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Helen Mirren Talks Taking ‘Documentary Now’ ‘Frightfully’ Seriously

Christi Carras

Few people could introduce a fake documentary called “Bats— Valley” with a straight face. But if there’s anyone for the job, it’s Dame Helen Mirren.

Clad in a shin-length orange dress, Mirren, studio host of the parody series “Documentary Now!,” stood resolute at her mark and took a lengthy pause before delivering the introductory line, “This is ‘Bats— Valley,'” deadpan to camera — only allowing herself a brief chuckle when the director called “cut!”

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“It was a little long, but I wanted it to be frightfully serious,” Mirren said, explaining why she delayed the final expletive.

“Bats— Valley” was just one of multiple mockumentaries for which Mirren filmed intros on a hot August day at Walt Disney Studios. Reading from a teleprompter, the seasoned actress knocked each one out back-to-back, only pausing every so often to clear her strained throat (ADR work earlier that day required “a bit of shouting”). The final product will be featured at the beginning of episodes throughout the third season of Bill Hader and Fred Armisen’s “Documentary Now!”

Since she began working on the show in 2015, Mirren has solidified her regal hostess look — comprised this season of the long, fitted dress, simple earrings, and sensible nude heels.

“What jewelry to wear and the kind of dress to wear, yes, there is a consistency there, definitely,” Mirren told Variety of her presenter look. “It’s kind of me, and it’s kind of not me as well. This is me, and that dress over there — orange dress — is the ‘Documentary Now!’ me. The ‘Documentary Now!’ me is much more serious than I actually am.”

Though the “Documentary Now!” titles and scripts are aligned with the show’s satirical tone, Mirren must pretend to be unfazed when she reads each line from the teleprompter live for the first time. She doesn’t see them beforehand — she likes to be surprised.

“You just have to put to one side that this is anything to do with comedy — this is nothing to do with comedy,” Mirren said. “This is very, very serious, and I have to think that I’m presenting an absolutely, profoundly serious documentary and treat it with that sort of respect and seriousness that I would if that was what I was presenting.”

Executive producers Hader and Armisen star in the majority of the “Documentary Now!” episodes, while many feature a slew of guest stars. Past seasons have featured talent ranging from fellow “Saturday Night Live” personalities like Aidy Bryant and Maya Rudolph to Jack Black and Anne Hathaway.

Among the season 3 parodies Mirren introduced throughout the day were a mockumentary on artist Marina Abramovic, guest starring Cate Blanchett; a pic about competitive bowling, guest starring Bobby Moynahan; and of course, “Bats— Valley,” which centers on Father Ra-Shawbard, guest starring Owen Wilson and Michael Keaton.

An avid lover of real documentaries, Mirren is always excited to see which stories the former “SNL” duo decides to tackle next — and which comedy heavyweights they cast as caricatures of the mock docs’ real-life subjects. She also half-jokes that she should be cast in one of them.

With so many docs to pine for inspiration, Mirren has a few ideas as to which stories Armisen and Hader might adapt in future seasons — though her favorite so far is still the pilot, which is based on the documentary “Grey Gardens.”

“A parody of a documentary about the royal family would be pretty funny,” she said. “They’d have to do it very, very carefully and cleverly, but that would be pretty funny.”

She’d even be willing to offer up one of the documentaries in which she’s previously participated. Mirren has lent her English accent as a narrator for multiple docs, including “Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story” and “American Masters.”

I would love it,” she said of the “Documentary Now!” team potentially parodying one of her previous projects. “Maybe I’ll do the voiceover for it.”

Season 3 of “Documentary Now!” premieres on Feb. 20.

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