Helen Mirren talks royalty and 'Doctor Who'

Helen Mirren takes her regal role in 'The Audience' to an international audience

Associated Press
Helen Mirren talks royalty and 'Doctor Who'
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FILE - This is a Sunday, April 28, 2013 file photo of Helen Mirren winner of Best Actress Award for The Audience in the press room at the Olivier Awards 2013 at the Royal opera House in London. Mirren's award-winning performance as Queen Elizabeth II in "The Audience" will be beamed this week from London's Gielgud Theatre to hundreds of movie theaters around the world in a live broadcast. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP, File)

LONDON (AP) -- Helen Mirren is a star of stage and screen — and now stage on-screen.

Mirren's award-winning performance as Queen Elizabeth II in "The Audience" will be beamed this week from London's Gielgud Theatre to hundreds of movie theaters around the world in a live broadcast.

It's the latest step in Mirren's glittering regal procession as the monarch. She won an Academy Award for playing Elizabeth in the 2006 movie "The Queen," and gained an Olivier stage trophy in April for her reprise in box-office hit "The Audience."

But the actress, who has made a career of not being typecast, had to be persuaded to wear the crown a second time.

"I really didn't want to play the role again," Mirren said in an interview before another evening donning tiara and pearls. "I was very resistant."

Mirren was won over by the quality of the creative team, which includes director Stephen Daldry, award-winning stage designer Bob Crowley and playwright Peter Morgan, who wrote both "The Queen" and "The Audience."

"It was just an amazing team, and I thought, 'If you walk away from this, you're an idiot,'" Mirren said.

She also felt there was more to explore about the queen, an intensely private and uniquely public figure.

"She's at the same time completely known and completely unknowable," Mirren said. "So there's this extraordinary dichotomy of a very familiar person who is a complete mystery at the same time."

"The Audience" imagines the private weekly meetings between the monarch and Britain's prime ministers — 12 in all — over her six-decade reign. Mirren gives a delicately nuanced performance, both regal and vulnerable, in which the queen grows from a tentative 20-something to wise octogenarian while retaining a core of solitude.

Mirren is not a monarchist, but says she has come to sympathize with Elizabeth and the burden of her position.

"This is a woman who has lived with nonstop admiration and a lot of sycophancy, but at the same time is a very straightforward, pragmatic, down to earth person, I suspect.

"It's a life of incredible luxury in many ways, but I don't think luxury is her default mode. I don't think she likes luxury, actually. I think she'd be far happier on a tractor with muddy boots in the kitchen and lots of dogs running around."

"The Audience" will be broadcast to cinemas across Britain and around the world Thursday. Some movie theaters will show it live, while others will show it at different times throughout the summer.

Live theater broadcasts have become a surprise hit since Britain's National Theatre launched its NT Live program four years ago with — fittingly enough — a production of Jean Racine's "Phedre" starring Mirren.

What began as an experiment inspired by the Metropolitan Opera's cinema broadcasts has quickly become a cultural fixture. From an initial 280 theaters, the broadcasts now go out to almost 700 venues in 25 countries.

Eight shows a year get the NT Live treatment. Most are National Theatre productions, but some, like "The Audience," come from other theaters. Next up is Kenneth Branagh's "Macbeth," to be broadcast from the Manchester International Festival on July 20.

"It's been way beyond our wildest dreams," said David Sabel, executive producer of NT Live. "When we launched it, it was very much an experiment. We were quietly confident, but there were a lot of questions about whether it would work.

"In the past when theater has been filmed, they've put the cameras at the back or on the side so as not to disturb the audience," he said. "And that's why you end up with a product that looks like it wasn't meant to be filmed."

NT Live's approach was to treat the plays like live sports broadcasts, using multiple cameras, tracking shots, and close-ups to merge the immediacy of live theater and the intimacy of film.

Mirren knows from experience the challenge of playing to a live audience while cameras, occupying some of the seats, film the action.

"It's very tricky, because there's such a world of difference between theatre acting and film acting, and this absolutely is right in the middle," Mirren said.

"It's not a process that you get to practice a lot, so it's a bit of a crapshoot. You're working in the dark really, and there's no chance of going back and going 'Oh God, can we do it again?' You just have to go for it, in the way that you do in the theater."

"The Audience" ends its West End run on Saturday, but Mirren may not be finished with the queen yet. She says the play may transfer to Broadway — "but not for a while."

At 67, Mirren is at the top of her game. In a 45-year career, she's gone from the Royal Shakespeare Company to screen notoriety in the racy "Caligula" to movie classics such as "Excalibur" and "The Long Good Friday." Millions know her as steely detective Jane Tennison in the long-running TV series "Prime Suspect," and she can currently be heard as the voice of a sinister creature in the animated movie "Monsters University."

Dame Helen Mirren — she received the female equivalent of a knighthood in 2003 — is as much a national treasure as the queen, though a considerably less buttoned-up one.

She has even been suggested as the next star of "Doctor Who," the beloved BBC sci-fi series about a space-hopping, time-traveling alien hero. Eleven actors have played the role since the show began in 1963, and a 12th is to be announced soon.

That has sparked intense speculation among the show's millions of fans, with some wondering whether the role might go to a woman for the first time. One bookmaker is offering 25-1 odds on it being Mirren.

"Oh, please — I would put much longer odds on it than that," she scoffed.

"But I think it's absolutely time for a female Doctor Who. I'm so sick of that man with his girl sidekick. I could name at least 10 wonderful British actresses who would absolutely kill in that role."

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