Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren film still

The British actress reveals the challenges of adopting the lead role in Julie Taymor's The Tempest.

Having cut her acting teeth on stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late '60s, it seems fitting that Helen Mirren is instrumental in Julie Taymor's very modern version of The Tempest in the 400th anniversary of the play. In a twist on the classic tale Mirren stars as chief protagonist Prospera, now the matriarchal sorceress of the enchanting island on which the story unfurls. LWLies sat down with Mirren recently to discuss the challenges of turning Prospero in Prospera and why she believes that Shakespeare's work is as relevant today than ever.

LWLies: Tell us a little bit about how you came to work with Julie Taymor on this project...

Mirren: Well, I was at a party in New York when I met her for the first time. It was very noisy and we were shouting at each other across the room, ‘Very nice to meet you;’ ‘you too’, you know. And we both said that we’d really like to work together at some point, and she asked me what I wanted to do and into my mind popped ‘The Tempest’, which I’d seen about a year before. Watching it then I’d thought, ‘A woman could play this role and you wouldn’t really have to change any of the text, it would work equally well with a women playing Prospero. So I suggested it to Julie and she was absolutely thrilled by the idea. She’d directed it twice on the stage and she had felt the same thing, so she said, ‘We’re going to do it!’ and I went ‘Yeah, yeah,’ you know.

I thought it would never happen to be honest with you, but then about a year later she called me up and asked if I still wanted to do The Tempest and I said, ‘Yes, absolutely,’ and she said, ‘Well, I think I’ve got the money for it.’ I agreed, imagining that she’d say that she’d booked out a little theatre off Broadway, you know, and we can do five weeks there in August, or something... and then she said ‘No, I’ve got the money for a film.’ My heart dropped because it’s a very different thing doing it on film.

So what was the next step, how did you approach this as a screen role as opposed to a stage one?

The first thing we did was to do a read-through, just to make sure that it would work with a woman playing the role, which we all thought it did. And then my work really was learning it; I thought I couldn’t go on set without knowing it really, really well, as if I’d played it in the theatre. It’s not the kind of material you can be thinking about while you’re doing it, you have to be completely in the moment with it. You can’t learn it the night before, and you can’t go on set unsure of what you’re saying. So I learnt the whole thing, which was a lot of work.

You have a long history with doing Shakespeare on stage, having started off with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Did you feel like doing this was almost coming full circle in your career?

It did in a way, absolutely. I’ve done so much Shakespeare in the past and I kind of had a yearning to do it again, but with the age I was there were not that many roles. There aren’t that many good roles for woman over 50 in Shakespeare, but I really hope in the future that this will be seen as much as a woman’s role as a man’s role because I really believe the play works fabulously well with a woman playing it.

How well do you think the story translates to cinema? What are the differences on set working on a film like this?

Well there are huge differences. Obviously the essence is the same: you still have to deal with the language, but you have the advantage of the close-up, which means you don’t have to shout the lines like you do on stage because the camera can capture the intimacy of each line and the character of every facial gesture. On the other hand there are certain disadvantages because, after all, it is Shakespeare and it’s poetic and written for the stage so it has this sort of bigness to it.

Why do you think Shakespeare is still relevant today?

It’s always hard to identify why something becomes a classical play. I mean, it’s classical because every generation since 1611 has appreciated the material and taken something culturally from it. That’s been happening for hundreds of years and that’s why something because classic; because it’s brilliant and it has something fundamental and human in it that every generation, every society can recognise. A modern audience understands the relationship between Prospera and Ariel in exactly the same way as Elizabethan audiences understood it.

What do you love about movies?

I think I love the privacy of the experience of watching a movie. When I watch a film it’s just me and the screen, and I love that; the intimacy of that.

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