Profiles in Nerdage: Helen Mirren

In a fifty year career that spans stage, film and television, Dame Helen Mirren (DBE) has played many famous people from the likes of Ayn Rand to Queen Elizabeth II.  She has won what is referred to as the triple crown of acting (an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen, a Tony for The Audience where she also played Elizabeth and 4 Emmys).

As modern Hollywood began to deal with the inherent sexism and misogynistic culture, an interview from 1975 with Michael Parkinson resurfaced where he labelled her “the sex queen of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)” while she showed her intelligence and class.  She stood her ground well even though it was her first TV interview ever.

In her long and varied career it would be unusual if she hadn’t played in a part related to nerd culture.  Luckily for us, she has been part of many sci-fi, fantasy, and comic related properties.  Here is a rundown of the best movies and shows that gave her nerd street cred.

While her acting career started in 1967 with the RSC and she did films that got her in the limelight (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Caligula were highlights), it was her 14th film that brought her to the attention of adolescent boys in 1981.  Excalibur, where Mirren played the part of Morgana, sister to King Arthur (Nigel Terry) and foil to Merlin (Nicol Williamson), was a highly stylised version of the Arthurian mythos that was directed by John Boorman.

Morgana awakes the Dragon as the ghostly form of Merlin haunts her

In the film, Morgana seduces her brother, Arthur, and bears him the son that will be his doom, Mordred.  Mirren having played Lady Macbeth and many other women of power, plays her part perfectly.   She is both sultry and conniving with the same intensity.  Even though she was a highlight, this film was also where most people first saw Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, and Gabriel Byrne.

Williamson and Mirren had personal issues years before the film was made on a production of Macbeth and Boorman cast them knowing the tension would elevate their performances.  It worked.  This film is a classic even though it rewrites much of the mythos to serve its own purposes.


Mirren’s next film was her first science fiction outing.  1984’s 2010: The Year We Make Contact was a sequel to the seminal film 2001: A Space Odyssey and was based on the Arthur C. Clarke novel of the same name.

Tanya, the commander of this Russian mission

After all the extremely feminine work (both on stage and in Excalibur), in this film she portrays a Russian cosmonaut who serves as basically a bus conductor for Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) to the ship Discovery One, still in orbit around Jupiter nine years after the events of the first film.

She is almost unrecognizable in the part.  With her short curly hair and Russian accent (not to mention her utilitarian uniform), Mirren’s part is often understated.  She mostly interacts with the rest of the Russian crew but when she is alone with Dr. Floyd we do get a bit of her personal background and humanity behind her authoritarian facade.

Tanya and Floyd at odds…again.

While her part was integral to the story, she was used more for exposition than for action.  But to see her transformation from the sultry queen of the RSC to this non-sexual Russian showed her range that would serve her well the rest of her career.


While she never appeared in the Rod Serling version of The Twilight Zone she did appear in the 1980’s reboot of the show in an episode entitled “Dead Woman’s Shoes.”

The episode is about a timed thrift store employee, Maddie (Mirren).  She finds a pair of expensive heels in a donation box and when she puts them on her whole personality changes.  She becomes assertive and confident.  She catches a cab to a mansion where she feels strangely comfortable and knows details about the maid’s life that no stranger would know.  She says that she is Susan, the dead wife of Kyle (Jeffrey Tambor) and she retells the story of her own death when Kyle comes home.  She shoots at him but doesn’t manage to kill him.

She removes the shoes dumps them and the gun in the trash.  She returns to her timid ways and her timid life.  But a maid finds the shoes and gun and after putting them on enters the house and a single gunshot is heard.

This episode was an adaption of one called “Dead Man’s Shoes” from the original series.  Seeing her play two completely different characters definitely showed her mercurial ability to inhabit other lives.  This is not the best episode of the rebooted series but it hits most of the right marks and she is very believable as both Susan and Maddie.


Her second foray into science fiction on the big screen was 2005’s adaption of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  While she did not appear on screen, she did provide the voice and sarcasm of the city sized computer Deep Thought.

Deep Thought was built by pan dimensional beings to discover the answer to the ultimate question.  The answer was 42.  The problem was that they didn’t know the question, so Deep Thought was re tasked with designing the computer that could discover the question, known as Earth.

Hearing not only a woman’s voice but that of Mirren say that the answer is 42 is so anti-climatically wonderful.  She sounds like a mother chastising her children when those assembled to hear the answer seem upset that it isn’t something more profound.

She would do voice work again in Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole as Nyra and as Dean Hardscrabble in Monsters University.

 

 

 

 


The final entry that earned her a warm place in the cockles of many nerd hearts is in the two film (so far) in the RED series.

Based on the comic book series of the same name by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, published by DC imprint Homage.  The film starred Bruce Willis, Mirren, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Mary Louise Parker and Karl Urban.

Mirren plays Victoria Winslow, an agent who specializes in wetwork.  She is cool and calm under pressure.  When she joins the group she adds a level of class and professionalism not to mention her skills as a sniper.

Besides the obvious romance between the two leads (Willis and Parker), Mirren gets to flirt with Ivan (played by the always wonderful Brian Cox).

Their romance is a high point of the film and they play it to perfection.  Cox is very suave as the ex-KGB agent who attempts to reignite the love of his “bunny.”

But it is her work with weapons that shines bright.  Whether it is her use of an H&K MP5K, her sniper’s rifle, or the Browning M2 (nicknamed ‘ma deuce’ because she always has the last word) she seems equally at home.  The joy she got from getting to kick some ass is evident in the film.

The first film is a joy to watch, which makes the second film that much harder to watch.

RED2 added more star power with Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones but somewhere along the way it lost the narrative threads that made the first film so special.

In this film, Victoria was tasked with killing Frank (Willis) but instead warns him and ends up imprisoned by MI6.  She escapes and helps the team again.

Where the first film had fun with the archetypes and parodied the various related genres, this movie seems intent on just upping the stakes repeatedly.  While the cast all appear to be having fun, the film doesn’t deliver the same thrill ride the first one did.

Mirren is still a joy to watch as she brings Victoria to life again.  Hopefully, her connections to nerd films and TV series are not over and we will get to see her again at places like Comic Con.

Did we miss any of her nerd connections?  Are there other actors that you’d like to see profiled like this?  Let us know in the comments or on our Facbook page.

Category: Featured, Film, Nerd Culture

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