamlet might prefer a cup of hot cocoa. That’s Hamlet’s whole problem really, he conventionally galvanizes himself into some sort of real passion, but you feel that the mind is too brilliant to be able to deal with it.
PE It’s such a subjective role, everybody obviously has such strong ideas about it.
I do love being here, but I thought I’d have all this time to do other things.
HM But you know you can’t. I think I’ll go out after the show, meet friends, drink, we’ll have fun. And then of course if you do that the next day your voice is gone. But New York’s a most wonderful city to be in the theater especially if you’re a foreigner because you can walk in New York for hours and hours which is a great preparation for the theater. You’re quiet but you’re looking at what’s going on. I understand why Greta Garbo lived here. Because if you want action, all you have to do is step out. And yet you don’t have to meet people. I’m a bit like Greta, interaction is difficult.
PE Are you reclusive?
HM Yes, I’m quite reclusive by nature and yet I love to be out amongst people, watching people.
PE Do you know a lot of actors here?
HM No, I feel like I do now because of the people I’m with. And I feel that they will be my friends more in a way than any English actors I’ve ever worked with.
HM You know how it is. You do this job, you love them, you get on fine, you have fun together and then you say good-bye and you’re off and you don’t see them again for another 15 years when you’re suddenly in another play with them. And you sort of pick up again. But I feel with the actors in this company, I shall be close with them all my life.
PE I’d like to go and watch what people do at the Actor’s Studio. I’m curious to see what it’s like.
HM Does it still go on here?
PE Yes, it does.
HM That’s one thing I cannot get used to in America and never will, the way people go to acting coaches. People who can act.
PE There are these guru figures, they say they help actors unlock problems they have in various roles. It’s all connected to the American involvement with psychoanalysis.
HM You see I don’t agree with that unlocking theory because there are infinite ways of doing anything. It’s not as if you have to find that one way and then that’s it. The process of acting to me is finding a different way of doing it every night, if you possibly can. I do agree that acting has to be totally psychological. You find out what your character means to you psychologically, that’s the acting process. But finding that is my personal process. It’s not something that someone else tells me about. It’s all the mysterious things you have going on in your own personal history.
PE Did you go to acting school?
PE No, neither did I. That’s why I’m quite curious when I hear about acting teachers because I don’t know what acting teachers teach, actually.
HM No I can’t imagine either.
PE Didn’t you work with Peter Brook?
HM I worked with Brook for years.
PE I envy you doing that. Peter Brook probably frees people and also imposes his own thing at the same time.
HM He never imposes his own thing, ever. He can, because of his immense sense of observation, immense understanding—the results can actually paralyze you. Everything gets questioned too much, you question yourself too much.
PE It effects your performing instincts in some way?
HM Yes, it can but it’s never to do with imposition. On the contrary, it’s simply to do with saying, “What can you do? Show me what you can do.”
I went to Peter really for the wrong reason. I thought I was going because I believed in his kind of theater, he was doing the theater that I enjoyed the most as an audience. Everything else seemed pallid by comparison. I’d always done a huge amount of Shakespeare, and I was constantly being fitted for yet another Shakespeare role. I wanted to break out of that. So I went for totally selfish reasons, wanting to develop in another direction. But what I wanted I didn’t get. I got something else. To this day I don’t know. I think as an experience it taught me more understanding of actors than anything else.
PE Working in such a close knit group?
HM Yes. And in fact it was stormy, it wasn’t a love fest. It was the opposite. We were being made to do such intense and self-questioning work, people would go half crazy with angst, fear and paranoia. What it taught me was that every single actor—a child, a dancer, a man off the street—has an individuality, and something absolutely personal to contribute, and there is no one way of doing anything. There are infinite ways of playing Polonius. It taught me to stop being judgmental, to see the real qualities in any person. I mean that’s a slightly romantic view of it, but …
PE I remember the playwright Peter Barnes saying, “No actor has a similarity of approach to any other actor, and every actor is unique in how they do it and how they perform.” It’s in some way, a mystery. It seems to me that you’ve always as an actress, even when you were very young, had an extraordinary freedom, whether it’s to do with your true self or your inner temperament.
HM Yes, that was always how I wanted to be on stage. I wanted to be free, a sense that it was being invented then and there in front of your eyes, and that it wasn’t a performance that was rehearsed. But you go through endless machinations and torture to try and get to that point if you’re doing many plays, especially classical plays, because it’s incredibly technical. You can’t avoid that fact. It’s like being an opera singer. You’ve got to get that down and then find your way into the freedom beyond it. You can’t have freedom without technique. I’ve always said one of my great inspirations as an actor was Francis Bacon, the painter, who spoke brilliantly about really what acting’s all about. I mean, he happened to be talking about painting. He was talking about the struggle between technique and accident. Ultimately every child is a brilliant painter because it’s all accident. But Bacon goes on to say, you can’t draw as a child when you are 30. It is no longer interesting. It becomes false and stupid. So you have to inevitably learn technique, and then you struggle with that technique because you want to get back to the freedom of a child. And then, he says, you come out the other side where your technique is so well in place that you can afford the accident because you know what is a good accident and what is a bad accident. And that’s so true about acting.
PE Francis Bacon didn’t really start painting seriously until he was over 40, I think.
HM I didn’t know that. To me the most extraordinary thing about Francis Bacon was his capability to drink without dying. I mean, he was alive into his eighties. He should have died before that, his lifestyle was so …
PE I lived very near him and I used to see him on the street all the time. He was often almost falling over drunk. The next day I would see him quite perky.
HM Incredible constitution.
PE Francis Bacon’s paintings have a mixture of freedom and control.
HM Freedom and control seem to be contradictory things, but you can bring them together in a way that is coherent. And I guess we’re back to what we were talking about—the repressed little English boy in his cap, and the wild kid with his baseball cap on backward and screaming about what he wants. But that’s what I’ve always admired about American actors; I’ve always wanted to be more free.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee