Dame Helen Mirren is one of those women who appear unflappable, but she’d like to put the record straight. It’s all bravado, she says.
“The thing is to pretend you’re not frightened, just act,” she says.
That’s easy enough for an Oscar winner to say, but the 67-year-old actress is having none of it.
“You get on with it,” she adds, shrugging. “You go, ‘OK, I’m frightened but it’s not the end of the world and it’s my business and my fear and I’ll just deal with it’. It’s just being practical.”
Helen was given an early lesson when, at the age of 10, she was summoned to see the headmistress of her new grammar school.
“She was a Bernardine nun, dressed in black and white, and I was so frightened of her,” recalls Helen, looking elegant in a green maxi dress and white floral print cardigan. “But she also gave me great advice. She said, ‘The only thing to fear is fear itself’.”
Fear plays a big part in her latest movie, Monsters University, and it was her former headmistress to whom Helen looked for inspiration when creating the character of Dean Hardscrabble.
“She was scary, but kind and wise underneath,” she explains.
A prequel to 2001’s animated adventure Monsters Inc, Monsters University follows Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) as he enrols for his first term at college.
Although wide-eyed and ready to learn, Wazowski’s plans to become a professional ‘Scarer’ are soon derailed when he crosses paths with Sulley (John Goodman) and the formidable Hardscrabble.
While it’s not the first time Helen has voiced an animated character, the movie does mark her debut as a giant centipede.
“I’m actually hopeless at voiceovers,” she insists. “I’d have loved to have been in the room with Billy and John and watched the masters at work, but at least I had the director Dan Scanlon helping me.”
She recalls he had no trouble letting her know when something didn’t work.
“It’s always great to have a wonderful director,” says Helen. “They sort of guide you and allow you to experiment and do different things and eventually the character appears.”
While the process of being tucked away in a studio all day could be isolating, there are benefits – namely you don’t have to worry what you look like.
“Oh, it’s fabulous,” says Helen. “It’s great not to have to get up at 5am and sit in hair and make-up forever, and not to be fiddled with all day long. It just drives me mad but you have to be very patient.”
It’s why the actress would like to clarify that the high heels she insisted on wearing in the studio had nothing to do with vanity; rather they were an invaluable tool.
“What you have on your feet as an actress is incredibly important,” she explains. “And I like to have my body present because to put the energy and expressiveness in the voice is difficult.”
With 30 legs and spectacular wings, Dean Hardscrabble is a tour de force with no time for mediocrity, and her students know it.
“Too many people think all you have to do is just have a dream and it will happen, and this movie very adroitly and elegantly teaches a lesson to young people,” she says.
“Success is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent sweat and hard work. Even then, there are no guarantees.”
Looking back on her own career, she admits at times it’s felt like a “hard slog”.
Born Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironoff to a Russian immigrant father and an East End mother, Helen dreamed of stardom from a young age.
“I remember being absolutely sure a big producer would drive past with a cigar and lean out of the window and say: ‘You’re the one I’ve been looking for!’ “Of course it never happens like that.”
Instead, aged 17, Helen joined the National Youth Theatre and later the Royal Shakespeare Company, before beginning her film career with Michael Powell’s Age Of Consent.
She can’t help chuckling as she recollects some of her more courageous career choices over the years.
“Travelling through Africa with Peter Brook; Caligula; The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover – oh my God,” she says, laughing as she recalls the experimental theatre troupe and controversial movies that involved eye-popping amounts of nudity.
“You make choices in your career and with some of them everyone’s looking at you and going, ‘What are you doing that for?’” says Helen, who spent the 70s and 80s living in Littledean in the Forest of Dean with her then boyfriend, photographer James Wedge.
She’s now married to the film director Taylor Hackford.
“But you have to make those bold choices, if you have the opportunity to make choices at all, as that’s a great privilege.”
Early on in her career, she was working with some of the biggest names in the industry, and remembers feelings of anxiety.
“There were certain actors when I was young who were quite intimidating,” she says. “They probably didn’t mean to be but when I came into the acting profession, it was quite hierarchical, you know? You didn’t sit at the same table as the lead actor,” she adds.
Now in her own right, Helen has earned four Oscar nominations, winning one in 2007 for her portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen – a role she recently revived in the West End stage play The Audience. But she reiterates she’s fought for her success all the way.
“There are the privileged few who just seem to waft through life without having to ever meet any adversity or difficulty, which is really annoying,” she says. “The rest of us, we have to struggle and fight. “We get knocked back and we have to come forward again.
“Sometimes you have to do stuff you’re not familiar with or think you’ll fail horribly at. You just have to jump in at the deep end.”