DATE April 18, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Actress Catherine Keener discusses her career and new
movie "Friends with Money"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Actress Catherine Keener got her second Academy Award nomination earlier this
year for her portrayal of Harper Lee@ in "Capote," a performance which
showcased the talent film buffs have been talking about for a long time. As
our critic at large John Powers recently put it, `Over 15 years, Catherine
Keener has built up a reservoir of affection from those who go to the movies
regularly. She's sharp, vivid and emotionally real. All her characters have
filigrees and edges.'
Among Keener's many films are "Being John Malkovich, "The 40 Year Old Virgin,"
"The Interpreter" and two films by director Nicole Holofcener, "Walking and
Talking" and "Lovely and Amazing."
Keener's latest film, "Friends with Money," is also written and directed by
Holofcener. Her co-stars include Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack and Jennifer
Aniston. It's about four women, all longtime friends, whose relationships are
affected by differences in their financial standing. Keener's character is
part of a husband-and-wife screenwriting team. In this scene, she argues with
her husband about a script they're working on.
(Soundbite of "Friends with Money")
Ms. CATHERINE KEENER: (As Christine) I have a problem with this line. I
really think Elliot would believe her.
Mr. JASON ISAACS: (As David) Why would he believe her? He saw his father
Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Because it's--Melanie just doesn't joke like
that. It's not in her character.
Mr. ISAACS: (As David)) I don't agree.
Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Guy, how did we even get this far? It's like
we're writing two different scripts.
Mr. ISAACS: (As David) Every time we disagree, you fall apart.
Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Oh--what?
Mr. ISAACS: (As David) You're eating a lot of (censored) lately.
Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) What?
Mr. ISAACS: (As David) I said you're eating a lot of (censored) lately.
Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) So what?
Mr. ISAACS: (As David) So I can see it on your ass. I'm just telling you,
you know. I thought you'd want me to tell you if I noticed something like
Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) What made you think I'd want you to tell me if my
ass was getting fat?
Mr. ISAACS: (As David) Because I guess I would want you to tell me if I was
Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Really, you'd want me to tell you?
Mr. ISAACS: (As David) Yes, I would.
Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Hmm, would you want me to tell you, for instance,
that you always have bad breath? Would you want to know that?
Mr. ISAACS: (As David) I guess.
Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Well, now you know. You know how I'm always
trying to get you to drink more water? It's not because it's healthier. It's
because your breath smells like a dead man.
Mr. ISAACS: (As David) Why didn't you just tell me? I would have gotten my
teeth cleaned or something.
Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Because I didn't want to hurt your feelings.
Mr. ISAACS: (As David) It wouldn't.
Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Really?
Mr. ISAACS: (As David) It's not like it's my fault, per se.
Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) Man, I wish I had that mechanism.
Mr. ISAACS: (As David) So not only do I have bad breath always, but I'm a
(censored) because I don't take it personally.
Ms. KEENER: (As Christine) I can't work anymore. I'm out. No more.
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: Well, Catherine Keener, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
In "Friends with Money," you play a woman who is part of a husband-wife
Ms. KEENER: Yes.
DAVIES: And by the time we meet you and your husband, played by Jason Isaacs,
you're already arguing a lot. You're having a lot of trouble. And I'm
wondering--you know, we don't learn in this scene that we see how you're
character Christine married...
Ms. KEENER: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: ...this jerk...
Ms. KEENER: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: ...and kind of, you know, the backfill to a relationship that's
clearly gone bad. And I'm wondering, as an actress, do you kind of feel like
you need to fill in those edges to give the performance? And how do you do
Ms. KEENER: Well, with this, I didn't because I kind of--I mean, Nicole said
that it was--they're done, you know, that it doesn't matter. It's irrelevant.
Sort of like when a marriage does come to an end, it's kind of irrelevant what
happened and who did what. So I just--yeah, I think my impulse definitely is
to say, `Well, why and how did she'--you know? But that's just sort of the
questions that you ask from an outsider. But from her perspective, you know,
she just buried herself so much in trying to fix everything externally and
materialistically that it didn't really matter. It was pretty much gone.
And he's not. I don't think that's he's such a jerk. I think he's just done
with her and her, you know, her ways. I mean, she's pretty self-absorbed and
stuff. I kind of don't blame him in a way, too. He just--there was--the
kindness was gone, if it was ever there, it no longer exists between them.
And some people should just, you know, not be married anymore.
DAVIES: Yeah, you know, one theme of this film is how money changes
relationships. You have one couple who is very rich, and others who are, you
know, different circumstances in life. And it occurred to me that, I assume,
you probably have a lot more money than you did 10 or 15 years ago as your
career has really taken off. Has that changed your relationships with old
friends? Is that something that occurred to you as you made this film?
