A Complete Look At Helen Mirren Through The Years

Over the course of her six-decade-long career, Helen Mirren has become one of the biggest names in Hollywood and one of the most respected people in the business. Mirren first fell in love with acting as a child. After joining the British Royal Shakespeare Company in London, she proved herself to be a formidable stage actress.

By the 1970s, she slowly turned her focus to television, where her career really started to take off. Since then, she has appeared in over 130 films and TV shows of all genres and styles. She has also continued to impress on stage with unforgettable roles in production like "Phedre," "The Audience," and "Madame Bovary" along with dozens of Shakespeare plays. She has also picked up an Oscar, a Golden Globe, four BAFTAs, five Emmys, and one Tony award along the way. It's no wonder she is widely considered to be one of the greatest actors of her generation.

She grew up in London in a working class family

Helen Mirren was born in 1945 in Hammersmith, London, where she was raised without many luxuries. In fact, as she told Radio Times, they didn't have enough money for a television or cinema tickets. "I grew up in postwar Britain," she told The Hollywood Reporter. So I remember rationing."

Mirren's father, who found work in London as a cab driver, was a Russian immigrant who changed his name from Mironoff to Mirren when Helen was about 10 years old. "In those days, to have any kind of a foreign name in Britain was quite uncomfortable," she said. Her mother was from an old English family of tradespeople. "My mum left school at 14, but my dad had an education," she explained. "So intellectually, it was a very vibrant household."

While she considers herself as being brought up in a working-class family in a financial sense, she explained, "Intellectually, I grew up in a very middle-class family."

Helen Miren fell in love with acting after seeing Hamlet as a teen

Helen Mirren's lifelong love affair with performing began at a young age. Her parents, however, weren't exactly on board with her having a career in the arts. As she told The Hollywood Reporter, they wanted Mirren to pursue teaching, which they considered to be a career that would provide financial stability. By the time Mirren was a tween, though, she'd started to catch the acting bug.

As a teenager, she went to see her first Shakespeare play. Even though it was just a local production of "Hamlet," Mirren found herself hooked. "It wasn't the language: it was the story," she explained to Radio Times. "A world where people took poison and beautiful girls went mad and people drowned themselves and mothers were abused by their sons." She continued, saying, "Hamlet is an incredible thriller on that level."

Later that night, Mirren found a book of Shakespeare plays in her home and started reading. "I went through it looking for characters I responded to," she recalled to Harper's Bazaar. "That was what led me into wanting to become an actress."

Her acting career began on the stage

After falling in love with the theater as a teenager, Helen Mirren was encouraged to pursue acting, thanks to one of her teachers. "Mrs. Welding spotted something in me, hungry to find food for my imagination, beyond what was expected," she explained to Radio Times. "She opened my heart to poetry." Welding encouraged Mirren to audition for the National Youth Theater. Even though Mirren had no experience acting even alone in her bedroom, she went to the audition and captured the attention of the judges.

After spending several years acting with the National Youth Theater, she landed the role of Cleopatra in Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra." She was just 20 years old at the time (via You). This role then led to an audition for the revered Royal Shakespeare Company. "I still don't know how I did the auditions," she told Radio Times. "It was like one of those awful dreams when you're walking down the street and you know that you have forgotten to put your pants on. Oh, God."

During her time at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), the untrained Mirren began to learn the craft of a stage actor — and she learned from the best. "All I wanted was to be a classical stage actress," she remembered. "I would stand in the wings to watch the others — Judi Dench! Michael Gambon!"

Early in her career, Helen Mirren was hypersexualized

As Helen Mirren's fame began to grow, she developed a reputation for playing hypersexualized roles, beginning with the 1969 film "Age of Consent," a film filled with nudity in which the 24-year-old Mirren starred opposite 60-year-old James Mason (via Everything Zoomer).

By 1975, Michael Parkinson even dubbed Mirren the "sex queen of the RSC" before asking her whether her body detracted from her roles. As Mirren later told the Daily Mail, she felt vilified for sticking up for herself. "He behaved very badly, but of course I was the one who got criticised at the time for answering back. You couldn't win," she said. "I grew up in the Sixties. It was all supposed to be about sexual liberation, but that was all a complete con. The men still called the shots."

