Friday, June 28, 2013

Helen Mirren on the terrifying headmistress who inspired her rise to fame - and why she almost refused a damehood By JAMES PEACHEY (MAIL ON LINE)

Helen Mirren says her terrifying headmistress inspired her rise to fame

Dame Helen Mirren doesn’t do demure. Indeed, she’s made a very successful career out of playing formidable characters that you wouldn’t mess with.

From Queens — including Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, Elizabeth II (twice) — to uncompromising women like Lady Macbeth, Madame Bovary and the ice-cool Detective Chief Superintendent Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, she can face down even the strongest opponent with an imperious flick of an eyelid.

She famously demonstrated her forbidding demeanour only last month, when she stomped off the stage to confront a group of drummers in the street outside who were providing unwelcome musical accompaniment to her performance in The Audience at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End.

So it is hardly a surprise that in her latest movie, Monsters University — in which she is heard but not seen — she easily digs deep into those natural reserves of unchallengeable authority.  

Helen plays Dr Abigail Hardscrabble, dean at the School of Scaring in Monsters University, a prequel to the enormously successful 2001 Disney Pixar animated movie Monsters Inc.

She is easily the most intimidating woman I’ve ever played,’ she assures me when we meet at a London hotel where she was preparing for the film’s release.  

For extra inspiration, she confides, she drew on her memory of her old school headmistress — ‘who used to terrify me, frighten me to death’.

It was at St Bernard’s Convent High School, in her native Southend-On-Sea, Essex, almost 60 years ago that Dame Mother Mary Mildred scared young Helen and inspired her in equal measure.

She said: ‘The funny thing is, I didn’t consciously think about her when I was voicing the part of Dean Hardscrabble in a Hollywood studio, even though she made such a big impression on my early life.

‘It was only when I came back to England and somebody asked me whether I had anybody in mind when I was playing her that I realised that she’d been in my thoughts. To me, she was really scary, sitting there dressed in black and white and exuding this sort of strict kindness.

‘But — and here’s my really important memory of Dame Mother Mary Mildred — she was very wise, and I like to think I’ve imbued the character of Dean Hardscrabble with a mixture of her scariness and wisdom.

‘At the age of ten, she gave me not only the best piece of advice that anyone has ever given me but advice which I’ve lived by ever since and which has helped me enormously in life — and that advice was to understand fear, to recognise that the worst thing about fear is fear itself.

'Once you recognise that, and can deal with it, even if it’s just by pretending you’re not frightened, life isn’t nearly as frightening.

‘Without those words of wisdom from my old headmistress, I don’t think I would have had the courage to take on some of the really challenging roles in my career.’

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