Ms. KEENER: No, I haven't been that. I do, I have more money definitely
than I've had, especially growing up. I was, you know, pretty poor, but I
don't have that, comparatively, I don't have that much money. I mean, I make
little movies that are great and so fun to do but, you know, they're not the
big paychecky movies that people can--people make. So I think maybe if I were
living high on the hog, maybe that would have some sort of impact on my
friendships. But my friends are such old friends, and, you know, they're just
friendships that have stuck, and I can't imagine them changing for any reason.
DAVIES: Your most recent Oscar nomination was for your role in "Capote,"
where you played Harper Lee, the accomplished author of "To Kill a
Mockingbird," who is sort of Truman Capote's sidekick. And I thought we might
hear a clip from that. And this is the scene very early in the film where you
and Truman Capote are riding a train from New York out to Kansas to
investigate this murder. And a porter has just brought your bags and said
something to Truman Capote. So let's listen to this.
(Soundbite of "Capote")
Unidentified Actor #1: Thank you greatly, sir.
Ms. KEENER: (As Harper Lee) Thank you.
Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) You're welcome.
Actor #1: It's an honor to have you with us, sir, and I hope you won't mind
me saying but I thought your last book was even better than the first.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) Hmm, thank you.
Actor #1: Just when you think they've gotten as good as they can get.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) Thank you very much.
Actor #1: Ma'am.
Ms. KEENER: (As Lee) You're pathetic.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) What?
Ms. KEENER: (As Lee) You paid him to say that. You paid him to say that.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) How did you know?
Ms. KEENER: (As Lee) "Just when you think they've gotten as good as they can
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) I thought that was a good line. You think that was
Ms. KEENER: (As Lee) A little bit.
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: My guest Catherine Keener with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the new film
You know, what's fun about that scene is you have Capote here paying a porter
to impress one of his oldest friends. You know, the interesting...
Ms. KEENER: It's pathetic.
DAVIES: Yeah, right.
That film, you are playing Harper Lee, who is the childhood friend of Truman
Capote, who is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. And so much of your role is
being around him, reacting to him, because he has this huge, huge oversized
ego. How did you...
Ms. KEENER: Right.
DAVIES: Did you do anything with Philip Seymour Hoffman to develop the kind
of relationship that worked on the screen?
Ms. KEENER: Well, I hadn't met Phil until I got there. I was sort of the
late comer to the party because everybody else had sort of been placed and
they were looking for a Harper. And--but it was very quick that it all kind
of--I had to go to Winnipeg and start rehearsals. And so I was a little kind
of out of my water at first. I just thought, `Oh, gosh, these guys have been
sitting with this and, you know, it's going to be a good movie.' You could
just tell. Everybody was so committed and smart. And we did a couple of days
or one day of rehearsal, and then I went to the train station there in
Winnipeg, and then I went and bought two tickets for the next day to--coach
tickets--for a train ride out. The first stop was about an hour and a half
outside of Winnipeg, and so I asked Philip if he wanted to do this. And he
said, `Sure.' You know, we really didn't know each other at all, but we ended
up getting on the train. And it was a really long train with a lot of
classes, you know.
Ms. KEENER: And they kept sort of--I don't know if you've seen Phil, but
he's got pretty much, especially when he's working, he's pretty much a uniform
of sloppiness. And so no one recognized him, you know, he's just in working
mode and he's just, you know, already pretty dark. And we just kept getting
shuttled and seen to, you know, they kept sort of passing us off from class to
class to make sure that we got into our safely ensconced seats of like general
seating way in the back, last train. And so...
DAVIES: You mean you were being downgraded, put in your place, so to speak.
Ms. KEENER: Yes. Like we were in our place. So, but it was funny, because
we actually kind of, our characters sort of, we started mimicking our
characters. Which often happens on movies, all of a sudden, you're adopting
the same kind of behaviors that your character would. And we sat up in the
observation car, you know, and just watched the sunset. And, you know, sort
of breaking the ice. I mean, I don't know, I was nervous.
DAVIES: Well, you've played so many movies that are modern, you know, you're
a modern woman, that kind of self-sufficient, educated person. Here you are
set in the '50s, where everybody has, you know, women wear perms and everybody
smokes everywhere. Was it kind of--was it fun to inhabit that world?
Ms. KEENER: Yeah. I never really thought of it in terms of--I wasn't
conscious of it being, you know, in the past. I wasn't aware of trying to do
that. But it was more like people I know, like, my dad is from North
Carolina, from the mountains, and his sisters, they were sort of the people I
was thinking about while I was working on that movie because they're
just--they're lovely and of a certain time and place and, you know,
storytellers, but very good listeners and very--you know, they see that--to
their guests. And it's just the way they are. And that was what I was more
conscious of in trying to just do these people justice that I care a lot about
DAVIES: In "Capote" you're playing Harper Lee. I wonder how you--did you
research her life? Did you try and meet her?
