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Helen Mirren on The Tempest and Stealing All Her Best Roles From Men

When William Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, it was a man's world, but now that director Julie Taymor and star Helen Mirren have gotten their crack at the material, it's something very different entirely. In Taymor's new film version, Prospero — the spell-casting Duke of Milan banished to a remote island with daughter Miranda — has become Prospera, and the Mirren-accommodating gender-flip opens up the story and gives the actress one of her best roles yet. (Mirren will continue the trend in next year's remake of Arthur, where she'll act opposite her Tempest co-star Russell Brand in a role that was originally written for a man.) The actress recently sat down with Vulture to discuss gender and beauty, her admiration (and unsuccessful audition) for Ridley Scott's Alien, and NBC's failed attempt to remake her seminal British detective series Prime Suspect.

This isn't your first time doing a gender-flipped take on The Tempest — I read that you played the slave Caliban in a production when you were younger.
Well, I played Caliban as Caliban. I gender-flipped the other way, if you like. But I did that when I was at school! I was 14 years old, and it was an all-girls school, so you had to play the boys' roles. But I didn't play Caliban because I had to, I played him because I wanted to. He was the character that most appealed to me in the whole play.

How come?
He's just such an incredibly romantic character. He's this raw, raw creature of physical desires and physicality in general, and one of the most beautiful speeches in the play is given to him. That contrast between his savagery and his poetry is just so beautiful.

Djimon Hounsou plays Caliban very raw in this movie.
Oh, very. And angry and fantastic and violent. I was scared to go near him on the set. I was! He was in a very dark place because his makeup was such a pain for him, and then on top of that, I think he's quite Method, Djimon. He's a very serious actor and so in character that he was very scary to be near.

How does it change The Tempest to make Prospera maternal rather than paternal?
I think all the relationships shift, obviously. I think the heart and the essence of the play doesn't really change — it's about betrayal and revenge and forgiveness, and it's about the physical world and the spiritual world. None of that changes with Prospera being a woman, and although the relationship with Miranda doesn't totally change — she's still a loving and protective parent — being a woman, I think you have more of a sense that she understands where Miranda is coming from and understands who this girl is. When Prospero is a man, you get the sense that he's this nasty, unattractive, paternal dictator, and I think you lose that here and it becomes more emotional.

I've been reading a lot of profiles of Julie Taymor now that her take on Spider-Man is opening, and it's interesting the way that she's covered by the media. What she's wearing or how she's done her hair will sometimes get mentioned, and you might not find that in a profile of, say, Taylor Hackford.
No, especially now that he doesn't have his ponytail anymore! Maybe when he had his ponytail, they might have mentioned it. [Laughs.] It's true, but you get used to that, for sure. It's very hard to wriggle out from that, from being judged first for your gender and then after for what you're creating. Politicians have the same problem, obviously, and women presenters on television.

And actresses, too, I would think.
Yes, but it's built into our existence. We're used to it. It must be galling for the people for whom the way they look is not built into what they do, but it is for us. Whether we're male or female, old or young, short or tall, the way we look is a part of what we use in acting.

You're essentially doing the same sort of gender-flip in the new Arthur movie with Russell Brand, playing the character John Gielgud did in the original version.
Yes, yes.

You hear of many A-list actresses doing that — women like Angelina Jolie or Jodie Foster, who take scripts originally written for men and star in them, because the roles become more interesting.
That's happening much more now. That was the great thing with the first Alien — I read the original script for that, and when you read it, you had no idea which character was male and which was female. They were just people engaging with each other in this situation. They all had these sort of asexual names, so when Ripley said or did things, you had no idea whether Ripley was a man or a woman. You could have interchanged all the characters — they could have been all male or all female — any one of them could have been anything. When people talk about writing for women, I say, "Don't write for women, write for people." Give it an asexual name and then decide whether you're going to cast a woman. I've always believed that.

Did you audition for the original Alien?
I did, actually. Yes, I did, I went up for it. And you know, the character I played in State of Play was a male in the original TV series. I'm often asked about this issue, and I don't worry too much about roles for women in drama — I worry about roles for women in the world! As roles for women in the world change, then as night follows day, they will change in drama. When State of Play was first written, I don't think there was an understanding that a woman could be the editor of a big newspaper in New York. It was like, "That can't be a woman! That just doesn't happen." And then when we came to make the movie ten years later, yeah, it had become possible.

Speaking of strong roles for women, NBC recently tried to Americanize Prime Suspect, and they couldn't find a movie star willing to do a network show. You began that role for television back in 1991 — did you feel any stigma then?
I don't think there's a stigma anymore because there's now a lot of really great work in television. It used to be, twenty years ago, that doing network television was frowned upon, but Hill Street Blues was the first game-changer. It's a really different landscape now on television, and some of the best writing and acting and directing — and lighting! — is happening on television.

Were you a little tickled by the reports that they were going after Julianne Moore or Robin Wright for that role?
I didn't know anything about that! I wasn't aware of that.

Was there any part of you that still felt possessive about Prime Suspect?
No, no, I've moved on. I mean, I've moved myself on. It was very much of its time, and I'm not too sure it can be updated. It was radical at the time, but it isn't anymore — it's lost that cachet. There's many, many female cops on television now, and it doesn't have that "new" thing anymore.

Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images