As an actor, can there be a more difficult role than playing a living person? Someone in the public eye perhaps? A figure who is immediately recognisable to the audience has to be the staunchest test of your thesping chops, right? So, please spare a thought for Dame Helen Mirren, Brit acting treasure and chameleon of stage and screen, who puts in a stunning turn in the title role of Stephen Frears' The Queen.
“It was easily the most terrified I’ve been,” the engaging Mirren tells totalfilm.com. “I mean, no matter how good you get it, no matter how much you work on the walk or the voice, you’ll never be the real thing.”
Maybe not but the Prime Suspect star still gets five stars for effort. Her turn as Queen Elizabeth II has garnered her plaudits and awards aplenty. With Frears' movie being the highlight of the recent film festival in Venice, there were slaps on the back all round and statuettes stuffed in the suitcase on the flight home.
“You can never expect that,” Frears says honestly. “It’s great when it happens but you can’t set out thinking you’ll get that kind of reception.”
Frears has re-teamed with Peter Morgan, the man who scribbled the TV drama The Deal, based on the gentleman’s agreement held between PM Tony Blair and his chancellor, Gordon Brown. The Queen deals with the week following the death of Princess Diana, a nation in shock and mourning, a Royal family in self-imposed exile and an eager Prime Minister newly installed at number 10.
“He’s a different man to the Tony Blair in The Deal,” says the premier’s alter-ego Michael Sheen. “It’s a five year gap and he’s changed so I had to observe that closely. The good thing was, there was only about a year between filming The Deal and shooting The Queen, so I didn’t have to start my research all over again, it was more a case of refreshing it.”
No such luxuries for Dame Helen, who freely admits she panicked when production began to loom on the horizon.
“Fortuitously, I met Michael at a social event and he said to me, ‘get voice coaching now, don’t wait,’ and it saved me. Once you get comfortable with that, the rest can follow. Still, on my first day I was extremely nervous and Stephen nicely gave me a big emotional scene to ease myself in,” the actress says with just a hint of sarcasm.
Although the general public's impression may be that beyond the essence of the film, the situations are fabricated, writer Peter Morgan stresses that much of the tale was sculpted to a skeleton of actual events.
“A lot of what goes on can be found in public record,’ he says. “There are obviously things we have to create, the meetings between The Queen and Tony Blair are one of the only things that can never be made public but a lot of what we used is from people at the palaces. There are three palaces and each one couldn’t wait to tell us something about the other.”
Frears adds to the movie’s authenticity by using news footage. The crowds at the palaces, Earl Spencer’s speeches after his sister’s tragic death and various montages of Diana herself, ensuring that however wrapped up the audience gets in the story, we remember that a young woman lost her life and it affected the world.
“It was a unique situation for her,” Mirren says of the Monarch. “I think that with the media showing this outpouring of grief, she felt a distinct need to protect her grandchildren. Still, the press and the people were desperate, wondering where their royal family were. They wanted to feel that they were sharing this with them, sobbing on their knees, but who was following who, I wonder? Was the media following the people or was it the other way around? There is a point at which it’s very hard to fathom which of those comes first.”
Mirren has admitted in the past that she was anti-establishment in her youth. Having walked a mile in her Majesty’s shoes, how does Mirren feel about the Queen now?
“Well, it’s hard for me to see her as a person because I’ve grown up in an Elizabethan age. She’s been present in the whole of my life and yet, as a public, we still don’t know that much about her. I thought that at the moment of Diana’s death, with the public furore, she became more like us than any time since the Second World War – she was a grandmother looking after her family. Her great sense of inner-discipline is something I admire and that’s been constant - she’s never, ever let it go, which is an incredible achievement. I know I could never have done it. I would have definitely got drunk one night and staggered around. The Queen has never let us down in that sense. But such consistency of self-discipline comes at a price, internalising and not allowing your emotions to show because you feel if you do, the whole thing will fall apart. This particular monarch just has that amazing mystery about her. I think other monarchs have been different but her sense of duty came at a very young age and I think it was formulated from the fact that she came of age during the war.”
Michael Sheen admits he shares his co-star’s problem. “It does take me a while when I’m watching Tony Blair to actually see him as Tony Blair, the Prime Minister. You take so much in during research and, essentially, as actors, we’re always playing ourselves, just altered versions. But I tell you what, it does make you like the person a little more,” he says with a worried laugh. “I feel like I’ve invested something and I think I’ll always watch him with interest.”
With this in mind and the fact that Helen Mirren has received an honour from Prince Charles, does the seasoned actress not wonder what her Majesty might make of her efforts on screen?
“No, I get asked that all the time and I really couldn’t tell you, how would I know? I imagine she probably thinks, ‘Oh well, could have been worse. I think I’ll have a G and T.”
The Queen is released in UK cinemas on 15 September 2006.