Ms. KEENER: I did research as much as I could. There wasn't a lot there.
And, yeah, well, I didn't try and meet her. I never got to that. I thought
about it, and then I asked, you know, `Oh, can I just--maybe I'll just go to
Alabama and, you know, see if she'll just have some coffee with me or
something.' And everyone told me that she's superprivate and that would not be
a good idea.
Ms. KEENER: So I just--that kind of--that was a little daunting because I
thought, `Oh, God.' I mean, not that I expected her to do that, but that just
made me feel that maybe she wouldn't want this kind of, you know, look at her.
And then I never want to--you know, I never want to do that to anybody. I'm
not into prying if somebody doesn't want you to, you know. So...
DAVIES: Yeah, it's very clear that you--that respecting privacy is a high
value for you.
Ms. KEENER: Right.
DAVIES: Did it feel weird to be playing somebody who is still alive? Did you
think about it?
Ms. KEENER: It did only in terms of just I didn't want to disrespect her
and, you know, her choice that she's made in her life, which is to lead a
private one. And, all of a sudden, I was party to, you know, the contrary.
Secondly, I didn't really know what she was like. There's not a lot of
available material for that, so I just thought, `Oh, God, I hope I don't'--you
know, I wasn't trying to get it right. I just wanted to get it so it
didn't--it wasn't wrong, you know.
DAVIES: My guest is actress Catherine Keener. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actress Catherine
Keener. Her new film is "Friends with Money."
A lot more people got to see you then in some of your films when you starred
with Steve Carell in the "40 Year Old Virgin." I thought maybe we'd play a
little clip from that. This is your second date with Steve Carell who, as the
title suggests, has no experience with women. And we'll--just to set up the
scene, we can note in your first encounter you were about to get physical, but
before Carell's inexperience in the bedroom was revealed, your teenage
daughter interrupted and ended the whole thing. Now you're getting together
for a second time and getting to know each other.
(Soundbite of "40 Year Old Virgin")
Ms. KEENER: (Trish) Listen, Andy, I don't want to send you running for the
hills or anything, but I really feel like if we decide to do this again, then
we should hold off on the physical part for a while.
Mr. STEVE CARELL: (Andy) That is a fantastic idea. Why didn't I think of
Ms. KEENER: (Trish) Really?
Mr. CARELL: (Andy) Totally.
Ms. KEENER: (Trish) No sex?
Mr. CARELL: (Andy) No. Why do that? Because here's the thing, from
personal experience, I have found that sex can really complicate things, and
what we should be doing right now is getting to know each other.
Ms. KEENER: (Trish) Yeah. I never thought you'd go for it.
Mr. CARELL: (Andy) I'm going for it. That just is a great, great notion.
Ms. KEENER: (Trish) Are you serious?
Mr. CARELL: (Andy) Look at my face. Look at how serious I am. You see my
Ms. KEENER: (Trish) Yes.
Mr. CARELL: (Andy) That's serious or for angry.
Ms. KEENER: (Trish) Yeah. You know what? Most guys would be saying yeah
right now, but by the third date, it would be, `Hey, baby, I really need to
physically express how I feel.' That stuff.
Mr. CARELL: (Andy) Well, hey, baby, you know, three dates, make it 10. Ten
Ms. KEENER: (Trish) How about 15?
Mr. CARELL: (Andy) Fifteen, 20 dates.
Ms. KEENER: (Trish) OK, 20 dates.
Mr. CARELL: (Andy) Twenty dates.
Ms. KEENER: (Trish) OK.
Mr. CARELL: (Andy) This is genius.
Ms. KEENER: (Trish) It's going to hurt.
Mr. CARELL: (Andy) Yes.
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: And that's my guest Catherine Keener appearing with Steve Carell in
the "40 Year Old Virgin."
Is it funny to hear that scene again?
Ms. KEENER: Yes. I don't often sit here laughing at something I'm a part
of, but he is so--yeah, that was a blast. That was really so fun to do, so
DAVIES: Yeah, I mean, different than a lot of these independent films you've
done. Was there a lot of improvising on the set with that wacky crew of guys
that he works with at the electronic store?
Ms. KEENER: Yeah, well, that crew of guys, they're actually friends of Judd
Apatow, the director and co-writer. He and Steve wrote the movie. And that
was part of what was so exciting to me that he was just making this movie with
all his friends, and it was based on an idea that Steve had. And then when I
talked to the director before we started, he said, `You know, there's going to
be a lot of improvising.' And I thought, `Oh, God.' You know, I'm used to
doing movies where I just have so much respect for the writer that I
don't--I'm not a writer, so I don't want to be expected to come up with some
alternate lines. But with them, I mean, it was just you kind of wanted to
jump in. It was like, `OK, let me try, let me try.' And I have said that the
director wouldn't yell cut, he would just--they would just reload the film
because we just kept going and going and going. But it was such a different
experience for me. I learned a lot on that movie about--well, I got a lot
more confident about improvising, which I hadn't because those guys are like
top, top drawer.
