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The Tempest – How Helen Mirren fell in love with Shakespeare

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The Tempest - Helen Mirren
Prospera (Helen Mirren) © 2010 Tempest Production

2010 marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. But he could never have imagined Julie Taymor’s revolutionary take on his story, changing the lead male character, a sorcerer, Prospero, to a female sorceress, Prospera, played by Helen Mirren. Her journey spirals from vengeance to forgiveness as she reigns over a magical island, cares for her young daughter, Miranda (Felicity Jones), and unleashes her powers against shipwrecked enemies in a mix of romance, tragicomedy and the supernatural.

Helen Mirren spoke of her dream-come-true, playing Prospera, at the press junket for the movie.

What was your first experience with Shakespeare?

The Tempest - Dame Helen Mirren
Dame Helen Mirren arrives at the Premiere © 2010 WireImage

My first experience with Shakespeare was when I was about thirteen, and I went to see an amateur production of Hamlet, and I was absolutely bowled over by it. It was probably a really bad production, really badly acted, but that didn’t matter. I was just mesmerized by the world and the thriller element of the story, these incredible characters. I’ve never ever seen anything like it, and I fell in love with Shakespeare there and then.

And then I started doing a little bit of Shakespeare at school. I think it was my experience with Shakespeare that really led me to becoming an actress.

How has your relationship with Shakespeare changed since that time?

It’s gone through various stages. I did a lot of Shakespeare, as I said, I wanted to be a Shakespearean actress, I didn’t want to be a movie star, I didn’t want to do film, I didn’t want to be on T.V. I just wanted to be a great Shakespearean actress. And to achieve that, you just have to do it a lot, so for the first eight years of my professional life I did nothing but Shakespeare basically. And then I started branching out a bit and doing other things.

Then I’d had enough of Shakespeare, I would go and see Shakespeare but I didn’t want to act in it again. And then I was watching The Tempest and because it was such a long time since I’d done any Shakespeare, I was beginning to feel the urge and the desire to do it again.

I was older and as you get older there are less and less roles for women in Shakespeare. I’d done Cleopatra three times, and I didn’t want to do that again. So I was looking, and I was saying, ‘What can I do?’ Then I saw The Tempest, and as I was watching it I thought, ‘My God, that could be played by a woman, and you wouldn’t have to change a word of the dialogue. All the relationships would work,’

It’s the only play of Shakespeare’s that this is true of, and I thought maybe I’ll go to the theatre sometime and say, ‘I want to do Shakespeare, and I want to do The Tempest.’ And then I met Julie and we came together and this is what we did.

You said you didn’t have to change the dialogue, but how does the dynamic change with the change in gender?

The Tempest - Chris Cooper, Helen Mirren, Alan Cumming and David Strathairn
Antonio (Chris Cooper) and Prospera (Helen Mirren), Sebastian (Alan Cumming) and King Alonso (David Strathairn) © 2010 Tempest Production, Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon

As far as I’m concerned, I think there are two issues, how one feels inside of the play and then how people perceive it, which is sometimes two different things.  I thought the dynamic changed brilliantly within the play for myself. I thought the relationship with Miranda becomes this maternal relationship, it’s a gentler relationship. It’s not patriarchal and controlling; it’s seems to be matriarchal and understanding, which is a very different thing. I loved the relationship with Caliban ((Djimon Hounsou) and Ariel (Ben Whishaw).

The relationship with Caliban becomes slightly sexual, brutal, rough sexuality, and then the world of the spirit and of the imagination of the soul, and that dichotomy played out for a woman’s sensibilities was very different than through a man’s. I thought so many themes in the play worked so well with it being a woman.

It’s becoming common all the time for film actors to act off of a character who isn’t there, that’s a big change from the stage – what was that like?

Ariel is a character of the imagination. I think Shakespeare would have loved special effects, he writes special effects into his plays a lot of the time. [He would have loved] to have had the spirit of Ariel one minute small, the next minute a giant. That’s what he writes. So I think he would have absolutely adored all of that.

I think Shakespeare also loved an audience, and his plays are so much to do with the inter-reaction with an audience and the whole process of filmmaking I think would have driven him crazy.

How did shooting in Hawaii play into setting the whole theme and feeling of the movie?

The Tempest - Ben Whishaw and Helen Mirren
Ariel (Ben Whishaw) and Prospera (Helen Mirren) © 2010 Tempest Production, Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon

I thought Hawaii was a genius choice on Julie’s part for the island. Of course there are beautiful islands all over the world, but it was a brilliant choice. It has this Jurassic feeling. It’s still being created, it’s the youngest landmass in the world, and because of that it has this ancient Jurassic feeling of how the world used to be a billion years ago. So it was a great concept to put it there.

The landscape was so powerful, so raw and primitive it is as important a part of the film as the actors. I’m not a superstitious person, and I don’t believe in fairies, but if I did, you’re about as close to that world in Hawaii as you could ever get.