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Helen Mirren's Most Surprising Roles: from Gang Godmother to Literal Monster

Dame Helen Mirren is respected for her powerful performances and immense talent in film, television and theatre.

Dame Helen Mirren is respected for her powerful performances and immense talent in film, television and theatre. Throughout her illustrious career, the Academy Award winner has appeared in Hamlet and The Queen, and portrayed notable historical figures including Elizabeth I and Ayn Rand. Those roles both won her Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actress in 2005 and 1999, respectively.

Although she may be known for her sophisticated roles, Mirren is ever-ready to showcase her more eclectic tastes in offbeat roles that also highlight her uniquely commanding presence. Her portrayal of real-life firearm heiress Sarah Winchester in the upcoming supernatural thriller Winchester looks to be the latest example of her willingness to take on interesting parts and reinvent herself with each role.

To commemorate Mirren's portrayal of a woman who believes she's haunted by the souls of people killed by the Winchester repeating rifle, let's take a look back on some of the most surprising roles this four-time Oscar nominee has had.

1. The Fate Of The Furious (2017)

[Credit: Universal Pictures]

The eighth installment of the Fast And The Furious franchise introduced Mirren as the matriarch of the Shaw family, and if there's anyone more intimidating than Jason Statham and Luke Evans, it’s Helen Mirren clad head to toe in cheetah print. According to franchise lead Vin Diesel, Mirren once came up to him at a party and expressed her interest in appearing in the film. The script was apparently already greenlit, but Diesel pulled strings and “she got written in.” Although her role was brief, she made her formidable presence known.

2. Monsters University (2013)

[Credit: Disney/Pixar]

Mirren joined Pixar's continued pairing of Sully and Mike Wazowski for Monsters University, the prequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc. Mirren portrayed a dragon, the intimidating chair of the University’s regarded scarer program. As Dean Abigail Hardscrabble, Mirren inspired fear amongst the core of the student body. The legendary Hardscrabble previously held the all-time scream record, and Mirren's performance made that easy to believe. Mirren praised the film’s ability to appeal to adults as well as children in the audience, and thoroughly enjoyed portraying a Dean who “really knows her business.”

3. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (2010)

[Credit: Warner Bros.]

The Zack Snyder-directed animated film about an owl’s escape from the clutches of an evil owl army featured an impressive voice cast including Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Joel Edgerton, and Emily Barclay. Helen Mirren was in the mix, too, as the wise and ambitious Nyra. The film was based on the book series of the same name and although it wasn’t a critical darling, many lauded its astounding visual effects. Nyra's distinct red marks between her eyes, for example, were on full, riveting display. Portraying compelling characters is certainly nothing new for Helen Mirren and Nyra is no exception as her performance dominated every scene she was in.

4. Red (2010)

[Credit: Summit Entertainment]

The "Retired, Extremely Dangerous" crew comprised of Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren was a surprise hit in 2010, grossing almost $200 million worldwide on a $58 million budget. The film followed Willis as Frank Moses, a former CIA Agent who must reassemble his old team to take down a high-tech assassin. Mirren portrayed Willis’ former wetwork agent Victoria Winslow. With this movie in mind it’s not surprising that she campaigned to play Mother Shaw seven years following Red – she is fantastic in high octane, action-packed popcorn flicks. Mirren returned for Red 2 three years later. A third Red installment was announced in 2013, but as of 2018 there is no word as to when production will officially begin.

5. Raising Helen (2004)

[Credit: Buena Vista Pictures]

The Garry Marshall-directed dramedy Raising Helen saw Kate Hudson’s Helen tasked with raising her sister’s three young children after the sister passes away. Mirren portrayed Helen’s no-nonsense boss, the head and namesake of famous New York modeling agency Dominique. While her character’s moments are fleeting, Mirren’s Dominique resembles high-powered fashionistas such as the Anna Wintours of the world. Similarly to her commanding presence in Fate Of The Furious, Mirren makes a positive mark in the mostly disliked addition to Garry Marshall’s otherwise renowned filmography.

6. Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999)

[Credit: Miramax Films]

Mirren’s portrayal of Mrs. Tingle in this 1999 dark comedy is arguably the most surprising entry on this list. In the same year that saw her Emmy Award-winning portrayal of Ayn Rand in The Passion of Ayn Rand, Mirren portrayed the vindictive history teacher of Leigh Ann Watson (Katie Holmes), Luke Churner (Barry Watson) and Jo Lynn Jordan (Marisa Coughlan). It’s interesting to note the director of the film, Kevin Williamson, created the iconic teen melodrama Dawson’s Creek and the horror series Scream. Mirren revealed she was “thrilled” when he thought of her for the role. She is the film's highlight, providing the exaggerated efforts needed for a dark teen flick while also conveying the nuanced manipulation of a seasoned academic.

7. The Prince of Egypt (1998)

[Credit: DreamWorks Pictures]

Mirren seemingly loves to lend her voice talents to animated films. In 1998, she starred in the wildly successful The Prince Of Egypt, alongside a stellar voice cast including Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum and Sir Patrick Stewart, just to name a few. The film follows the life of Moses (Kilmer) and Mirren portrays his adoptive mother, Queen Tuya. Mirren’s soothing voice lends well to Tuya’s gentle demeanor yet when Tuya lays down the law, her intimidating presence is brilliantly showcased.

8. 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984)

[Credit: MGM]

The sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released almost two decades after the original, is one of those films that nobody believes actually exists. 2010 is set nine years after the failure of the Discovery One mission and follows a band of explorers headed for Jupiter. The film stars the talents of Roy Scheider and John Lithgow, with Helen Mirren shining bright as Captain Tanya Kirbuk. Mirren’s Russian character has the tremendous responsibility of commanding the Leonov, Russia's craft built to investigate the Discovery One failure, and a ship at the center of enormous political tension on Earth. Mirren is steely as the Captain, bringing an authoritative presence and convincing accent to the role.

9. Excalibur (1981)

[Credit: Warner Bros.]

The 1981 adaptation of the King Arthur tale stars Mirren as the powerful enchantress Morgana Le Fay. A diverse array of now-famous dynamic performers surround her, including Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, Liam Neeson and Sir Patrick Stewart. Yet Mirren's inherent ability to captivate brings a darkly shining light to her scenes; she could use enchantments to steal the good nature right out of a puppy. Mirren, playing against mostly male counterparts, dominates the screen and even gets the audience to root for her occasionally, thanks to her mystically formidable performance.

10. Hussy (1980)

[Credit: First Run Features]

Following her performances in 1976’s film adaptation of Hamlet and the ridiculously controversial Caligula (1979), Mirren starred in the 1980 film Hussy, as a prostitute working in a high-class London cabaret. Her profession (among other details) causes trouble with her technician boyfriend, Emory (John Shea). The film itself isn’t particularly enthralling or noteworthy, yet Mirren’s endearing portrayal of Beaty allows it to work as much as it does. Her smoldering look enchants both viewers and characters around her, creating a character that would simply not have worked had this future Oscar-winner not been in the role.

With four films on the horizon this year, including Winchester, Helen Mirren shows no signs of slowing down. She clearly understands the art of diversifying her acting portfolio, and it will be interesting to see which historical takes she chooses in the future, and which animated properties she lends her voice to.

Winchester stars Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snooke and Angus Sampson. It's in theaters on February 2nd, 2018.

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