DAVIES: Yeah, it seems like you're somebody who likes to laugh a lot. I
mean, in some ways, you really fit here.
Ms. KEENER: I do like to laugh. I think people just, you know,
probably--sometimes I go on these talk shows or like the Jon Stewart show I
went on, and it was basically five minutes of me laughing. In fact, a friend
of mine did an interview of me in Interview magazine. My friend Sara Val. I
don't know if you know her, but she's incredible.
DAVIES: Yeah. She appears on pubic radio a lot.
Ms. KEENER: Yeah.
Well, so Sara said that her one stipulation with Interview magazine was that
they wouldn't parenthetically write "and she laughs," you know. Because it
would take up the whole interview. But I can't help it. I think people are
DAVIES: You've been described in--it was interesting to me as I read a lot of
pieces about you and the descriptions of you and your work. Here are some of
the things said about you and kind of your persona. Described as "the coolest
mom in the playgroup," "instantly familiar," "the woman at work you wish you
knew," "brilliantly, gorgeously mundane," "capable of grinding a man to
sawdust." And then one described your roles as a "spectrum of sexy, neurotic,
bitchy, needy, goofy and sweet. It's somebody who just doesn't have a mold."
Ms. KEENER: Oh.
DAVIES: That must be a nice thing for an actress, right?
Ms. KEENER: Yeah, I think it's a nice thing. I'm not--yeah. I think that
you--nobody wants a mold. I mean, a mold is just something, I think, that's,
you know, you don't invent. Other people do. But, God, "grinding a man." I
could grind my teeth to bits, but not...
DAVIES: Well, I think that character in "Being John Malkovich" ground John
Cusack to sawdust more than once.
Ms. KEENER: Yeah. Yeah, but, come on, he deserved it.
DAVIES: He was asking for it, wasn't he?
Ms. KEENER: Yes, he was.
DAVIES: All right.
Ms. KEENER: No. I mean, I do appreciate. I'm glad that that is the
perception. You know, I don't--I'd rather that than somebody who is, you
know, can't work outside that box that they're put in or they've put
DAVIES: Now, I read once that you described yourself as not movie star
material. You said you're co-star material, and those are the roles that you
Ms. KEENER: Yeah.
DAVIES: Do you still feel that way now that you've gotten two Oscar
nominations and, you know, well-known on the red carpet?
Ms. KEENER: I'm well-known on the red carpet?
DAVIES: Well, yeah. I think people know who Catherine Keener is when she
shows up. Don't you?
Ms. KEENER: You should be with me when I followed, let see, like at the
Oscars I came in--I was right behind, oh, Charlize Theron or right in front of
her, when I was invisible. And that was the best because I could just bolt
right through. So I would say I'm moderately known on the red carpet. But I
think that--and that's my--that's kind of what I meant is like some people are
really movie stars, and they're great at it, and they don't mind it. They
kind of understand that that's part of what their place is. I'm not. I'm not
that person. I'm not comfortable that way. I'm not perceived that way. I
mean, I've just sort of been a working actress who's done--who's doing pretty
well. And I think the "40 Year Old Virgin" definitely sort of broadened my
public, you know, visibility or whatever a little bit. But it goes away. You
know, you just kind of just go back to your life and lie low for a little
while, then that wanes, and then somebody else will come along who can deal
with it better.
DAVIES: Well, Catherine Keener, thanks so much for spending some time with
Ms. KEENER: Oh, it was my pleasure. Thank you.
DAVIES: Catherine Keener. Her new film is "Friends with Money."
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Actress Helen Mirren discusses her many roles,
including playing Queen Elizabeth I in "Elizabeth I" miniseries
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.
In her latest role, my guest, English actress Helen Mirren, is Queen Elizabeth
(Soundbite of "Elizabeth I)
Ms. HELEN MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth I) Well, gentlemen, I've come to hear
you talk, and I trust you will watch me while I listen.
Unidentified Actor: Your Majesty, we beg to raise the question of your
Ms. MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth I) Well, so long as you do not come to me to
complain about your wives, I'm content.
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: Helen Mirren became widely known to American television audiences 15
years ago when she played Detective Jane Tennison in the first "Prime Suspect"
mystery series. She has a long list of stage, screen and television credits,
and earned Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress for her performance
in "The Madness of King George" and "Gosford Park." Among her other films are
"The Comfort of Strangers," "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,"
"The Mosquito Coast," "White Knights" and "Excalibur."
