'Age is just a number,’ announces a biker jacket-clad Helen Mirren on a TV commercial for L'Oreal, ‘and I never was much good at maths.’
Maybe not, but it is to be hoped she will be doing something very special to mark her 70th birthday because she is definitely worth it!
Helen on her looks
There are many things to love and admire about one of our greatest thespian Dames. She is undoubtedly stunning to look at but it is an earthy, approachable beauty and one which she is refreshingly modest about.
“I am not gorgeous, I never was,” she has said. “But I was always OK-looking and I’m keen to stay that way. I used to worry a lot more about my looks than I do now. I think the great advantage of getting older is that you let go of certain things. You throw certain things away. The weird thing is you get more comfortable in yourself, even as time is giving you less reason for it.
“I don’t look remotely glamorous most of the time and I’m not very stylish. I’ve always loved getting dressed up, though. It’s one of the reasons I’m an actress. I love costumes and the red carpet is a kind of costume, really – you’re putting on a character. It’s certainly not the real you.”
Her famous hair styles
The real Helen is the kind of woman who takes the nail scissors to her hair because she finds regular visits to the hairdresser ‘a hassle’. She’s warm, witty, outspoken, and gives generously to numerous charities. She’s never smoked but likes a drink and is known for her, er, earthy vocabulary.
Happily married for 18 years to American film director Taylor Hackford, she is a loving step-mother to his two sons and extremely close to her elder sister, Kate. “Apart from my husband, the most important person in my life is my sister,” she says. “There is no other relationship like that of siblings. I have known her longer than any other person in my life. She is my friend and my supporter. We are quite different in personality but symbiotic to each other. She is a treasure in my life.’
Her film career got off to a slow start!
Dame Helen’s life has, of course, been dominated by her talent, and passion for her craft. Born in London two months after the end of World War Two to an English mother and Russian father, her first leading role, aged 10, was as Gretel in a primary school production of Hansel and Gretel.
Later on, as a pupil at St Bernards’ Convent High School in Westcliffe on Sea, Essex, she appeared in several productions but it wasn’t until she played Ophelia in a production of Hamlet that she considered the possibility of becoming an actress. Aged 17, she joined the National Youth Theatre and went on to study to become a drama teacher but she was destined to perform.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, however. In her early 20s and feeling unhappy, insecure and disillusioned with the life she had chosen for herself, Helen visited a palm reader in the hope of receiving some guidance. She remembered him saying ‘You will be successful in life but you will see your greatest success later, after the age of 45.’ It’s not something you want to hear at the age of 23 but it turned out he was right.”
It is this late flowering of her career that makes her unique. By the end of the Sixties, she was making a name for herself as a Shakespearean actress and then appeared in her first film, The Age of Consent. Later on she went on to appear in films such as The Long Good Friday before becoming a TV star as she took on the role of flawed detective Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect. But it wasn’t until Helen was made a Dame in 2003 and three years later won an Oscar for playing Elizabeth II in the film, The Queen, that she became the international movie star she still is today.
She hopes her own story can help inspire other women towards greater confidence in whatever they do. Speaking recently she said: “Everybody has moments of massive insecurity, and I think anything that makes you feel more confident and more secure in yourself is a great thing. Accepting your age is part of the adventure of life – and you have to look at it as a new experience. I still have a Gypsy sense of adventure. I don’t think I have slept in the same bed for more than three or four months my whole life.”
Certainly reaching 70 doesn’t mean retirement is beckoning for her. Helen has just finished playing the Queen on Broadway in the play The Audience and she also has two films in production, which are due for release next year. “The work is still worrying and challenging and nerve-racking and I think that’s why I can’t stop doing it,” she says. And we’re glad she can’t stop too. Happy birthday to a true trouper!
- Words by Alison James
Everything you need to know about Helen Mirren
- Helen was born Helena Lydia Mironoff in July 1945, In Hammersmith, London.
- She's been married to husband Taylor Hackford since 1997, and is step-mother to his two sons.
- She began her career in the Royal Shakespeare company, performing in numerous theatre products, but became a public name after roles in The Long Good Friday and playing Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect.
- She became a Dame in 2003.
- She's best known for her roles in Gosford Park, The Queen, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Calendar Girls, Hitchcock and The Hundred-Foot Journey.