Cheltenham Literature Festival: The Otherness of Helen Mirren

Not unfamiliar to a regal presence, yesterday Cheltenham played host to one of Britain’s most admired leading female actors, Dame Helen Mirren. In the midst of the media-hype surrounding the cinema release of The Queen last year, Mirren was dubbed ‘more royal than the Royals’. It is not hard to see why, her poised elegance and oratory eloquence gives the impression of an unreachable and majestic figure. Promoting her autobiography In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures, she spoke to a crowd of fifteen-hundred people in The Centaur at Cheltenham Racecourse, about her very first theatrical performances, her time at the RSC and, of course, that Oscar. She explained her feelings at the prospect of playing the Queen, “I was utterly intimidated at the thought of it and terrified of getting it wrong,” she admits, “but whilst looking at portraits of the Queen, I realised that what I was attempting to do was not an impersonation of the Queen but creating my own portrait.”

At these large events you rarely feel that you see anything of the ‘real’ person, especially with actors–that’s what they do, act–but occasionally you glean something from what is said that seems to come from somewhere more personal. Dame Helen discussed how dissimilar she felt from her friends whilst growing up (her father, Boris Mironof, was a Russian immigrant), how in the theatre she was (and still is) always rebelling against formal acting doctrines and trying to make her way forward as a woman in a male dominated arena. What you can infer from all of this, is that Mirren carries a sense of ‘otherness’ in her life: she was acutely aware of her status as an immigrant’s daughter; she left the RSC to join Peter Brook‘s innovative theatre company in Paris, describing him as a “tough task master but very truly brilliant”, and holds in very high esteem, “there’s beautiful rhythm to his plays, he’s like a composer–he picked the best from us all and created beautiful compositions”; her strong female roles, most obviously as Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect and the Queen, have demonstrated her desire to put women at the “centre of drama.”

We all battle with ‘otherness’ in varying degrees–it’s what makes us individuals–but I suddenly realised how these huge celebrities have to deal with not only their own otherness but the otherness of being a ‘star’ and the pressure that entails. When she received her Oscar, Mirren explained that “everything stopped, everything shut down for a moment”, the actor was left behind and she was lost in herself, in her otherness.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

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