Even though Mirren eventually shed this image, being a young woman in the industry clearly wasn't easy.

She worked in British TV in the '70s

Helen Mirren's career took a major turn in the 1970s when she moved away from theater and began expanding her repertoire with a series of recognizable British TV roles along with dozens of made-for-TV plays on the BBC, like "As You Like It," "A Streetcar Named Desire," and "Miss Julie."

As Mirren explained to The Hollywood Reporter, TV at the time seemed to be a much safer and kinder alternative to the world of film. "In the 1970s, British film was kind of nasty," she confessed. "It wasn't very good. It was said — and it was true — that British film was alive and living on television." Mirren went on to explain that appearing on TV shows gave her the screen acting experience she needed to later transition into film. "That was sort of my training for working on film," she said. 

Helen Mirren got her big break in Prime Suspect

Helen Mirren landed a career-defining role as DCI Jane Tennsion in the 1991 series "Prime Suspect." The show followed an austere policewoman who battles sexism in the police force in Britain.

At first, Mirren thought she might be out of her depth with the character. "I was very intimidated by her [Tennison] because I'd never done such a long story," she confessed to Radio Times. Lynda La Plante, the show's writer gave her some advice: Don't smile. "As women if we want someone to do something, we smile," she explained. "We smile to negotiate our way through life, to make everyone feel good about themselves. Jane doesn't smile, not until she's achieved her goal."

For Mirren, the role didn't just offer a new challenge, it also allowed her to finally break free from being typecast. As she put it to Film Comment, "It was a great relief to be freed from the necessity of being a pretty young thing. ... It's a great artistic relief to be freed of that and then you feel, ah, now I can really start working."

She married 'the right turnip' in 1997

Helen Mirren tied the knot with American film director Taylor Hackford in 1997 after meeting him at an audition for "White Nights." When the pair met, Hackford was already married. But after hitting it off on set, the pair couldn't stay apart — within a year, he separated from his wife and followed Mirren from Hollywood to London. As Mirren put it in her autobiography, "My fate was sealed" (via Everything Zoomer).

After dating for years, Mirren got married at the age of 52; however, she had always been unsure about marriage. "We got married in the end because we realized that we were going to be together forever," she said to AARP. "I always said I have nothing against marriage; it just wasn't to my taste, like turnips. It took me a very long time to come round to acquiring the taste. I just had to meet the right turnip."

In fact, despite her glittering career, her husband remains her proudest achievement. "I feel particularly grateful that I'm in a happy marriage," she told The Guardian in 2015. "I love my husband, I love being with him. He's a nightmare, but he's great, and I look forward to seeing him and miss him when he's not there."

Helen Mirren gave a career defining performance as Elizabeth I

One of Helen Mirren's best-known roles came in 2005 when she took on the iconic role of Queen Elizabeth I in a two-part miniseries directed by Tom Hopper. When the series was released, her performance of the indomitable queen was met with outstanding reviews. At the time, Hopper even went as far as to say that she was "doing the performance of a lifetime" while the production was being filmed. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association agreed. Mirren went on to win a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama.

For Mirren, playing Elizabeth I was a hugely important experience, even years later. In 2018, when asked by Town & Country which role showcased her abilities the best, she said, "It's Elizabeth I. I did win a Golden Globe for that, but when I look at it now, I see it as possibly some of the best work I've ever done."

She famously portrayed another queen in 2006

Just one year after delivering the performance of a lifetime as Queen Elizabeth I, Helen Mirren starred in "The Queen" as Queen Elizabeth II. The film follows the queen during the fallout of Princess Diana's death. While Mirren was making the film, she had doubts about whether or not the royal family would appreciate her portrayal. "It was quite nerve-racking because I didn't know — no one knew — how the public would receive it, let alone the establishment in Britain," she told The Hollywood Reporter. "But I got the sense that it had been seen and that it had been appreciated."

It certainly was appreciated — by the public, anyway. The Guardian noted that Mirren completely transformed into the monarch, while Manohla Dargis, co-chief film critic of The New York Times, complimented the actor's portrayal of the queen in a performance dubbed "remarkable in its art and lack of sentimentalism."

After playing both Elizabeths, Mirren firmly established herself as one of the British actors of her generation. The role became personally significant to Mirren, who has talked many times about her love of the queen. When Queen Elizabeth II died in September 2022, she posted a tribute on Instagram, writing, "I am proud to be an Elizabethan. We mourn a woman, who, with or without the crown, was the epitome of nobility."

Helen Mirren entered a new era as an action movie star

Just when we thought that Helen Mirren had found her niche playing royals in gripping period dramas, she changed things up yet again when, a little like Liam Neeson, she shifted gears and began taking on roles in action films in her 60s. Some of her major action roles have included playing Magdalene Shaw in the "Fast & Furious" franchise and Victoria in "RED."

As it turns out, Mirren wasn't actually offered her now iconic role in "Fast & Furious" — instead, she begged Vin Diesel for it. "I think I was at some function, and he was there, and I got introduced to him. And I was shameless: 'Oh God, I'd just love to be in one of your movies! Please let me be in it,'" she recalled to The Hollywood Reporter. Apparently, Diesel was a fan because, soon enough, he'd included a part for her in the next installment.

Transitioning into the world of action movies gave Mirren the chance to experience a slightly different filmmaking process. And, as it turned out, she was hooked. "I love the special effects world. And the stunt world," she gushed. "I really believe stuntpeople should be nominated for Oscars." The actor continued, saying, "I love working and watching the art, the craftsmanship and the expertise of these people."

She has wholly embraced aging

As Helen Mirren has gotten older, she's found herself feeling more and more comfortable. In 2015, she told The Guardian, "I definitely don't look better now than when I was young. Definitely not. ... The great thing that happens as you age is that you don't really give a flying f***. I don't look so good, but I don't care."

As she's aged, she's embraced smiling much more. "I always had fat cheeks (and I still do!), so I was always sucking my cheeks in," she confessed to Vogue. "But you can't suck your cheeks in and smile at the same time! It's absolutely impossible. So I guess I never smiled."

Of course, Mirren has aged into a healthy and beautiful older woman — and, as she told Vogue, that's largely thanks to her fitness and nutrition regime. "What you're putting inside your body does influence how you feel about yourself, so start there," she advised, adding, "The next thing is exercise, which doesn't mean joining expensive gyms. I'm a big believer in the Canadian Air Force women's exercise regime, which is 12 minutes."

Helen Mirren's life has been defined by a community of women

Looking back over her long and varied career, Helen Mirren explained to Fashion Magazine that there has always been one constant — women. "I have a sister who's a very important part of my female world," she said. "I have some very, very old friends that I've known since I was in my early twenties and those women are incredibly important to me. And then of course, for me to be inspired by women. ... A community of women is very important; only we really understand what we go through."

And Mirren has always been an advocate for women's rights, even back in the '70s when she was being pigeonholed as an attractive young actor. Throughout it all, she has fought to improve women's roles on screen by advocating for women's rights off-screen. "I always used to say 'put your energy into changing roles for women in life,' because as night follows day, as women's roles change in life, women's roles will change on the screen," she told Marie Claire. "Your banging your head against a brick wall, and a little bit of cement falls away, and I feel that the wall is just about to fall." 

She became a rancher in real life and on screen

Like the rest of us, Dame Helen Mirren has had to adjust to life in this new normal. When the pandemic hit, Mirren and her husband, Taylor Hackford, packed up and moved to their ranch in Nevada near Lake Tahoe. Mirren, who became an American citizen in 2017, even had a viral moment when she chased a black bear away from her home.

For Mirren, the sudden lockdown was something of a welcome relief. "It's given me the opportunity to be with my husband in a sort of normal everyday way, which has been fantastic," she confessed to the Tahoe Daily Tribune. "It is actually the first time in all of our 30 years together that we've sat down at the table each night and had dinner together. Normally we're getting on planes, going here, there. ... So it's been fabulous just to be a normal person."

This doesn't mean Mirren has set acting aside, though. In fact, she's showcasing her ranching prowess on the small screen beginning December 18, 2022. She can be seen starring alongside Harrison Ford in the "Yellowstone" prequel series, "1923," on Paramount+.