The Queen interviews

Film review: The Queen

James Cromwell
Helen Mirren
Peter Morgan and Stephen Frears

Interviews conducted on 2006-10-03 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA

The Queen follows the British Royal Family during the week after the death of Princess Diana in 1997.  In that week, The Royal Family’s lack of public response spurned indignation in the populace whom, with the assistance of the press, largely had sided with the deceased ‘People’s Princess.’  The Queen is an account of modern aristocracy, and prompts a delicate debate positing ‘tradition’ versus ‘change’ in the government, and ‘public’ versus ‘private’ in the individual.

Helen Mirren plays the recalcitrant dignitary, Queen Elizabeth II (fresh off of her Emmy-winning coattails for Elizabeth I).  James Cromwell gruffly supports as Prince Philip.  Peter Mogan penned the screenplay, and The Queen was directed by Stephen Frears.

James Cromwell

James Cromwell: …they were talking about casting, and the cinematographer said, “Gee, I oughta get James Cromwell to do it.”  Stephen, who I worked with, said, “Well, I never thought of that.”  Then, he thought, “Oh, it’s great!  We’ll have ‘an American.’  That way they can’t take us seriously.’  Cause I think they wanted him to be more…of the ‘goat’ …than I was willing.  Stephen, a lot of times, tried to push me toward excess…

The 213: …comic relief?

JC: Yeah, only with his temper being more out of control.  I didn’t see that, from having met [Prince Philip], I didn’t see it.  [Stephen] didn’t use any of it.  In fact, there were times when I was looping…cause they didn’t have a dialect coach.  Dialect was a bitch on the set.  My partner, who’s a wonderful actress, tells me that, ‘Without somebody there to tell you, you struggle.’  That dialect is unique, and if you make a mistake everybody immediately knows.  And I didn’t want that.  When I looped, [Stephen] would say, ‘So you liked that performance?’  I’d say, ‘Well I liked what I’ve done in the looping, but can I change the image?  The image is wrong to me.’  It’s wrong for him to behave like that, and I hadn’t behaved that way.  It was hard.  Brits especially, as I get older.  When I was younger I think I could’ve done it.  It’s very hard to find out why the dialect is placed where it is in the mouth.  The woman who did our dialects coaching, Penny Dyer, goes to dialects through psychology, so you learn why they make certain sounds.  It’s in the jaw, the placement of the tongue, how the body is held.  So it changes.

213: So they hired an American to play the part but they didn’t give you a dialect coach?

JC: I had her for two days.  She was doing the Tom Hanks thing…The Da Vinci Code, so she couldn’t do it.  They said, ‘It’s fine.  We’ll fix it in post.’  You feel like a bloody jerk.

Helen Mirren

The 213: It must’ve been convenient to have just done Elizabeth I.

Helen Mirren: In a way there was a certain advantage to that, in that I had to think.  A lot of the preparation in Elizabeth II was to do the thinking.  Just…thinking about ‘What that must mean,’ ‘where does that psychology come from?,’ ‘who is this person?’  And I had think, as Elizabeth II, about what it means to be the monarch, what it means to walk into that prison, where there is no choice.  You’re in a place beyond ego, beyond vanity, where there is no choice.  You’re not becoming the Queen because you think, ‘Oh, I could be Queen, I think I’d be rather good at that,’ or ‘Hm, I love the clothes.’  No choice.  And with both of those women, they weren’t supposed to be Queen.  They came to it in a weird, accidental route, and suddenly there they are at the gates of the prison.  And how do you walk into that prison?  Absolutely no choice.  At the age of 25.  I had to think a lot about what that means.

213: What were your personal feelings during [the week of Princess Diana’s death]?

HM: I was in America, so I was looking at it through this rather healthy lens of the American media.

213: Healthy lens of the American media…

HM: Yes, for once, the healthy lens.  There was an objectivity about it, a kind of ‘What the hell is going on over there?  Look at those Brits, my God.’  It took place in August, and there were a lot of tourists in London.  It slightly became a sort of tourist attraction, in a weird way.  I found the whole thing disturbing.  I was in NY at the time of 9/11, and suddenly there were thousands of people who wanted to go to Ground Zero, supposedly to honor, but really because it’s this kind of quiet gawk.

213: Like driving past a car crash.

HM: Exactly.  And that side of human nature has always kind of appalled me.  I find it very upsetting and difficult to deal with.

Peter Morgan and Stephen Frears

The 213: [to Morgan] You’ve done a lot of TV work.  Do you prefer that writing to film?

Peter Morgan: [That’s an interesting question.]  Hmm…look, if you work on a sliding scale of hysteria, the hysteria increases the greater the rewards and potential.  People behave the best during radio plays and they behave the worst making big feature films.  [To answer your question], in terms of the hysteria involved…most television people are so busy making television that they don’t have enough time to behave badly.  That’s sort of my experience.  They operate from a position of, ‘We’ve got to get this into the schedule by X.’  Whereas most film people are desperate to ‘make something,’ and end up usually not making anything at all, and behave so badly in the process.  I also have, on a number of occasions, read scripts that people have sent to me, and whenever I see a really good script I always think to myself, ‘This is a television writer.’  If the writing is good, it’s either invariably a theater or a television writer, not a film writer.

213: Along those lines, you wrote that The Last King of Scotland, and you’ve written a lot of other things that are based on historical events.  Is that by choice?

PM: Yeah.  Absolutely, no one’s forcing me to write them.  It really interests me.  Having said that, I’m quite keen to do some fiction now.  Yeah, I find it riveting.

213: [to Stephen] Did you find The Queen, or did The Queen find you?

Stephen Frears: Did The Queen find me?  No, what happened was, we made this other film about Tony Blair.

213: The Deal?

SF: Yes…which was very successful…and then the producer came to me and said, ‘Would you be interested in making another film about Blair, and the events of [the week of Princess Di’s death], and the Queen, played by Helen?’  I met with Helen and we both thought that was a very good idea, and then Peter went away and wrote the script.  [I don’t think that answers your question, but that’s what happened.]

213: Do you think you were very sympathetic to Tony Blair?

PM: Well, you couldn’t not be at that time.  If we were going to give Tony Blair a hard time, we’d have looked like idiots.  At that moment…he just won an enormous majority.  The whole country was so excited about him.

SF: Yes.  He was very, very popular.

213: I heard that Helen Mirren got a five minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival?

PM: Yeah, it went on forever.  The response has been startling.

SF: To expect a response like that would be ridiculous.  But I knew it was a good film.

[213: I went in knowing nothing about it and was surprised.  It was very good.]

SF: The truth is that in my country, the Royal Family is mocked 24 hours a day.  I think people expected a satire.  The remarkable thing about this film is that it takes them seriously.  This has never happened!  This is completely offbeat!  Not since Shakespeare have they been taken seriously.  At some moment, ‘deference’ disappeared from our country, to some extent, and people started making fun of the establishment.  And, I guess, the Royal Family is included in that.  And that’s just how they’re treated.  (beat) And they don’t help, they do lend themselves to being made fun of.

conducted and transcribed by David Ashley

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