Helen Mirren does not mind the brutal winter New York has had. One reason is “The Audience,” her new Broadway play, in which she once again plays Queen Elizabeth. “There’s nothing quite like being in a successful play in New York. It’s the best,” she tells us over tea. Alas, she’s spending her day off from the show talking to strangers, albeit about a movie she’s really excited about. In “Woman in Gold,” she plays Maria Altmann, who fought to regain paintings — including a few Gustav Klimts — stolen from her family by the Nazis.
Sorry you’re here when it’s so cold and snowy.
I don’t mind that, that’s fine by me. I love the brutal winters. New Yorkers are just so impressive. There will be a blizzard — “the worst snowstorm for the last 20 years” — and then there they all are in the theater. They fight their way to Broadway, fight their way through the snow and the traffic. And they get there. You just want to bow down before them. They’re brilliant. I love New Yorkers.
Was it the subject of Nazi plundering of Europe’s art that intrigued you in “Woman in Gold”?
It was the story. It was big in the newspapers at the time, so I don’t know how I missed it. But I was blown away by the story. Great story, great role. She’s on the last page of the script — that’s always a good thing about a role. If you’re not on the last page you look at the last time you enter when you exit the story. If it’s a good exit then it’s a good role. If it just dribbles away, it’s no good.
So you always look at the last page?
It’s the first page I look at.
Have you turned down some major roles because of a weak exit?
Yes, absolutely. Sometimes they’ll say, “It’s not a great role, but we need a great actress to play it because then it will become so much better.” It will never be better. It will always be a piss-poor role, unless they rewrite the whole thing. [Laughs] I did do a role in “Where Angels Fear to Tread.” It was a wonderful character, but she died halfway through the film. But up to that point she was a great character, and then her death is what they’re all dealing with afterwards. In a way the character lives on through the characters. So that’s a good role. It doesn’t matter than she’s gone after the first hour; it’s still a great role.
You’ve played real-life famous people before. Is it easier playing real people who, like Maria Altmann, aren’t famous?
It gives you freedom. It’s much better to play someone who’s not very well-known, because you’re not under the stricture of having to come up to peoples’ expectations. You have to get the voice, the walk, everything. I did try, obviously, to get her right. There are people who knew her very well, Randy Schoenberg not least of which. But you’re not under the same requirement of playing someone like Mrs. Thatcher or the Queen.
Did you talk to the family that much?
Not a lot. Actually, funnily enough, my dentist, when I told him I was playing Maria, said his mother knew Maria. There was this group of Viennese Jewish woman who all knew each other because they came from similar backgrounds. He had a film of his mother talking, and he sent it to me. That was invaluable, because she was exactly like Maria: same voice, same elegance, same refinement.
She also spent a large part of her life living in America.
And she never lost her accent. By the time you’re 18 you never lose your accent. Certainly my grandmother, who lived in Russia and then Britain for the vast majority of her life — she and my grandfather both had heavy Russian accents. They spoke English fluently but they never lost their accent.