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.
You were French in “The Hundred Foot Journey” and speak with an Austrian accent here. Do you find accents difficult?
I speak French pretty well, so that’s easier. Although you fall into fake-French very quickly. [Laughs] I’m not a mimic at all. I find mimicry impossible. And the American accent I find very difficult. A lot of British actors do it brilliantly. Unfortunately, in a weird way, because I’ve lived in American for so long — my husband’s American, my stepchildren are American — I just find it really difficult. I have to really work at it.
People make such a big deal out of accents, as though it was a magic trick.
They do — a much bigger deal than they really merit. Except with people who are really bad at it. Some people are unbelievably bad at it. Some people are unfairly criticized for having a bad accent when actually they’ve got a really good accent. But because it’s Brad Pitt or Keanu Reeves, the American audiences assume their accents aren’t good, when they’re actually really good. Because American audiences don’t know, they assume the accents can’t be good because they’re famous movie stars.
You’re someone who still gets a lot of plum roles. Do you think Hollywood is getting better for women?
I think what’s happening is it’s getting better for women in life. That’s why I always fight for liberty, for equality in real life, as then the roles will follow, as night follows day. Mrs. Thatcher was absolutely the extreme opposite of what I was politically. In fact, I left England because of what I felt she was doing to British society. I came to America — which is ironic. [Laughs] But at least in American it was how Americans were. I didn’t feel British society and culture was like that. And she was transforming it. And I hated what she was doing. So I left. It wasn’t a political statement; it was a cultural statement. I just didn’t like that all the pubs and restaurants seemed to be filled with drunken young men in pinstripe suits shouting about how much money they had. It was very unpleasant.
But I always say Mrs. Thatcher was a great role model. You have a five-year-old girl watching television and there’s Mrs. Thatcher making a speech, and she says, “Mommy, who’s that?” And mommy says, “That’s the Prime Minister of England.” Immediately in the five-year-old mind is the understanding that a female can be the Prime Minister of England. It’s possible, it can happen. So for that reason and that reason alone I would love to see Hillary [Clinton] become President of America, because a little five-year-old in Oklahoma can look up and say, “That’s the president.” I know they’ve had a secretary of state. I love “Veep.” [Laughs] Absolutely genius. But you know, there’s a big difference between [those jobs] and the President. You’ve got to have that. We’ve had Obama, which was brilliant and iconic and wondrous. And now it needs to happen with women as well.
As long as she doesn’t have the same politics as Thatcher.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge