Picture Helen Mirren walking regally onto the Glenn Gould stage in Toronto’s Canadian Broadcasting Center. She’s dressed beautifully, like the queen she’s portrayed on stage and in film. A jeweled neck collar completes her modern form-fitting lemon-chiffon colored dress.
The audience is small and the coveted tickets are priceless. We’ve come to hear Mirren talk about her career and Paolo Virzì’s new film, The Leisure Seeker at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival. I realize success and happiness have come later in life for Mirren but as I listen to her career highlights, one thing stands out. Mirren tells the audience it’s never too late to realize your passions because life is a never-ending series of new opportunities waiting to be realized.
Actors Help Us to Re-Imagine What Life Can Be
This sounds so simple, doesn’t it? It’s never too late to see life as an opportunity to begin again. And yet, we all know starting a new relationship, changing a career path, moving into a new living space or even taking in a new pet can be tremendously complicated. Sometimes it’s easy but often we wait for life to force change.
I’ve come to realize new beginnings are a gift that can bring new meaning and purpose. This knowledge comes from experience because change is fraught with fear and uncertainty. It’s especially true when change is uninvited. But Mirren helps us see there are many paths to new beginnings.
Mirren’s job as an actress is a great opportunity because acting, in itself, is about continual reinvention. Audiences can live vicariously through actors who face life-threatening circumstances in thriller movies or tumultuous internal conflict that tears them apart.
As a pragmatist, I realize life isn’t a Hollywood movie or a stage performance. But William Shakespeare’s adage “life is but a stage” provides some interesting food for thought. Movies and the arts give us permission to dream, to learn and to be inspired. Sometimes they help us find the courage to change our circumstances, if only to realize we want something else in life.
The upside? We have more than 120 minutes to build new beginnings, and a bag of popcorn and a handful of red twizzlers make almost anything possible. But so does Mirren’s 2015 movie, Woman in Gold. Mirren plays Maria Altmann in the real-life story of a Jewish refugee who fights the Austrian government for ownership of a portrait of her Aunt Adele (shown above). The Gustav Klimt painting is worth millions but Maria wins her fight to claim what is rightfully hers.
Mirren’s Early Beginnings
In many ways, Mirren’s personal life mirrors this fearless approach to chasing her own dreams. While she spent years honing her craft (this 1985 photo shows Mirren just before her rise to fame), Mirren’s dedication paid off when she faced her fears about being in front of the camera.
She started taking uncomfortable roles that eventually brought success and happiness. A fun fact: before her fame, Mirren said a palm reader predicted she’d have her greatest success after 40.
Interestingly, Helen was born Ilynea Lydia Mironoff on July 26, 1945. She later took the stage name Mirren, but her roots are Scottish and Russian. Born in West London to a working class family, her father, Vasiliy Petrovich Mironov, was a Russian-born civil servant. He changed the family name from Mironoff to Mironov when Helen was 7 years old.
Mirren jokes her soulfulness may have come from her Russian roots, knowing one of the first performing arts theaters in 17th century Russia was started by a relative. Her modest upbringing lead to a job as an usherette, where she was exposed to cinema and Shakespeare. Seeing Hamlet changed her life. It pulled Mirren into a world of imagination and characters. And when she landed the role of Cleopatra with the Royal Shakespeare company, her career took off.
Mirren Found Success Later in Life
In the 70’s, Mirren worked with amazing directors that became big movie directors. She traded her personal life to build a collective body of work until 1997, when she married Taylor Hackford. She was 52 years old with a long list of cinema credits but she decided to try something new. Her television role as Detective Jane Tennison (below) in the series Prime Suspect marked a new beginning.
She was nervous but she jumped into the project, armed with her British “get on with it” attitude. A woman leading a series was unheard of in the 1990’s and it was this role that lead to the movie idea, The Queen.
Each fearless leap of faith in Mirren’s life has ushered in greater opportunities to explore her life. In the coming decade, Mirren’s outstanding performances garnered a triple crown feat. She earned a 2007 Academy Award for leading actress in The Queen, a 2013 Olivier Award for her stage performance in The Audience (see the photo below) and a 2015 Tony Award on Broadway for the same production.
Mirren’s foray into the arts came full circle when Queen Elizabeth II awarded her Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. But Mirren is quick to point out she is more than the sum of her diverse acting roles. Her fearless approach to life sets her apart.
Why It’s Important to Be Fearless and Begin Again
As a keynote speaker at Tulane’s convocation, Mirren spoke about this in her Top Five Rules for Living. The first three rules warn students not to rush into marriage, to treat people with respect and to be generous to others. The fourth is not to be afraid of fear. I like that this precedes the fifth rule, not overcomplicating things.
For Mirren, life is better for everyone if we face fear. Despite her introverted nature, she’s taken this message to audiences. In her latest film, The Leisure Seeker, Mirren takes her last adventure despite her terminal cancer. Her husband, played by legendary Canadian film star Donald Sutherland, is a retired professor of literature suffering from Alzheimer’s. Sadly, the story is dreadfully contrived and gimmicky but it’s message speaks to living life on your own terms.
Mirren plans to do more cutting-edge films. Her Paris Fashion Week catwalk this past Spring, with Jane Fonda (see the last photo showing these two iconic role models for women), demonstrates her unrelenting exploration of self. MIrren proves Shakespeare was right about one thing: we should “strut our stuff… full of sound and fury.”
But Mirren also helps us realize this life doesn’t have to follow Shakespeare’s tale “that it is told by an idiot, signifying nothing.” Instead, we can and should begin again. “Life is not a dress rehearsal. Stop practicing what you’re going to do and just go do it. In one bold stroke you can transform today.” (Romance novelist, Marilyn Grey)
To learn more about how to begin again, check out: Julia Cameron’s, It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again.