February 10, 2016

Women of Doubt: Helen Mirren wants to make you less of a pillock.

There was a really big sporting event this weekend. Anyone catch it?

While I was definitely interested in the game (darn it, Panthers), I would be remiss not to own up to the fact that I also watch for the commercials. And the half-time show. Yup.

One commercial in particular stuck out to me: Helen Mirren’s responsible drinking PSA.

And that, my friends, is why Dame Mirren is our Woman of Doubt this week.

Early Life and Education

On July 26, 1945, in Chiswick, London, England, Illiana Lydia Petrovna Mironova was born.  Her parents were Vasilliy Petrovich “Basil” Miranoff and Kathleen Rogers. 4

Her father Basil played the viola in the London Philharmonic for a time before leaving the orchestra to find work that supported his family—first as a cab driver and driving test examiner, and then later in the Ministry of Transport. 4

Basil’s family was Russian aristocracy:

Her grandfather, Piotr Vasilievich Mironoff, was a Tsarist (White Russian) aristocrat who was in London negotiating an arms deal during World War I when the 1917 Russian Revolution stranded him there. 3

The diplomat became a London cab driver and settled in England permanently. 2

Mirren’s mother, Kathleen Rogers, was the daughter (or granddaughter by some accounts) of a butcher who supplied meat to Queen Victoria. 4

Mirren herself was the middle of three children. Older sister Katherine was born in 1942, and younger brother Peter Basil joined the family in 1948. 2

When Helen was nine, her father legally changed the family’s Russian surname to Mirren, the name that Helen has used her entire career. 4

Mirren attended Hamlet Court primary school Westcliffe-on-Sea, and there she played the lead in a school production of Hansel and Gretel. 2 At 13, she saw an amateur production of Hamlet, and this inspired her to pursue acting:

"I was blown away by all this over-the-top drama," she said in an interview with The Times UK. "We grew up without TV and never went to the cinema, so after Hamlet, all I wanted to do was get back into that world where all those fabulous things were possible." 4

However, Mirren’s parents encouraged her to pursue a more stable future, sending her to St. Bernard’s High School, a Catholic convent. 4 However, the move did little to quell Mirren’s passion:

An English teacher at St. Bernard's, who happened on a recruiting circular for the National Youth Theatre, urged Helen to audition for the troupe. She did, and at the age of 18 was accepted into the company. 4

Her mother, however, felt that this was not a stable occupation and urged Mirren to attend a teaching college in London. 4 Mirren did, attending the New College of Speech and Drama. 2

Early Career

Mirren was still undeterred from her acting passion, though, and at age 20, she was playing Cleopatra in a production of Antony and Cleopatra, a role which had a profound impact on her future:

Her performance as the Egyptian leader landed her an agent, as well as a place with the Royal Shakespeare Company. 4

By 1967, she’d begun a career with the Royal Shakespeare Company. 2

The role as Cleopatra managed to cement Mirren in a certain type of role:

She began playing sexually charged roles such as Castiza in the 1966 staging of The Revenger's Tragedy; Cressida in a 1968 production of Troilus and Cressida; and Lady Macbeth in the 1974 Trevor Nunn production of MacBeth. These roles, as well as several others, earned her the label "The Sex Queen of Stratford"—a title she greatly resented. 4

Breaking Into Film

Mirren began her breakthrough into film with Caligula. However, the film’s subject matter and rating meant that it wasn’t widely viewed, and it was often criticized as nothing more than pornography. 4

However, she experienced more success in The Long Good Friday in 1979, and Excalibur in 1981. 4 1984 was the year, though, that lead to her first critical success:

But it was her role in the film Cal (1984) that landed Mirren her first major film awards: The Cannes Film Festival prize for best actress, and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award. 4

1985 saw her cast in White Knights, were she met director Taylor Hackford. She and Hackford began seeing each other off set and have been together ever since. 4

Her critical success also continued:

The following year, Mirren appeared in the critically acclaimed Mosquito Coast, followed by another critics' favorite, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989). 4

Breaking Into Television

In 1992, Mirren began her breakthrough television role as Detective Inspector Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect. 4

The role not only gained Mirren even greater public notice, but it also netted her many awards:

