Actress remembers the late Alan Rickman
WRITTEN BY AMY LONGSDORF
For Digital First Media
In a career that stretches back five decades, Helen Mirren has achieved nearly all of her goals. She’s won an Oscar for “The Queen,” a Tony for “The Audience” and four Emmys for a handful of projects including “Prime Suspect.”
She’s appeared in dramas, comedies, thrillers, adventure sagas, biopics and even action movies.
But she had to wait until “Eye In the Sky” to star in a war film. And, according to Mirren, she loved every minute of it.
“I think ‘Eye In The Sky’ is a great war movie,” said the actress, 70. “So many war films are basically good guys versus bad guys, and this movie is not about that.
“Well, of course, we do have bad guys in it, but it’s really about the terrible moral decisions that any war throws up. I hope it will go into the canon of great war movies.”
In the film, opening later this month in Philadelphia, Mirren stars as Colonel Katherine Powell, a tough-as-nails commander who is overseeing an operation that involves capturing a radicalized English woman (Lex King) from a Nairobi neighborhood.
While Powell readies the rescue mission, she discovers that, in the same house, terrorists are preparing for an imminent suicide-bomb attack. After getting clearance from General Benson (the late Alan Rickman), Powell requests that a U.S. military drone destroy the home, the bombers and their arsenal.
But the operation is instantly complicated not only by second-guessing politicians but also by a U.S. drone pilot (Aaron Paul) who won’t pull the trigger until a nine-year-old child is cleared from the kill zone.
When the film premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, it received rave reviews from most critics, including Variety, which, while comparing the picture to “Dr. Strangelove,” described it as “a rivetingly suspenseful drama that deftly intertwines elements of ticking-clock thriller and tragic farce.”
Initially, the role which Mirren plays was written for a man. But director Gavin Hood and scripter Guy Hibbert (“Prime Suspect”) rewrote the central role before sending the screenplay off to the actress.
“When I received the script, I didn’t know that it was originally written for a man but I applaud Gavin for casting me. Obviously, it was great for me,” says Mirren with a laugh.
“But I also think, as Gavin has said, that casting a woman takes the film out of just being a boy’s movie about war, and it makes it much more universal. And we should all be a part of this conversation.”
Another reason that Mirren was drawn to “Eye In The Sky” was because the screenplay helped open her eyes about drone warfare and its likely predominance in future skirmishes.
“You know, you sort of read in the newspaper, ‘Oh, there was a drone attack on blah, blah,’ and you sort of go, ‘Oh, darn it.’ But you don’t really think about it.
“But this movie made me really consider the reality of this stuff on the ground, and the extraordinary way in which warfare has changed,” notes the actress.
“You think of the 19th century idea of warfare, of people riding into battle on horses with sabers, and then the First World War idea of trenches and guns, and the Second World War idea of airplanes and bombs.
“And now we’re in this Third World War, where warfare is continuing on, and I suspect [drones] will be very much a part of the future.”
“Eye In The Sky” also hit home for Mirren thanks to the fact that her Russian-born parents were both living in London at the time of the Blitz and vividly remember the nightly bombings by the Nazis.
“My parents said the most terrifying thing about being bombed was not actually the German airplanes coming over, although that was terrifying,” Mirren explains. “The scariest thing was something the Germans had invented called the Doodlebug, which was a very early form of a drone.
“The Doodlebug was an unmanned vehicle that came over and made this drone sound. My mother said the terror was when you heard the sound stop because then you knew the bombs would be dropped.”
Due to the fact that she was cast late in the production process, Mirren didn’t have much time to do research. But she was aided on the set by a British military expert who answered every question she had about her hard-charging character.
“He was great in helping me, and giving me guiding points about what he felt this sort of woman would be like,” recalls Mirren, who’s married to filmmaker Taylor Hackford (“Ray.”) “And he was very valuable in terms of the physical things, like the way she’d wear her uniform, and the way she’d behave.”
Among its other merits, “Eye In The Sky” features Alan Rickman’s final performance. And even though Mirren never shared any scenes with him, she is happy to be associated with his swan song.
“Unfortunately, in this film, I didn’t actually get to work with Alan because we all shot our scenes separately — but I had worked with Alan in the past. And I think that Alan would have been incredibly proud that this was his last movie.
“The Alan you see up on the screen in `Eye In The Sky’ is much closer to the real Alan Rickman than [to the characters he played in the `Harry Potter’ films and in `Die Hard.’]
“You see his intelligence, you see his wit, and you see his authority. And that was very much the Alan that we all knew and loved.”