Your first instinct is to bow deeply or curtsy, something — so the question has to be asked: "Do you find you're greeted, and treated, differently since you began playing Queen Elizabeth?" Helen Mirren laughs a hearty, Henry VIII-size laugh and then slips into a demurring purr. "Hmm," she ponders, "maybe with a smidgen more respect."
"Smidgen" may be right. She was already one of the planet's best and most respected actresses (as well as a Dame, by royal decree) before she became a queen of screen and stage. Bette Davis may be off somewhere spinning like a top and smoldering, but the undisputable fact is that Mirren has cornered the market on Elizabeths.
"I did One and Two in the same year," the actress speedily points out, "which was pretty amazing," and it was, even if she says so herself. In 2005, she was Elizabeth I, the patron of Shakespeare's art and Lord Nelson's battles in the HBO miniseries by that name, while on the big screen she was The Queen, Elizabeth II, who is currently less than 200 days from passing Victoria as Britain's longest reigning monarch.
In 2013 Peter Morgan, the screenwriter of "The Queen," decided to crank up Old Betsy again and wrote a 60-year cavalcade about the interplay between QE2 and her 12 prime ministers. The result, The Audience, won Mirren the Olivier and may well win her the Tony, once the play opens March 8 at the Schoenfeld for a run until June 28. Now, all she has to do is work up a few Elizabethan sonnets to sing to get herself a Grammy and become the first EGOT (Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony winner) to specialize in Elizabeths. She laughs again at that suggestion — this is a jolly queen — but can't see it happening. "I can't sing. That's the great sadness of my life. A Grammy is not in my future, I'm afraid. Luckily, I'm passing the scepter to Kristin Scott Thomas, who's going to play The Audience when they revive it in London. I'm absolutely thrilled because I do want to share the mantel with a few other people."
Elizabeth I and II are not Mirren's first times at the royal court. She was an Oscar-nominated Queen Charlotte, opposite Nigel Hawthorne, in "The Madness of King George" and a stage Cleopatra. She contends that the deader, the better to act.
"I've always felt it not a great idea to play living people, especially someone like the queen. You'll never be as good as they are. They're the best at being themselves than anybody can be. You'll only ever be — if you're lucky — 50 percent as good as they are."
If the queen has notes for Mirren on how to play her, she has not been forthcoming. "I've met the queen on a couple of occasions — usually, quite public occasions with a lot of other people there — and she has always been incredibly gracious, but she never mentions my playing her," she recalled. "I think that's absolutely appropriate.
"The royal family — and the queen, in particular — have always very liberal because we come from a country that has free speech. There have been films mocking them and suggesting they were Nazis and abusing them in all kinds of different ways, and, through it all, they have never said a word. They just let that happen. They don't defend themselves. They don't say anything. In a sense, it's not their role to critique that particular world. Likewise, it applies to a film that I know was appreciated by the people around the queen — but the queen herself would never say anything."
That same tight-lipped royal reaction greeted The Audience. "People from the palace came and loved it, thought it was accurate and a very good representation of the reality that they knew of the queen and her various prime ministers, although the whole point of The Audience is that it's private so no members of the household are present, but they did feel that the portrayal was true to the woman that they worked for. They called her 'The Boss.' They said, 'I thought it was my boss up there.' Nice!
"It's not that each and every scene in The Audience has its particular drama. It doesn't, particularly. The play, really, is more about the prime ministers than it is about the queen." [Yeah? Tell it to the Tony voters!] "It's more revealing about what it takes to be a politician there. It's also a tapestry-like history of the queen's reign. "Whether the government is right-wing or left-wing, the way our constitution is written is that the monarch has to be totally apolitical. That's why Prince Charles keeps getting into trouble. He does have political views. He's a thinking person and has understandings of the best way to proceed and is always getting into trouble for expressing this. The queen has been extraordinary in never articulating her views.
"As the prime ministers start piling up, it has an accumulative effect. At the end of the play, the queen is standing there alone, and you suddenly understand the whole extraordinary history of involvement in these huge moments in British history as well as in the history of the world. And this woman is still there, still standing."