By the time the show concluded in 2006, Mirren had taken home five BAFTA Awards and several Emmy Award nominations for her performance on the show, including a win in 1996 for Outstanding Lead Actress. 4

She also continued her stage success:

Mirren continued to shine on stage as well, receiving a Tony Award nomination her role in 1995's A Month in the Country, and again in 2002 for Dance of Death, co-starring Sir Ian McKellen. 4

Sheer Domination

Mirren’s film career continued apace:

Mirren's film career was also heating up, and in 1996 she earned her first Academy Award nomination for The Madness of King George. The film also earned Mirren her second Best Actress win at Cannes, and yet another BAFTA award. 4

She continued to star in critically-recognized pieces, with 2001 seeing her in the British mystery Gosford Park. This film landed her another Academy Award nomination and another Golden Globe nod. 4

In 2003, her critical success was noticed by Queen Elizabeth II (4), and the Queen made Mirren a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for “her services to drama”. 3

In 2005, she played Queen Elizabeth I in the HBO movie Elizabeth I, and in 2006, she portrayed Queen Elizabeth II herself in The Queen, the movie that landed her an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. 3

All told, Helen Mirren is one of a handful of performers who have won the Triple Crown of Acting: she’s been awarded a Tony, an Emmy, and an Academy Award. 2

Today and Beyond

By all accounts, Mirren has no desire to slow down. She told Woman & Home in 2013:

It's so important to keep doing new things. That really drives me – wanting the next challenge and wanting the thing that I love, acting, to continue. 5

After being together since 1986, she and Taylor Hackford were married on December 31, 1997, in a ceremony in Scotland on his 53rd birthday. 3 This union gained Mirren two stepchildren, but she has always been publicly outspoken about her own desire to never have children, saying that she herself has no maternal instincts.

Mirren seems to be a spiritual atheist, saying in one interview:

"I'd describe myself as a Christian who doesn't believe in God. I can't help being Christian because I was brought up in Britain and the morality of Christianity is part of the fabric of this country.
But I don't believe in God. But I do believe in treating other people as you'd want to be treated and being empathetic." 6

She’s also said of her spirituality: “I am quite spiritual. I believed in the fairies when I was a child. I still do sort of believe in the fairies. And the leprechauns. But I don’t believe in God.” 1

This makes her an excellent example of one of the themes I tend to come back to: “atheist” and “atheism” are incredibly specific and nonspecific at the same time. Knowing that someone is an atheist, you know one thing for sure: that they don’t believe in gods. Beyond that, anything is a guess.


I hope you guys know this is only ever meant to be a survey of the lives of these figures. My dearest hope is that it will whet the appetite for something a little deeper, for searching just a little more into their lives.

Mirren’s autobiography In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures was published in September 2007. One reviewer, John Thaxter, said this:

"Sumptuously illustrated, at first sight it looks like another of those photo albums of the stars. But between the pictures there are almost 200 pages of densely printed text, an unusually frank story of her private and professional life, mainly in the theatre, the words clearly Mirren's own, delivered with forthright candour." 2

I know that I, personally, will be digging deeper into Mirren’s life, beginning with her autobiography.

You should too. Don’t be a pillock.

Oh...if you missed the ad:


1 Bianco, Marci. "9 Famous Women With the Perfect Response on Why They've Ditched Religion." <http://mic.com/articles/114666/9-famous-women-with-the-perfect-response-on-why-they-ve-ditched-religion#.NbCYrY53l> Published April 9, 2015. Accessed February 8, 2015.

2 "Helen Mirren." <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Mirren> Accessed February 8, 2015.

3 "Helen Mirren: Biography". Internet Movie Database. <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000545/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm> Accessed February 8, 2015.

4 "Helen Mirren Biography." <http://www.biography.com/people/helen-mirren-547434> Accessed February 8, 2015.

5 Huddart, Gaby. "Helen Mirren interview." Woman & Home. <http://www.womanandhome.com/news-and-entertainment/533160/helen-mirren-interview-3> published January 3, 2013. Accessed February 8, 2015. Accessed February 8, 2015.

6 "I don't Believe in God says Dame Helen Mirren." <http://www.express.co.uk/celebrity-news/368645/I-don-t-believe-in-God-says-Dame-Helen-Mirren> Published Friday, January 4, 2013. Accessed February 8, 2015.

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