Every actor dreams of earning the most prestigious award their field has to offer, whether that’s an Academy Award for film, an Emmy Award for television or a Tony Award for theater. British actress Helen Mirren possesses all three.
Growing up in a working-class family in England, the actress was drawn to theater for the imaginative outlet it provided from a young age. Her Russian father and British mother, however, encouraged her to pursue a more “respectable” career path and sent her to a Catholic convent and later a teaching school. Wherever she went, Mirren’s spark for the stage was recognized by her superiors, who prompted her to audition for plays and theatre companies. Eventually, she followed their advice.
Since the beginnings of her career as a stage actress with the Shakespeare Royal Company in the 1960s, Mirren has made a name for herself by portraying strong, sensual and self-assured characters like Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth. Her confidence and sexuality as a woman have often found her face-to-face with unwarranted sexism, such as in a 1975 interview with talk show host Michael Parkinson in which he comments on her “sluttish eroticism” and asks if her “physical attributes” stand in the way of her success. The actress, however, remains unbothered and unafraid to shoot back as she responds, “I mean, what a crummy performance if people are obsessed with your bosom over anything else.”
For the six decades she’s been acting, she’s continuously resisted all stigmas and expectations imposed on her by men and society while proving just how talented she really is. In 1991, at a time when studios doubted whether a female character could lead a TV show, Mirren wowed audiences with her performance as “Detective Jane Tennison” in the British drama Prime Suspect. Playing the role of a woman fighting off injustices in a male-dominated field, a struggle she herself was enduring, earned the actress three British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) and two Emmys during the show’s 15 year run.
Seeing how much the industry has changed since then, Mirren is glad to remain an advocate for workplace equality in Hollywood. “There is a pressure mounting behind a dam, and I hope that dam is finally bursting in terms of women directors and women-led dramas,” she told The Hollywood Reporter.
Her depiction of powerful women also extends to her home country’s rich history. A Dame Commander of the British Empire herself, she’s played the parts of both Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Elizabeth II on separate occasions and received an Academy Award for her performance in the 2006 film The Queen about the Royal Family’s response to Princess Diana’s death.
As the years pass, Mirren’s list of award nominations and wins continue to grow. In a 2016 interview with Vanity Fair, she stated that she values her career above motherhood (as she chose to never have children) or a domestic life- and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. ““I can watch [a] film of Ingrid Bergman, [Katherine] Hepburn—you look and say, ‘She was brilliant!’ So I would like people to say that about me,” the actress explained.
These days, the Mirren is dedicated as ever to educating the public and younger generations about the importance of feminism. She appeared in the 2016 Pirelli Calendar in a highly-appraised series of pictures taken by famed photographer Peter Lindbergh. Unedited and untouched, the photos aim to show what real beauty and strength look like, no photoshop needed. Between the seven “current projects” listed on her website, the actress also found time to give this year’s commencement speech at Tulane University, where she offered students life advice ranging from dealing with bullies to procrastination to tattoos and encouraged them to “be a feminist” regardless of their race or sex.
Now in her 70s, Mirren is a true testament of what it means to lead a trailblazing career while also breaking stereotypes and ignoring the haters: the perfect recipe for finding self-fulfillment and real happiness.