From her elegance to incisive on-screen portrayals, Dame Helen Mirren has been wowing her audiences in a career spanning five decades. In this Australian exclusive, she shares insights into her role as Hedda Hopper, the flamboyant Hollywood gossip columnist who railed against the perceived threat of ‘Reds under the bed’ in post-war America.
Oscar winning actress, the impeccable Helen Mirren, is best known for her performances in The Queen (2006) The Madness of King George (1995) and Gosford Park (2001). In her latest movie Mirren plays Hedda Hopper – a fierce gossip columnist who was part of the Hollywood anti-Communist witch-hunt in the 1940s and 1950s.
Directed by Jay Roach, Trumbo is the story of Dalton Trumbo, the most successful screenwriter in Hollywood, who also happened to have joined the Communist Party in 1943.
In 1947, with anti-Communist hysteria rampant in America, Trumbo and his colleagues were hauled before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. His refusal to answer questions landed him 11 months in prison, leaving his career in ruins. Anti-Communists Hopper and John Wayne pressured studio bosses to make sure that Trumbo, and the rest of the group known as the ‘Hollywood 10’, were blacklisted.
To prepare for the role, Mirren watched footage of Hopper and read as much as she could about the actress turned gossip columnist, who, at her peak, was read by tens of millions all over the USA. There is, she says, more responsibility portraying a real person.
“You have historical truth to consider. And I think it’s such an invasion of someone’s privacy to put them on the screen that you’re beholden as an actor to do it as truthfully and as understandingly as possible.”
If past performance is anything to go by, Mirren will be riveting.
Growing up, were there any left wing politics in your own family?
HM: Yes, my dad was definitely on the left, and although he never became a member of the Communist Party – rather like Trumbo, he was on the edge. He grew up in the 30s and went on the marches against fascism in the East End (of London) including the clash between Oswald Mosley and his followers and the anti-fascists on the famous Cable Street march. Anyone with a thought about how human life should be, with a shred of decency in them, would have been, for example, pro the unions. Nowadays unions are an accepted part of our world, but they weren’t then. It was such a different era and I think there was naivety, and I certainly think with my dad there was a feeling of ‘oh, all that anti Communist stuff, it’s just propaganda’, when they were talking about the gulags. It wasn’t until Solzhenitsyn said, ‘no, this is what is happening!’, that those left wing people, like my dad, on the edges of Communism, had the scales fall from their eyes. They realised it had all gone horribly, horribly wrong. But, you know, they were idealists.
John Wayne isn’t portrayed very sympathetically in the film, is he?
HM: Well, both John Wayne and Hedda thought of themselves as great American patriots. It wasn’t cynical and I think that, in a sense, they were as naïve as the people who opposed them. Both sides had a certain naivety. It was a time of extremism, and extremist attitudes, coming out of that WWII situation.
Was it hard to play a villain?
HM: If you’re playing a real life character, you never think of them as a villain. Hedda and her methods were the antithesis of everything that I hold dear and I believe in, but you cannot come
to a role like that, believing her to be the villain. You have to find the truth and the reality as much as possible of this person and what was driving her.
Is there more of a responsibility involved in playing a real person than a fictional one?
HM: Yes, absolutely, because you have historical truth to consider. I think it’s such an invasion of someone’s privacy to put them on the screen that I think you’re beholden as an actor to do it as truthfully and as understandingly as possible. I hate it when history is twisted and used.
And does it have any relevance now?
HM: I don’t think so. That’s not to say that it couldn’t happen again in certain circumstances. I think, for example, at the beginning of the Iraq War when the allies were in the first wave of ‘we’ve got to do this’, no one in Congress or in the British parliament voted against it. At that point it would have been very difficult to make an anti-Iraq War film. It’s very tough for a filmmaker to get financing for something that goes against the accepted wave of public opinion.
Has the industry improved in the way that young women are treated these days?
HM: When I was a young woman making my way in the industry, you were in a permanent state of being put down and having your freedoms limited and circumscribed. It was what life was. It’s very interesting now in Britain with all of these stories of sexual abuse, very often coming from the world of music and disc jockeys where they had access to very young kids who were star-struck and how accepted the abuse was.
And when did that change?
HM: One of the great advantages of getting older is you don’t have to put up with that crap any more. The attitudes have also changed. In those days if you protested you were just mocked, so you had to grit your teeth. I think it started changing when the women subjected to this sexism became older. Women who’d gone into the police force, the medical profession, into the world of universities or whatever profession and put up with that crap were now in their mid 40s and 50s. So now they could look back at their experiences and say, ‘yes, that’s what happened’. At the time you couldn’t say anything and even today if you start whinging and moaning about that stuff you’ll win your court case, but your career will still probably be over. Nowadays, of course, there’s a financial deterrent not to do this sort of thing because you can be heavily fined and so guys have learned that it’s inappropriate.
And do you feel less insecure about the work, the older you get?
HM: I don’t think the insecurity ever goes away. The difference is that you learn to deal with it and realise that it’s just part and parcel of the job. It’s about becoming a professional.
Do you find it hard to leave the roles behind? Do they stay with you?
HM: Some do. I did a film quite some time ago called, Some Mother’s Son. And that was a role that stayed with me. Probably Maria Altman in Woman in Gold, too. She was such an extraordinary person.
And Hedda Hopper?
HM: No, I’ll be quite glad to leave Hedda behind! She was fierce and not wishy-washy and it’s great to play someone like that.
She was terrifying wasn’t she?
HM: Yes. I actually think she was a lot more terrifying than I portray her! She was also very charming, which was perhaps the most terrifying thing about her. You watch her and she’s all smiles. It was all about the eyebrows, too, and that look she always had on her face.
Do you think that the media and journalists are as powerful now as she was then?
HM: No. No journalist in the entertainment business will ever be as powerful as Hedda was again.
Is that a good thing?
HM: Yes, probably, but then the business has changed so much. Sometimes I’m talking to a young journalist who doesn’t even know who John Wayne is. They don’t know who Rossellini or Fellini is. And so it’s become a very different game.
Trumbo opens 18 February
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2016 edition of 50 something magazine.