Helen Mirren knows her Elizabeths. In August the British actress, married to Ray director Taylor Hackford, won an Emmy for the title role in HBO’s Elizabeth I. Now Mirren, 61, has Oscar buzz for her take on Elizabeth II in The Queen, which explores how Princess Diana’s death rocked the Palace. Can you play a living monarch and keep your head? PEOPLE’s Oliver Jones found out.
Were you nervous about playing the current Queen?
I was scared s—less. I was very intimidated, more than anything else I’ve ever attempted. But I loved being her.
So tell us why it’s good to be the Queen.
I found there was this calmness within her. She has incredible consistency. Think of the huge, world-changing events she’s gone through. She never, thank God, became a hippie and ran off with the Maharishi in the ’60s.
In the movie, the Queen’s stiff upper lip gets her in trouble—she’s too slow to publicly grieve for her ex-daughter-in-law.
I used to criticize the Queen: “Can’t you just smile and be nice? Isn’t that what you’re there for?” Playing her, I realized it’s not about smiling or responding to polls. That’s the Queen’s attitude: If you’re constant, you will go through storms—but when the storm has blown, you’ll still be standing.
Many people are shocked at how much you look like her in the movie. Were you?
No. When I was younger and happened to wear a dark wig for a part, I looked very much like Princess Margaret. Everyone would say so.
Any feedback from the Windsors?
I had been invited to Buckingham Palace while I was making the film, but I turned them down because if the film became mortifying to the royal family, I didn’t want their mortification to be doubled by me turning up. If they invite me now, I’ll go. And if I get a steely stare, then that is what I get.
The Queen made you a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2003. Think she’ll take it away now?
I was worried! You never quite know where your damehood comes from. I’m not sure the monarchy has anything to do with it. But they do give it to you, so I imagine they can take it away.
Has this role stayed with you?
It’s very weird: When I look at pictures of the Queen [in 1997], I think, “There I am! Oh no, it’s not you, Helen, it’s the Queen of England!” I will carry with me, to the day I die, a love for her.