She's the butterfly of monarchs

The career of actress Helen Mirren has fluttered colorfully from one regal role to the next

April 23, 2006|By LYNN SMITH

Hollywood -- Cleopatra was the first. Then Titania, the fairy queen; Geruth, a Danish queen; Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George; and the voice of the queen in the animated Prince of Egypt - oh, yes, and two reprisals of Cleopatra along the way.

This year, actress Helen Mirren is about to extend a 42-year career sparkling with queenly parts with back-to-back roles as English queens - Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II.

"It was an amazing experience to play the two Elizabeths, who have such similarities - and yet are so diametrically opposed," Mirren says. "Both were completely and utterly emotionally and intellectually committed to their duty as a monarch. They were single-minded about that."

Through research, Mirren discovered the mercurial Elizabeth I was "an incredibly passionate woman, a woman who could be so angry that she literally fainted with anger, and at the same time could laugh so hard, especially at vulgar comedy, that she fell off her chair ... She out-Cleo'd Cleopatra."

But where Elizabeth I was overtly emotional, Elizabeth II, the current queen, is "absolutely controlled," Mirren says.

"Elizabeth II is always trying to be a good girl," Mirren says. "Elizabeth I didn't care about being a good girl. She cared about being a great monarch."

Dressed in ruffly street clothes, the actress sinks comfortably into the plush coverlet on the bed in her suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena, Calif., where she is about to join an HBO panel to present Elizabeth I to television critics.

Elizabeth I focuses on the virgin queen's two romantic passions - her heartfelt love for the Earl of Leicester (played by Jeremy Irons) and her tragic dalliance with the much younger Earl of Essex (Hugh Dancy). The two-part drama began last night on HBO and concludes tomorrow night beginning at 8.

No other actress was considered for the role of Elizabeth I, says executive producer George Faber. "At the age of 60, she is sensationally sexy and flirtatious. She has a delightful wit and lightness of touch and a natural authority and bearing as an actress," he says.

It was only after Mirren signed on to the project that he commissioned the four-hour, two-part script.

For her role as Elizabeth II, in The Queen, a Miramax film produced by Scott Rudin and directed by Stephen Frears, Mirren had much more source material to work with than she did for Elizabeth I - video and film as well as portraits. In fact, she says she created the character of Elizabeth II as if she were painting a portrait of the queen.

"I'm not trying to mimic her or impersonate her. It's my impression of her through my psychology and my prejudices, whatever," she says. "The artist is as much a part of the portrait as the person who's sitting there."

The Queen, to be released in theaters later this year, follows Elizabeth II in the two weeks after the death of Princess Diana.

"It was an incredibly dramatic and serious moment for the monarchy," Mirren says. "It revealed the fact that she could be very stubborn and how important protocol was to her. It's rather like Elizabeth I, that sense of a God-anointed queen. It's not so extreme, but that same sense of tradition is really important. If you take that away, the whole thing starts falling apart.

"I'm sure Elizabeth I would have made exactly the same decisions as Elizabeth II. [But] she wouldn't have caved in. Elizabeth II was forced to cave in."

Of having the title of dame - the feminine equivalent of knighthood - bestowed upon her by order of Elizabeth II in 2003, Mirren jokes that it conjures up images of "female impersonators" or "something from Guys and Dolls."

Elizabeth II wasn't on duty when Mirren was dubbed a dame - Prince Charles did the honors - but Mirren once met the monarch briefly at a polo match. "It was a great place to meet because she was in her element," the actress recalls. "She's very charming. Sparkling. People don't see that. ... She's just not interested in smiling when she doesn't have reason to smile."

As for other queenly roles, Mirren can see playing Martha Stewart. She says she turned down the role in a TV film because the script was "insulting and bad." But she'd love to play her in another project.

"She's such an extraordinary mixture of incredible toughness and, as far as I can see, incredible sweetness. It's such a strange mixture, and I don't know if anyone will ever get it right. ... She is a kind of monarch in her own kingdom. It's Martha who rules Martha's world. There's no one else, is there?"

Lynn Smith writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

"Elizabeth I" airs at 8 p.m. tomorrow on HBO (with repeat showings throughout the month)

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