Helen Mirren: from queen to colonel
Acclaimed British actress Helen Mirren has played all sorts of royalty, not to mention a noted police detective, a mastermind criminal and all sorts of Shakespearean characters. The versatile actress now plays a British colonel, who has to make a moral decision of whether to order a drone airstrike on a suspected terrorist hideout in Kenya, in the nail-biting political thriller
“Eye in the Sky.”
The suspenseful drama (most of it takes place in nearly two hours of real time), in which the British and American military have determined that a pair of suicide bombers are planning to carry out an attack in a public place that could kill dozens of innocent civilians.
Writer Guy Hibbert initially wrote Mirren’s character for a man, but South African director Gavin Hood pictured the authoritative Mirren in the role of the British military officer, who patiently — though increasingly impatiently — awaits word from higher ups in her government as well as the U.S. leaders to authorize the strike. (spoiler alert) Complications ensue when a young Kenyan girl sets up a stall selling bread to passersby just outside the suspected terrorists’ compound.
The film poses moral questions about collateral damage and drone warfare while delivering entertaining performances by the ensemble cast. “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul, “Captain Phillips” breakout star Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam and the late Alan Rickman, in his final role, also star.
Mirren, who received an Academy Award for her depiction of Elizabeth II in 2006’s “The Queen,” has received a lot of positive notices lately for her performances in 2015’s independent Nazi art theft drama “Woman in Gold,” and her supporting performance as a gossip columnist in the Hollywood blacklist drama “Trumbo,” spoke about playing a military officer with a great deal of responsibility resting on her shoulders as well as working again with Rickman, with whom she shares no scenes, but remembers fondly from previous projects.
Q: Could you talk about how this project first came together for you?
Mirren: When I received the script I didn’t know that there was this backstory, this originally being written for a man, and I so applaud Gavin, for casting me. Obviously, that was great for me, but any woman, and I love how [he] articulated it just now, that it takes it out of just being a boy’s movie about war, and it makes it much more universal that we are all a part of this conversation, and I really applaud [him] for that. I wish more directors had that point of view, and writers. I received the script, and it was an absolute page-turner, but I thought much more than that. I thought the subject matter was serious and threw up a conversation that I think we all need to be having. This is the reality of war in our present day and age, and I can only assume will become more, and more prevalent … so we need to discuss this, and really be aware of what the various issues are.
Q: (In January) we lost a great actor, your co-star Alan Rickman. What do you remember about working with him?
Mirren: Unfortunately in this film I didn’t actually get to work with Alan, because we all shot our pieces separately, but I have worked with Alan in the past. On the stage actually, not in movies. I think Alan would have been incredibly proud that this was his last movie, because what I love about it is that the Alan you see up on the screen is much closer to the real Alan Rickman that we all knew and loved. You see his intelligence, you see his wit, and you see his authority, and I think that, that was very much the Alan that we knew. He was a wonderful actor, so he always gave an incredible performance (“Harry Potter”, “Die Hard”) but I think the Alan that we see on the screen in this movie is very close to the real Alan. The inner soul of the film, I think is very much something that Alan would have identified with, and would have been very proud to be a part of.
Q: In doing this film what were some of the things that you found out about drones, and this sort of remote fighting that’s going on. What surprised you about it, or
Mirren: I had no idea how far the technology has gone, and because it’s gone this far how far, therefore, will it go … in the next 10 or 20 years, that completely took me by surprise. I’ve never really thought about it, and it made me really consider the reality of this stuff on the ground, the extraordinary way in which warfare has changed. I do remember my parents, who went through The Blitz in London, said the most terrifying thing about being bombed was not actually the airplanes, the German airplanes coming over, although that was terrifying, it was what the Germans had invented, this thing called the doodlebug, which is just a very early form of drone warfare, which was an unmanned vehicle that came over and made this drone sound, and she said the terror was when you heard the sound stop, because when it stopped was when it dropped its bombs. So, my mother, in a way, had sort of firsthand experience of what these people (in the film) experience. It must be so terrifying, because it’s coming out of nowhere; you don’t know that it’s coming.
Q: When you watched the completed film for the first time with the other parts of it that you were not involved in, what did you think?
Mirren: I was thinking, “You know what, in a way it’s like a courtroom drama, and the audience is the jury, and when the jury leaves the theater at the end of the film, they’re going off to make their decisions about what is right and what is wrong, so I’m really hoping that people will leave the theater, go out to dinner, and have very intense conversations about morality, philosophy, and all that.
Q: Some in the audience may want your character to authorize the bombing as the suicide bombers prepare for their mission. Are they monsters for wanting you to do that?
Mirren: No, it was necessary because if you put the camera on and put each one of the (potential suicide bombing victims) in the mall, who will die. You have to think “what about their lives”? Are we sacrificing them? It’s a horrendous moral decision. I was thinking of Hitler’s invasion of Hungary, and Poland, and the way the British, the Americans, and the French, all looked the other way, saying, “Well, oh no, we don’t want war. Don’t let us have war. War is too horrible.” and then (the Germans) unleashed this unbelievable horror for the next five years, unbelievable horror. At some point you do need someone who makes a tough decision, a horrible decision, a hard, brutal decision, but makes it, and in making it saves lives. In the case of Hitler, it would’ve been saving millions, and millions of lives. There’s no easy answer.
The other thing the film does —maybe people will argue against me — but it actually is a good argument for democracy, because it’s the democratic process of the chain of command, the discussion sometimes it’s foolish. There’s a lot of funniness and farcical and funny, but there is that process. It’s not a military dictator saying to do it. There is a sense of conscious, and morality, and we know we have to talk this out and assess its legality.
– The Interview People