The two-part miniseries "Elizabeth I" debuts Saturday on HBO. The film
chronicles the 16th century monarch's battles with Spain and her mortal
conflict with her cousin Mary Queen of Scots. But it also deals with
Elizabeth's turbulent emotional life, including her relationship with the Earl
of Leicester, played by Jeremy Irons.
Well, Helen Mirren, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Ms. MIRREN: Thank you.
DAVIES: You're playing Queen Elizabeth I in this new production. Now, of
course, some great actresses have played this monarch, Bette Davis, Linda
Jackson, Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett. Did you look at their performances or
was that something you maybe wanted to avoid?
Ms. MIRREN: No. You know, it's not relevant, really. You know, your work
is to find what you think this person is, and also, you know, it all begins
with the writing, and it all--it all depends what the vehicle is in which this
Elizabeth lives, you know. So it's not remotely helpful to watch somebody
else's work because it's in a different vehicle. It's different writing. You
know, there are different--all kinds of different issues at play.
DAVIES: Can you think of anything in the reading that you did about Elizabeth
that you thought gave you some, you know, emotional insight into this woman?
Ms. MIRREN: The one thing in particular that really affected me was reading
that, at one point, she was so angry, she actually passed out.
Ms. MIRREN: Yeah. And I thought, `Wow, that's like really angry.' I can't
imagine being so angry that you literally pass out. And then, you know, you
really got the impression of an incredibly tempestuous emotional woman, where
she was unafraid of her own emotions. She had no reason to be afraid of them.
She could let them loose because she was a queen she could do anything. She
could cry, she could scream, she could throw shoes, she could shut herself
away, she could, you know, really play up, you know, as far as she wanted to
without any kind of censure really.
DAVIES: I thought we should listen to a clip from "Queen Elizabeth I" in
which you play the monarch. And the one I thought we would hear is where you,
as Queen Elizabeth, learn that the Earl of Leicester, whom the queen has had a
long-running affair or flirtation with, she has learned that he is actually
secretly married. He is played here by Jeremy Irons. And, of course, my
guest Helen Mirren, Elizabeth I. Let's hear her discover that her friend is
(Soundbite of "Elizabeth I")
Ms. MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth I) Oh, you son of a whore!
Mr. JEREMY IRONS: (As Earl of Leicester) Your Majesty, you must know that...
Ms. MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth I) Know what, my lord?
Mr. IRONS: (As Earl of Leicester) ...that I would never have taken a wife if
there were a chance you would smile upon my suit.
Ms. MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth I) I never--I never wish to see your face
Mr. IRONS: (As Earl of Leicester) My heart still runs on you. I swear it.
Ms. MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth I) Be off before I hang you. I'm minded to
hang you now, with my own hands, too.
Mr. IRONS: (As Earl of Leicester) Bess...
Ms. MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth I) Get out of my sight.
We forbid you access to our presence. You are no longer welcome at our court.
Be gone, sir, now.
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: And that's our guest Helen Mirren portraying Queen Elizabeth I in a
new production that would be debuting on HBO. Jeremy Irons is there also in
that scene as the Earl of Leicester.
You know, what's interesting about listening to that scene is that we hear the
queen when she loses control actually use the word `I' in public, refer to
herself in the first person singular. And then she realizes it, composes
herself and begins speaking in the royal `we.'
Ms. MIRREN: Yes.
DAVIES: "You are no longer welcome in our presence."
Ms. MIRREN: Yes.
DAVIES: Did you sort of have to become comfortable with a public and a
private Elizabeth in developing this character?
Ms. MIRREN: Yes. I mean, that's very much what our piece is about is the
public vs. and intertwined with the private. So, I mean, obviously that was,
you know, what we were playing with all the time. It's very difficult to go
behind the velvet curtains or the heavy oak doors of history, you know, and
find out what that person was actually like in private, because obviously so
much of what we read is very much either through contemporary writing that's
flattering--highly flattering. No one quite, you know, certainly wouldn't
dare criticize the queen.
The most truthful writings that I ever read about her always came from
ambassadors, foreign ambassadors who were sent to English court and then wrote
back to their kings or queens or whoever had sent them, and then they would
actually tell the truth because they were not in fear of censorship. So those
were the most sort of accurate descriptions of Elizabeth.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things about doing a--portraying a 16th century
queen is you wear a lot of stuff.
Ms. MIRREN: Yes, oh.
DAVIES: Stuff in your hair.
Ms. MIRREN: Couldn't be enough for me. I'll tell you.
DAVIES: Yeah, you liked it, huh?
Ms. MIRREN: I loved all of that. Oh, I loved it. Yes. It was great.
