Watch a Young Helen Mirren Stand Up to Grotesquely Sexist Interviewer in 1975
In 1975, Helen Mirren was already an accomplished stage actress in the U.K.—a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company who was beginning to branch out into occasional television roles and was gearing up to play Lady Macbeth. As such, she was invited to appear on Michael Parkinson's long-running talk show Parkinson to chat about her on-the-rise career. Rather, that is what she probably thought she was being invited to discuss. Instead, the host welcomed Mirren to the stage after introducing her as "a sex queen" and quoting a theater critic, who wrote in one review, "She is especially telling in projecting sluttish eroticism."
If you thought that welcoming a young actress onstage by essentially telling her she is very convincing as a whore was as bad as it gets, guess again! While Mirren, soft-spoken and visibly nervous, did her best to brush off this insult, Parkinson continued, saying, "You are, in quotes, a serious actress." (Yes, Parkinson made air quote fingers while not noticing that his foot was now lodged calf-deep in his throat.)
"In quotes?" asked Mirren, trying to protest in the most graceful way possible. "What do you mean in quotes? How dare you."
"Serious actress," Parkinson explained, "as opposed to an unserious actress."
Mirren visibly winced, but kept listening.
"Do you find it to be fact that, what could be best described as your equipment," Parkinson continued, "hinders you in that pursuit [of being considered a serious actress]?"
Unable to let him off the hook, Mirren said, "I'd like you to explain what you mean by my equipment in greater detail."
"Your physical attributes," Parkinson said.
"You mean my fingers?" countered Mirren.
Once Parkinson finally spat out the word "figure," Mirren asked him, "Because serious actresses can't have big bosoms, is that what you mean?"
"I think it might detract from the performance," Parkinson hedged, "If you know what I mean."
"I can't say that would necessarily be true. I mean what a crummy performance if people are obsessed with the size of your bosom over anything else. I would hope that the performance and the play and the living relationship between all the people on the stage and all the people in the audience would overcome such . . . boring questions, really."
Although Parkinson said he would switch subjects, he later asked her about a comment she made stating that she was attracted to men with greasy hair and leather jackets. Laughing, she replied with another deserved dig. "It's not so much that I like men who look like that . . . but I strongly dislike men who look in another way," she said, glancing down at his jacket. "Like men who wear very nicely cut suits."
A few minutes later, Parkinson asked if she felt comfortable taking her clothes off for a film. Mirren replied, "There are lots of reasons for feeling uncomfortable about taking your clothes off in a movie. And one of them is that basically whatever the director says, basically it's being done for commercial reasons. It's a male chauvinist . . . "
With a glint in her eye, she interrupted herself to say, "You know that phrase, I'm sure." She added, "I do think that if girls have to take their clothes off on film sets then everyone should do it."
Decades later, the interview still understandably rankled Mirren. When it surfaced on YouTube, the Oscar- and Tony-winning actress watched it herself.
"That's the first talk show I'd ever done," she later told The Telegraph. “I was terrified. I watched it and I actually thought, bloody hell! I did really well. I was so young and inexperienced. And he was such a fucking sexist old fart. He was. He denies it to this day that it was sexist, but of course he was."
She told Bust that Parkinson was "an extremely creepy interviewer." And in 2006, Helen got the chance to tell Parkinson as much to his face. During an interview about her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II — is nothing sacred — Parkinson, again, brought up her breasts.
"I'm glad you mentioned that Michael," Mirren interjected. "Because you can't resist can you . . . This was the problem the first time we ever met." Briefing the audience, she said, "He had to talk about my breasts. Here we are full circle."
"Now to be fair to me, they were hanging out," Parkinson said. Outraged, Mirren corrected him, "No they weren't! Excuse me. I want to see a bit of that film. I swear they weren’t and anyway, breasts don't 'hang' out. That's a rude way to put it."
Although Parkinson tried to downplay the first interview, calling them both "a lot sillier" in their youth, Mirren would not let up in her correct memory of the confrontation. "I hated you," Mirren announced. "I thought you were a sexist person for mentioning my breasts."
Watch Mirren's exclusive MAKERS story in the video player above.
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Photo Credit: REUTERS/Gary Cameron