Being Charmed By Helen Mirren

(PCM) Helen Mirren has previously shown she has the chops to be as regal as a queen, but in the just-released movie, “Hitchcock,” she shows her steely side as she goes toe-to-toe with the master of suspense himself as his heretofore virtually unknown wife — and close collaborator — Alma Reville.

In the must-see holiday movie from Fox Searchlight, Mirren and co-star Anthony Hopkins, as Alfred Hitchcock, captivate viewers with this explosive romance, providing the Academy Award winner for “Queen” to show her tender side as she struggles with her very difficult marriage to the insecure filmmaker.

The film is an amazing behind-the-scenes look at the life of Hitchcock, his wife, his leading ladies, and more, while he was filming his most legendary, successful, and difficult movie, Psycho, the spine-tingling thriller that kept scores of movie-goers away from their showers for a long time after they first saw it.

Hitchcock, definitely one of the year’s most riveting movies, also stars Scarlett Johansson as actress Janet Leigh, Jessica Biel as actress Vera Miles, James D’Arcy as actor Tony Perkins, and Toni Collette as Hitchcock’s able assistant Peggy. The film is directed by Sacha Gevasi.

While many other actresses may be thinking about slowing down at age 67, Mirren is certainly not one of them.

She is currently in production in Montreal and London, with Red 2, the sequel to her spy romp with Bruce Willis, Anthony Hopkins, Mary-Louise Parker and John Malkovitch.

She will also soon be seen in the HBO biopic about Phil Spector, in which she plays lawyer Linda Kenney Baden, opposite Al Pacino as Phil Spector. Retirement is just not in Mirren’s plans for the near future.

She does make time for pleasure. She has been married to director Taylor Hackford since 1997, and they have been together since 1986, most recently in a newly renovated castle-like farmhouse in Pulia, Italy.

An Oscar-winning actress for her role in The Queen, Mirren has received many high honors for her stage and screen work. She was awarded the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2003 Queen’s Birthday Honors List for her services to drama.

Ironically, she has played a Queen a total of six times:  The Queen, Elizabeth 1, The Prince of Egypt, The Snow Queen, the Madness of King George and Caligula.

While sipping a cup of tea with regal manners, it is clear from this recent chat on a chilly early winter day at a posh Manhattan hotel that Helen takes her work, but not herself, too seriously.

Q: Did making this movie Hitchcock change your feelings about Hitchcock in any way?

HELEN MIRREN: Yes, it made me like Hitchcock a lot more. I think, like a lot of people, I thought that the character that he sort of played, he was playing himself. But in a way he was playing a caricature of himself, was the real Hitchcock. And it was a wonderful process to discover the vulnerable, funny man behind the mask.

Q: What else was revealed to you?

HM: Obviously, to discover this wonderful partnership, marriage, relationship that he had. I always think the sign of a good man is the kind of wife he has, and he had a great wife. So he had to be a great man!

Q: So Hitchcock, the man and director, is more fun than you would suspect?

HM: That is very much the intention of the movie. I think when you’re seeing something about Hitchcock; you’re expecting this slightly spooky, lugubrious, kind of heavy weirdo guy. I think Hitch himself had a superb sense of humor, albeit a British sense of humor. I think that sometimes the Americans took him a bit too seriously. But we wanted to re-create that element of humor that he had.

Q: Are you a fan of Hitchcock’s movies?

HM: I wasn’t a huge Hitchcock fan. I didn’t really know a lot about his movies until I started really understanding that, you can work in film quite a long time without really knowing what’s going on. You just turn up and do your bit, and you don’t understand cameras and lenses and things like that. But, especially doing Prime Suspect, I really began to learn about that stuff. I made myself understand as much as anything. And then you really start to appreciate Hitchcock.

Q: This film really spotlights how integral he and (his wife) Alma were in each other’s lives.

HM: Yes, she’s not a public figure. She was very happy to be behind this mask of Alfred Hitchcock, because I think she felt like she wasn’t a puppet master, but she was someone who helped that personality, that logo if you like.

Q: Tell me more why you think it worked for them.

HM: They were both complicit in the creation of that personage. And she had an amazingly fulfilling, wonderfully successful life as the active partner of an enormously talented and creative man. In doing so I would say overall they had a great marriage. I think Alma gave him a real anchor.

Q: Was there anything that surprised you?

HM: I’d say most notably the book their daughter Patricia Hitchcock wrote, “Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man,” and the weird thing was how absolutely ordinary their home life was.

Q: Ordinary, in what way?

HM: It said that Hitchcock would finish filming and come home at six o’clock, he’d never stay late. Alma would have cooked dinner, they’d sit down and have dinner together, he’s crack a few jokes, they’d all laugh. After that he’d help their daughter with her homework. It was a normal, ordinary, suburban life, which you may not expect from Hitchcock. I think it was full of humor, and I know he had a very extreme, quite black sense of humor, so I’m sure there were a lot of funny stories.

Q: What else does the book show?

HM:  Their daughter describes a very normal family life. The fact that Hitchcock could come back from his work, he loved home, he loved his lovely house, his pets, he loved the garden, he loved that he had a meal waiting for him when he came back, he loved home. He didn’t want to go off to nightclubs or swan around Hollywood being the big director; he had no interest in that at all. He just wanted to be home with Alma, Patricia, and his dogs, and to plan the next move.

Q: What do you see for yourself when you retire?

HM: I have no idea. I think we all have a dream of what it would be like not to work and grow heirloom tomatoes, and I do have that dream, it would be lovely. I do love gardening and all of that, but I do love my work.

Q: What is the work all about for you?

HM: Mostly, I love the people that I get to work with. In my job and all the jobs related to my job, including your jobs, you get to constantly meet and work with and to be involved with clever, imaginative people who constantly surprise you and push you forward and inspire you. So I think I would miss that a lot if I didn’t work anymore.

Q: What is the most indulgent and extravagant purchase you’ve made?

HM: My husband and I bought a castle in Pulia.

Q: Where is Pulia?

HM: It’s in the bottom of the heel of the boot of Italy. It’s not really a castle. It’s actually a farmhouse. It’s got a little bit where you can pour boiling oil out of it. They used to do that because Pulia was being invaded, all the time. It had endless invasions, so even the farmhouses are fortified. It’s a fortified farmhouse.

Q: Where does your passion for acting come from?

HM: It started early in my life. Very early; I discovered Shakespeare when I was about 13 or 14. Shakespeare was a channel but the thing I still love about my job is to be able to find yourself in a different world whether it’s in the theater or on film. In each thing it comes at you in a different way. In film it’s more visceral, you can literally be in Camelot, I can literally be a sniper outside of a house in the snow; I can literally be that person. And it’s just so exciting to find yourself in these wonderful, fantastical, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but amazing worlds, and I love that side of my job.

Q: How do you decide to do such diverse roles?

HM: The whole idea is to do something different from what you’ve just done. You just want to always try and push the last thing out of people’s minds so they can basically look at you with an open mind.

By: Debra Wallace
Photo credit: Suzanne Tenner

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