DAVIES: Well, I read that--did you also wear contact lenses to tint your
Ms. MIRREN: Yes, I did. I noticed that when I looked at all the portraits
that her eyes were always very black, very dark. And although it was very
fashionable to have white skin, the only descriptions that I could find of her
that were maybe truthful, she described herself as having rather sallow skin.
So she wasn't this white-skinned, red, you know, rosy-cheeked person at all.
She was--her red hair was natural. And then one of the ambassadors described
her as having black eyes. And I thought this black-eyed look, which is very
piercing, it's quite intimidating. If you know anyone with very dark, dark
brown eyes, it's quite piercing, intimidating look it gives to their eyes. I
thought that would be quite a good tool, so I--and I thought it's probably
historically accurate. So, yes, I wore dark brown lenses.
DAVIES: That--now, of course, it's interesting that in addition to this
portrayal of Elizabeth I, you have just finished a production in which you
play Elizabeth II, right, the current queen. Is that right?
Ms. MIRREN: Yes, I do.
DAVIES: And it...
Ms. MIRREN: Yes, absolutely. Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: How would you compare the two? Is there any connection?
Ms. MIRREN: There's a big connection. You know, it's very interesting.
Such completely different personalities. You couldn't get more extreme
differences in personalities. Elizabeth I very--not governed by her emotions.
Far from it. She was governed by her sense of power and her sense of
autocracy, but a much more emotional person. And this present queen who is
governed by an overriding sense of self-discipline, duty and sacrifice. But
the thing that they absolutely have in common is the single-minded dedication
and desire to be who they are. And I think they share that, absolutely. And
it's what makes both of them, I think, very mighty monarchs. And I think
Elizabeth II will, as history travels on, will be looked back on as a very,
very iconic and important figure in British history.
DAVIES: We're speaking with actress Helen Mirren. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, my guest is actress Helen Mirren. She
portrays Queen Elizabeth I in an HBO movie which will premiere on the 22nd.
Now, you went into films in--I guess, in your late 20s. And then in the '70s,
I read you sort of took a hiatus from a traditional acting course and joined
Peter Brooks Experimental International Center of Theater Research, which
involved, I guess, touring Africa and parts of the United States, performing
in very small settings, California farm workers. What...
Ms. MIRREN: Yes...(unintelligible)...Cesar Chavez, in fact.
DAVIES: Right. What appealed to you about that?
Ms. MIRREN: We worked...
DAVIES: And then what did you get from that experience?
Ms. MIRREN: Well, you know, it was part of my sort of my search, my holy
grail to try and be better. And having done a lot of Shakespeare in a
very--in that formal theater environment, I felt it was time to throw
everything up in the air. And I was lucky enough to be around when Brook was
just beginning that particular period of his life's work. And I joined for
just one year. And so, yes, we traveled through Africa. We started in
Nigeria and went down to Nigeria--south of Nigeria and then back up again,
traveling in Jeeps and working in just very, very small villages, never in any
towns. And then we came to America, and we worked with the chapter of
Campesino and with other theater groups in America.
DAVIES: Was this for you more a matter of developing your acting craft
and--or was it a matter of personal or political growth?
Ms. MIRREN: Not political. It was apolitical. I mean, I think it was
personal. Yes, personal acting growth. Not personal growth as a person,
although, of course, it turned into a bit of that, as well, because when
you're challenged like that--and it was very, very challenging, difficult
work--you are, you know, you do have to make some sort of personal growth.
Which, I think, actually it's probably I'm still in the process of learning
from that experience now. But it was very much to rediscover other ways of
I don't know if I really actually learned anything in reality except for
conquering fear, maybe.
DAVIES: Well, and you got a tattoo out of it.
Ms. MIRREN: I did. I did. In America. But, you know, when I got
tattooed--I can't believe it's become fashionable. When I got tattooed, it
was only Hell's Angels and gay sailors who were tattooed, you know. And it
was actually then it was very cool to have a tattoo because, you know, it gave
you an instant in with very--you know, I was never afraid of walking down dark
streets at night because anyone who is likely to attack me was probably likely
to have a tattoo. And there's nothing people like better than to talk about
DAVIES: We're speaking with actress Helen Mirren. She plays Queen Elizabeth
I in an HBO movie that will premiere soon. It is called "Elizabeth I."
I wanted to talk about another film for which you received a Oscar nomination
for Best Supporting Actress. That's "Gosford Park," a film I don't know well
because I've only seen it twice. It's wonderfully complex.
Ms. MIRREN: You've only seen it twice.
DAVIES: Yes, I've only seen it twice.
Ms. MIRREN: I know what you mean about--that's the nature of Altman's
movies, isn't it?
DAVIES: Right. There's so much happening that...
Ms. MIRREN: Yes, absolutely.
DAVIES: ...you could never quite get it all.
Ms. MIRREN: Yes.
