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People in Film | Helen Mirren
Posted July 11, 2011 to photo album "People in Film | Helen Mirren"
From playing a conflicted ex-Mossad agent in The Debt to the Queen of England, Helen Mirren pushes her craft. But rather than rest on her laurels, this grand dame of theater and cinema is, as fortune predicted, just reaching her prime.
Helen Mirren | Destined to Act
Mirren, aged 20, in a 1965 production of Anthony and Cleopatra
The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael wrote in 1985 of Helen Mirren, “Probably no other actress can let you know as fast and economically as she can that she's playing a distinguished and important woman." While Mirren is often cast to play “distinguished and important” English women, her own background is more complex. She was born Helen Lydia Mironoff, a mix of Russian aristocracy and British working class. Her paternal grandfather was Pyotr Vasielivich Mironov, a high-ranking diplomat in the Tsar’s government who became stranded in London after the Russian Revolution. Her mother's father ran a butcher's shop in West Ham, in London's East End. By the age of six, Mirren determined she wanted to be an actress in an “old-fashioned and traditional sense.” Despite her ambition, she faced early setbacks. At age eight, she lost the starring role of the princess in a school production of Four and Twenty Blackbirds, ending up instead in the blackbird chorus line. Mirren recounted to the Los Angeles Times, “I remember sitting in that pie, with a big cardboard crust over our heads, all squashed together in our black leotards and black tights, and sort of horrible yellow beaks on our faces. And I remember thinking, 'I'll be the princess one of these days.’" Despite her determination, Mirren’s parents, fearing acting might not prove the most prudent career choice, encouraged her to study teaching. Mirren honored their wishes but kept her theatrical dreams alive. In 1963, she enrolled at New College of Speech and Drama and also landed a place in the National Youth Theater. For two years, she both studied to be a teacher and pursued acting. But at 20, when she was given the lead in Antony and Cleopatra, she won acclaim and an agent – and everything changed.