Helen Mirren on One Hilarious Reason She Became an Actress: “Unbelievable Vanity”

Helen Mirren
Photo: Randy Brooke/WireImage

Helen Mirren is unapologetic in speaking her mind and as a result is one of Hollywood's most charming—and hilarious—stars. That's precisely why the Academy Award-winner sent the audience into laughter just minutes after stepping on stage to take part in The New York Times and British Academy of Film and Television Arts's TimesTalks conversation Tuesday night in N.Y.C. After reporter Cara Buckley introduced Mirren, the actress simply quipped, "I've got my mic on so I think you can hear me—and if you hear a fart," jokingly nodding to her interviewer.

Punch lines aside, the Trumbo and Woman in Gold star discussed her English upbringing, what she considers to be her best performances (her role as Ayn Rand in The Passion of Ayn Rand, among them), and why she knew she wouldn't hit success until her forties. And while each of the leading lady's stories was marvelous, it was the reason she became an actor that struck a chord with us.

So what sparked her career? "It was a rather sort of uncomfortable mix of unbelievable vanity. 'Oh, they're looking at me! I love it!'" she candidly admitted, adding, "and a righteous love of literature and story telling and the world of imagination—so it was a combination of those two things." "My very first role, which I remember to this day, I had no lines, which is always a very good thing, incidentally, not to have any lines, but I had a gorgeous costume—a good combination. I was playing the Virgin Mary ... I was taken from costume to costume. It just sort of fit and I loved it—I absolutely loved it," she said.

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Mirren also credits her summers as a young girl of 7 or 8 on England's Southend Pier in Essex as a source of inspiration, explaining that the Coney Island-like spot hosted recurring performances she adored. "It was a variety show with a comedian and a singer and the comedian was very funny and I fell to my seat. I remember laughing," she said. "And then the dancing dolls came on and again, they had blue float-y things on them and I was just absolutely mesmerized. I thought it was just the most beautiful, wonderful thing I had ever seen in my life."

Her motivation for a life lived in front of audiences and cameras didn't stop there, of course. In her early teenage years, Mirren's mother took her to a production of Hamlet that changed everything, and sparked an interest in the Shakespeare's works. "It's the perfect age to see Hamlet, never having seen it before, not know that Othello goes mad or that Hamlet's going to die, and not knowing the story. Can you imagine watching Hamlet and not knowing what happens at the end?" she said. "That amazing world was just so exciting, and that incredibly poetry, mostly which I didn't understand a word of, but I sort of grasped that it was something fantastic."

Watch the full conversation below.

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