DAVIES: I mean, this is one in which there's, I guess, a weekend party in a
British estate in the 1930s, and the wonderful thing is that we see the world
of the affluent, the middle-class people, and then also below stairs, their
servants, which you occupy in this case. And I wanted to--thought we would
listen to a clip from the film. This is--just to explain what's happening
here. In this you play the housekeeper of a wealthy man, Lord William
Stockbridge, who hosts this party and is actually murdered in the course of
it. And it turns out that when your character, Mrs. Wilson, was a young
girl, she was one of many servants whom Stockbridge had sexually preyed upon.
She bore a son which had been sent away to an orphanage, but which now many
years later, it turns out, returns to the estate as a valet to one of the
guests. He recognizes his father and decides he's going to kill this man who
had abandoned him. But your character, Mrs. Wilson, sees this coming and
instead poisons Stockbridge first so her son, in fact, can't be accused of
killing him. And the scene we're going to play here is the memorable one in
which you were discussing this with another servant, played by Kelly
Macdonald. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of "Gosford Park")
Ms. KELLY MACDONALD: (As Mary) Even if Robert is your son, how did you know
that he meant to harm his father?
Ms. MIRREN: (As Mrs. Wilson) What gift do you think a good servant has that
separates them from the others? It's the gift of anticipation, and I'm a good
servant. I'm better than good, I'm the best. I'm the perfect servant. I
know when they'll be hungry and the food is ready. I know when they'll be
tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.
Ms. MACDONALD: (As Mary) Are you going to tell them?
Ms. MIRREN: (As Mrs. Wilson) Why? What purpose would it possibly serve?
Ms. MACDONALD: (As Mary) What if they find out what happened?
Ms. MIRREN: (As Mrs. Wilson) Not much of a crime to stab a dead man, is it?
They can never touch him. That's what's important, his life.
Ms. MACDONALD: (As Mary) And your life?
Ms. MIRREN: (As Mrs. Wilson) Didn't you hear me? I'm the perfect servant,
I have no life.
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: And that's our guest Helen Mirren in the film "Gosford Park." She's
speaking there with Kelly Macdonald.
A wonderful scene. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about...
Ms. MIRREN: Yes, lovely piece of writing by...(unintelligible).
DAVIES: ...making that? Well, what was interesting, I think, in every--a lot
of actors like to be with Altman because, I mean, his reputation is that of a
lot of improvising and free flowing. I mean, this is--you've come from, you
know, performing a lot of Shakespeare. What was it like to work with Altman
Ms. MIRREN: Well, it's a bit of a misnomer, really, that, you know, Altman
is all about improvisation. It's not actually true. He choreographs very
precisely. You know, he loves the text and the text is important, but what he
does do, he has everybody miked all the time. And so as important as visual
story is the sound story in an Altman movie. And because you're miked,
everything you say--and sometimes you do improvise it, all actors do, you
know--those little moments of improvisation can be used. And then, of course,
the way he shoots is very--just very extraordinary, and it creates this
improvisational look to the movie that in reality is very, very carefully
choreographed and very precise, in fact. That was my experience, anyway.
DAVIES: Yeah. What do you mean by the way he shoots creating that feel?
Ms. MIRREN: Well, I mean, he'll--it's a sort of technical thing. But, for
example, he very often shoots with two cameras, and the two cameras are often
moving simultaneously, which is sort of unheard of on, you know, when you're
shooting a movie. And you'll never know if you're in close-up or if you're in
a wide shot or if it's a midshot while you're playing the scene. You don't
know what kind of shot you're in, so you can't become conscious in that
particular way. It's a particular kind of technique that's very--visually it
creates a sort of rather extraordinary thing. And also for the actors, you
play it almost like a play. You play the whole scene through, not quite
knowing when you're on camera, if you're off camera, if you're in close-up.
So it's very individual, and I love the way he worked. I thought it was
DAVIES: When you looked--when you saw the final product, was it what you
expected it to be?
Ms. MIRREN: It was more than I expected it to be. I thought it was
fantastic. Because of his way of shooting it, it gives the story an inner
life somehow, and it sort of that sense of naturalism you were talking about.
I thought it was great. I loved it. And I loved the fact that he was very,
very keen that all the details of that sort of a household were correct. You
know, that the way the spoons were kept and the way the pantry looked and all
of those technical details, visual details had to be absolutely right. He had
on set with us all the time we had a very old man and an old woman who had
worked in that sort of a household as advisers to tell us what people would do
and wouldn't do.
DAVIES: We're speaking with actress Helen Mirren. We'll talk more after a
This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: My guest is actress Helen Mirren. She stars in a new HBO miniseries
Well, Helen Mirren, in 1991 you had a role with which you've become much
identified when you played Jane Tennison in the "Prime Suspect" series. I
thought we'd hear a little bit of the first "Prime Suspect" series. And this
one is one in which you have been a district chief inspector, that's the rank
where you should be able to handle a murder investigation, but the men in the
department have found ways not to let you actually get an investigation to
cover. And in this case, one person who has begun a major investigation, one
of the officers has died and you've come in to assert your right to get
involved in this major police work.
