LOS ANGELES — When Helen Mirren was a girl growing up in England, she’d often saunter out onto local sidewalks, idling, hoping to be discovered.
“I stood around on street corners imagining that a film director had to drive by and say, ‘There’s the girl for me.’ Hoping that someone’s going to go, ‘She’s the one,’ ” she said. “I really wanted to be an actress, but I just didn’t think that it was possible for someone like me.”
Looking at Mirren now, seated on a couch in a posh Los Angeles hotel room sipping a cappuccino, it’s difficult to imagine her as a young, wide-eyed girl, yearning desperately for some type of impossible dream. Especially given the 64-year-old performer’s track record of juicy roles and high honors.
After establishing herself as the firm Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in British TV’s “Prime Suspect,” she went on to win an Emmy for her performance in the HBO miniseries “Elizabeth I.” Then she won the lead actress Oscar for her role as Elizabeth II in 2006’s “The Queen.”
It’s another sort of nobility that brought about her fourth Oscar nod last month: Her role as Countess Sofya, wife of the acclaimed Russian author Leo Tolstoy (played by Christopher Plummer) in the independent film “The Last Station,” for which she also received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award nominations.
In the film, the couple share a passionate but contentious relationship. After 48 years of marriage, bearing 13 of his children and writing out “War and Peace” six times by hand, Sofya finds herself struggling against her husband’s disciples for the right to his estate and life’s work.
“I read it and went, ‘Oh, my God, ugh! This, I want to do,’” Mirren said of discovering the part. “It was such a great role and was such a contrast to ‘The Queen.’ That’s the trouble with playing something that successful — people just want you to do that again and again. It’s always the trick in acting, if you can, to find the role that blasts the other one away. And I felt this one did.”
Michael Hoffman, who directed the film, said Meryl Streep was initially attached to play the part of Sofya.
“It was great because it gave the movie an initial life, but from the point I was told Helen might be interested I thought it was a fantastic idea,” Hoffman said. “She has the ease and sophistication to play the really down-and-dirty kind of naturalism.”
Mirren wasn’t especially familiar with the writer. She’d read “War and Peace” years earlier but didn’t know anything more about his family life or that the couple were the supposed “Brad and Angelina of pre-revolutionary Russia.” And, she said, she didn’t really do any research into their lives.
It’s perhaps what is most perplexing about Mirren: Like any great actress, she insists the work isn’t all that difficult.
“I did very little preparation. I’m a lazy actress, anyway,” she said, shrugging and brushing her short white hair back behind her ears. “It’s not a complicated thing for me. And it doesn’t need an awful lot of thinking and getting into character, like ‘Would they do this, or would they do that?’ I don’t do any of that. I just read the scene. ‘Oh, she’s angry,’ so I get angry.”
Hoffman said Mirren freely offered thoughts about his script, in which Sofya was supposed to threaten to swallow a vial of opium. But the actress felt the hysteric scene made Sofya seem too self-pitying. “Most actors who play a character who could be seen as unsympathetic really try to find a way to ingratiate themselves with the audience. They want to be liked,” he said. “Helen never does that — and because she doesn’t do it, then they do like her.”
Paul Giamatti, who plays Tolstoy’s disciple in the film, said what he found most surprising about Mirren was how “unpretentious” she was.
“She almost immediately was funny and approachable,” he said. “So any sense of, like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m acting with Helen Mirren’ just went completely out the window.”
Mirren attributes her unassuming attitude to what she described as a humble upbringing. Her father, who traveled to England from Russia with her grandfather when he was 2 years old, made a living as a driver in London.
Even before signing on to do “The Last Station,” Mirren had been intrigued by her own Russian heritage. Her grandfather left Russia before the revolution, leaving behind his mother and sisters. The remaining family wrote her grandfather letters, which she had translated into English.
A Russian research journalist later helped Mirren locate her long-lost relatives, as well as the location of her family’s estate, which she went to visit shortly before filming the movie.
“That was sort of an amazing experience, and I’m sure I carried some of that in my mind and memory very much as we filmed,” she said. “There was one woman in particular that my sister and I really just both loved. She was a teacher, and there was a kind of attitude to life that was a shared thing. An attitude about working hard, being independent. A very decent kind of people.”
Though she maintains that most awards mean more to the film than they do to her personally, she admits that winning an Oscar was one of the most triumphant moments of her career.
“I didn’t realize how much it meant to me until it happened, which is kind of weird,” she said, smoothing her palms over her skirt. “I remember arriving home in London and I had my Oscar, which I was carrying in hand luggage. While I was waiting at baggage claim, someone saw me and started clapping. And then they all started applauding. And then I got my Oscar out because they were so sweet. I said, ‘Do you want to see it? There it is.’ And that was when I thought, ‘This was really big.’ It was almost better than actually getting it.”