Dame Helen Mirren, the revered British actress, was born Illiana Lydia Petrovna Mironov in London on 26 July 1945 to a Scottish mother, Kathleen Alexandrina Eva Matilda nee Rogers, and Vasily Petrovich Mironov, a member of an exiled Russian family. At the age of two, Vasily Petrovich was brought to England by his father who was part of the Russian aristocracy, and the former diplomat was forced to settle in England after the Russian Revolution to become a cab driver to support his family. Vasily also started his life as a cab driver, then became a viola player with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and ultimately became a civil servant with the Ministry of Transport. In 1951 he decided to Anglicize the family name and legally changed it Mirren from Mirnov.
In the beginning, Helen attended the Hamlet Court primary school in Westcliff-on-Sea, and after that, she was sent to St Bernard’s School, a Catholic convent in Southend-on-Sea, where she used to take part in the theatrical productions of the school.
During that time, at the insistence of an English teacher of the school, who was on a recruiting circular for the National Youth Theatre, Helen appeared on an audition for the troupe, and at the age of 18, she was accepted into the company. However, at the urging of her mother, Helen also entered a teaching college, the New College of Speech and Drama in London, to make a strong base for a stable profession in acting.
Helen made her mark on the stage at the age of 20, when she played the role of Cleopatra in the National Youth Theatre production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Old Vic, the role which she mentioned launched her career. It led to her signing with the agent Al Parker, an American actor, director, and producer. At the same time, she was invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she became nicknamed as the sex queen of Stratford in recognition of her readiness to strip off on stage. Famously comfortable in her skin, Helen later confessed that being famous for being cool about not being gorgeous.
As an extension of her stage performances, Helen Mirren’s film career began in her early 20s, when she first appeared in Don Lavy’s experimental feature Herorstratus (1967), as a scantily clad woman advertising washing up gloves, an outrageous cameo of cartoon sexiness and sexism that startled everyone.
In her next film A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968), a theatrically conceived movie adaptation directed by Peter Hall, Helen appeared as Hermia, whose father was pressing her to marry Demetrius despite her love for Lysander. However, in her breakthrough film Age of Consent (1969), Helen Mirren made a dazzling splash, playing the role of Cora, a breathtakingly beautiful Queenslander living in Dunk Island, who ultimately became the muse of the famous painter Bradley Morahan, played by James Mason. Although the film left nothing to the imagination insofar as Mirren’s body is concerned, Helen artistically brought depth and dignity to the role that expanded her ability as an actor, and with her alluring appeal established her as a sex symbol. Michael Powell’s aesthetic handling of the nude sequences for which the film is probably best remembered is tasteful, at times even lyrical, including gorgeous underwater diving scenes ruminating on the physical and spiritual freedoms of being alone in a remote exotic location. The film was a huge success in Australia, where it received mostly favorable reviews and was ultimately reckoned as the 13th most popular film in the country in 1969.
Her early predatory-sexy roles also include Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah (1972), in which she has a rollicking scene where disclaiming all the artistic theories she walked down a staircase wearing just a necklace.
Apart from that, she appeared as the sexually voracious Patricia in Lindsay Anderson’s film O Lucky Man! (1973), who seduces Mick Travis, played by Malcolm McDowell, in the back of a van, and then dumps him for a duke. In Caligula (1979), the controversial erotic drama film about the rise and fall of the Roman Emperor of the same name, Helen played the role of Caesonia, the wife of Caligula. However, the film, containing strong violence and explicit sex scenes, performed poorly at the box office and was strongly criticized by the critics.
During the 1980s, Helen Mirren appeared in several important films that included, among others, the fantasy film Excalibur (1981), in which she played the role of the evil Morgana, a nemesis to the legendary King Arthur; Cal (1984), depicting the not-so-innocent love story of a young man on the fringes of the Irish Republican Army and a woman whose police husband was killed one year earlier by the I.R.A, for which she was nominated for the Best Actress at the BAFTA Award and won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival; White Nights (1985), directed by Taylor Hackford whom she ultimately married on 31 December 1997; the critically acclaimed Mosquito Coast (1986), directed by Peter Weir; followed by the controversial but critically acclaimed The Cook, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), directed by Peter Greenaway, in which Helen played the abused wife of a gangster who found relief and enjoyed brief moments of happiness with a young lover she met at the restaurant. However, the brutal and graphic violence, along with explicit nudity in the film, earned it an R rating.
Helen Mirren earned her first Academy Award nomination for the Best Actress in a Supporting role for her portrayal of Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George (1994). Her other films during the 1990s also include Some Mother’s Son (1996), and Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999), in which she portrayed the sadistic history teacher, Mrs. Eva Tingle. Her successful career continued into the next century, when she won the nomination for her second Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting role, as well another Golden Globe nod for her performance in the role of An English housekeeper in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001). After that, she appeared in Calendar Girls (2003), playing the role of a middle-aged woman, pursuing and convincing her friends to pose nude for a calendar to raise money for Leukemia research. However, the most incredible year for Helen Mirren came in 2006 when she finally won the Academy Award for Best Actress for portraying Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006), three years after she was bestowed with the title of a Dame of the British Empire in recognition of her talent, and her contribution to the film world. She is the only actor to have portrayed three British Queens on the screen, which includes Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George (1994), Queen Elizabeth I in the television series Elizabeth I (2005), and Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006).
Helen Mirren’s subsequent films also continued to demonstrate her versatility. She was nominated for her fourth Academy and another Golden Globe Award for her appearance as Countess Sofya Andreevna Tolstoy, the wife of Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station (2009). She played a former CIA assassin in Red (2010), an action-comedy, and also appeared as a former Mossad agent grappling with her past in the political thriller The Debt (2011). Her performance as Alma Reville, the wife of film director Alfred Hitchcock, played by Anthony Hopkins, in the biopic Hitchcock (2012) won profuse appreciation. She earned another Golden Globe nomination for her role in The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014), where she was featured along with Indian actor Om Puri, playing the owners of two competing restaurants. In Woman in Gold (2015), she wonderfully portrayed the courageous character of Maria Altmann, a Jewish refugee who successfully won a court battle against the Australian government to recover several paintings by the famous artist Gustav Klimt stolen from her family by Nazis during World War II. Her subsequent films include The Leisure Seeker (2017), for which she earned a Golden Globe nod, the period horror film Winchester (2018), and a thriller Anna (2019), in which she appears as a KGB handler of a beautiful model-turned-killer.
In her personal life, Helen Mirren dated Liam Neeson, whom she met while working together on the 1981 film Excalibur, and the pair lived together till 1985. However, ultimately they had to dissolve the relationship because despite Mirren’s help Neeson struggled to book jobs, and it became difficult for him to be under her shadow. Soon after the end of the Neeson episode, Mirren met film director Taylor Hackford on the set of the 1985 film White Night, and after being together for more than 10 years, they wed in 1997, although as a young woman Mirren had vowed never to marry. She confessed at the age of 72 that when she rose to fame in the 1960s, she used to hate her much-admired curves because she did not have the slender look of the British models, which was celebrated in those days. She felt that her cheeks were too fat, legs were too short, and her breasts too big. Helen Mirren, a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, was named the Sexiest Woman Alive by Esquire an American men's magazine in 2010, and in a 2011 photoshoot for the magazine, she stripped to be covered up with the Union Jack.