(Soundbite of "Prime Suspect")
Ms. MIRREN: (As Jane Tennison) This may not be the right time, sir, but
under the circumstances, I'm not quite sure when would be the right time. I'm
offering to take over the murder investigation. I don't have to tell you that
I am qualified to handle this investigation and that I've been waiting
for--well, I don't have to tell you how long--18 months. And in that time,
I've had to handle more paperwork than I did at Redding for my whole five
years dealing with sex cases. I know DCI Shefford was at a crucial stage of
Mr. JOHN BENFIELD: (As Michael Kernan) Inspector, I have to see his wife
this afternoon. Don't expect me to make any decisions now. This is not the
Ms. MIRREN: (As Jane) Well, when is the right time? Look, I am the only
officer of my rank who is continually overstepped, side-stepped, whatever.
Just give me the chance to prove that I can...
Mr. BENFIELD: (As Michael) You don't have to prove yourself to me. Let me
think about it.
Ms. MIRREN: (As Jane) Well, that's not enough, Michael. I'm getting sick to
death of this so-called metropolitan police survey being thrown at me. So,
all right, apparently 90 percent of the time the general public would prefer a
male officer. But until one of us gets a chance to prove that that survey is
a biased, outdated load of (censored).
Mr. BENFIELD: (As Michael) A close (censored) a man who I respected highly
died right there. And now, inspector, is not the time to thrust your women's
rights down my throat. I'll get back to you.
Ms. MIRREN: (As Jane) Thank you, sir.
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: That was my guest Helen Mirren playing Jane Tennison in the original
"Prime Suspect" series. Acting in that scene with her was John Benfield.
You know, a lot of the fans of that series, me included, could hardly imagine
anybody but you in that role. Did it seem like a perfect fit when you read
Ms. MIRREN: I don't know about that. I mean, I did recognize that I was
jolly lucky to have it, you know, because it's so rare even to this day,
incidentally, that a woman drives the narrative of a drama. You can have very
good female roles and things but rarely are they actually driving a narrative.
And then it was even less likely, especially on television or anywhere. So,
you know, that was what fascinated me, the fact that it was a female character
driving the narrative.
The fact it was a police thing and Jane Tennison, all the rest of it didn't
really impinge upon my consciousness. I just saw that it was a really lovely
DAVIES: Did you learn any gestures or vocal mechanisms that you put into that
character, do you recall...(unintelligible).
Ms. MIRREN: The only thing was that I, you know, a woman--policewoman who
was quite high up said she never folds her arms. I thought that was very
interesting. Police are very, very into body language. They can read you
like a book, the good detectives. They understand body language extremely
well. It's how they do their job a lot of the time. And she said, `Don't
fold your arms.'
Ms. MIRREN: Because folding your arms, it looks--you think you're being
strong. And I laugh now, I often see those big posters of women playing
policewomen, and they're always standing there with their arms folded. Oh,
this looks powerful and strong. Not. You know, folding your arms is a
defensive action, and much more powerful is to stand with your arms relaxed by
your side, open, you know, ready.
DAVIES: There have been six, I believe. Is there going to be a seventh?
Ms. MIRREN: I'm in the process of doing the last one right now, the last
one. I think it's seven. I've lost count.
DAVIES: This would be the seventh. Why the last one?
Ms. MIRREN: Because I think it's time to stop. I did stop for seven years,
actually. I said no. It was time to not do it for a while, anyway. I felt I
was maybe, in certain people's minds, a little too identified with it. I felt
that if I was knocked over, you know, the headline would read "Jane Tennison
dies." So I thought I'd better, you know, extricate myself from that. And
I--so I didn't do it for seven years. And then I felt, you know, it is a
wonderful role. And that the best thing about doing that is I get to work
with really good writers, really good directors and really good actors. I
have the pick of the best in Britain. So, you know, you don't turn your back
on that too easily. So I did one more thinking, `Well, if it was not
successful, that's it. End of story.' And it was. It was hugely successful.
It was really, really well-received, so I thought I do one more, the last one,
which is what I'm doing now.
DAVIES: Well, Helen Mirren, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
Ms. MIRREN: Thank you very much.
DAVIES: Actress Helen Mirren. She stars in a new HBO miniseries "Elizabeth
I," which premieres Saturday.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
We'll end today's show with music from Thelonious Monk, who was just
recognized with a special Pulitzer Prize Award for his compositions. This is
his song "Hackensack."
(Soundbite of "Hackensack")
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