Dame Helen Mirren Dons Fatigues in War Drama ‘Eye in the Sky’
(l-r) Director Gavin Hood (left) and actress Helen Mirren (right) on the set of EYE IN THE SKY. ©Bleecker Street. CR: Mark Martin.

(l-r) Director Gavin Hood (left) and actress Helen Mirren (right) on the set of EYE IN THE SKY. ©Bleecker Street. CR: Mark Martin.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Acclaimed British actress Helen Mirren has played all sorts of royalty, not to mention a noted police detective, a mastermind criminal and quite a few Shakespeare characters. The versatile actress now plays a British colonel, who has to make a moral decision of whether to order a drone airstrike on a suspected terrorist hideout in Kenya, in the nail-biting political thriller “Eye in the Sky.”

The suspenseful drama (most of it takes place in real time over the course of nearly two hours), in which the British and American military have determined that a deadly pair of suicide bombers are planning to carry out an attack in a public place that could kills dozens of innocent civilians. Writer Guy Hibbert initially wrote Mirren’s character for a man, but South African director Gavin Hood pictured the authoritative Mirren in the role of the British military officer, who patiently—though increasingly impatiently—awaits word from higher ups in her government as well as from U.S. leaders to authorize the strike.

Complications ensue when a young Kenyan girl sets up a stall selling bread to passersby just outside the suspected terrorist compound. The film poses moral questions about collateral damage and drone warfare while at the same time delivering entertaining performances by the ensemble cast. “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul, “Captain Phillips” breakout star Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam and the late Alan Rickman, in his final role, also star.

Mirren, who received an Academy Award for her depiction of Britain’s Elizabeth II in 2006’s “The Queen,” has received a lot of positive notices lately for her performances in 2015’s independent Nazi art theft drama “Woman in Gold,” and her supporting performance as a gossip columnists in the Hollywood blacklist drama “Trumbo,” spoke about playing a military officer with a great deal of responsibility resting on her shoulders as well as working again with Rickman, with whom she shares no scenes, but remembers fondly from previous productions.

Q: Could you talk about how this project first came together for you?

Mirren: When I received the script I didn’t know that there was this backstory, this originally being written for a man, and I so applaud Gavin, for casting me. Obviously, that was great for me, but any woman, and I love how [he] articulated it just now, that it takes it out of just being a boy’s movie about war, and it makes it much more universal that we are all a part of this conversation, and I really applaud (him) for that. I wish more directors had that point of view, and writers. I received the script, and it was an absolute page-turner, but I thought much more than that. I thought the subject matter was serious and threw up a conversation that I think we all need to be having. This is the reality of war in our present day and age, and I can only assume will become more, and more prevalent as we travel through time, so we need to discuss this, and really be aware of what the various issues are.

I thought this film was a great war film, because so many war films are basically good guys and bad guys. Of course we do have bad guys in it, but it’s about the terrible moral decisions that any war throws up, so I hope it will go into the canon of great war movies. There were a couple of other projects that were flying around at the time, and were a possible conflict with this, so I said to my agent, “That’s the movie I want to do. If there are any conflicts I’m telling you, that’s the movie I want to do.”

At that time we didn’t have distribution. Gavin went into this film with enormous courage, and his financiers, and producers, without distribution, and it was a really, what they call “a small film.” It’s one of those small films that are very, very delicate little flowers, because if you don’t get distribution, you know, it’s straight to TV basically, but I really thought it was one of the most exciting scripts I’d read in a long time.

Q: Did you know the writer, Guy Hibbert?

Mirren: Yes. I had worked with before, he’d written one of my “Prime Suspect” episodes, a wonderful one. It was really very, very powerful, so I had worked with him before.

Q: Earlier this year, we lost a great actor, your co-star in this, Alan Rickman. What do you remember about working with him?

Mirren: Unfortunately in this film I didn’t actually get to work with Alan, because we all shot our pieces separately, but I have worked with Alan in the past. On the stage actually, not in movies. I think Alan would have been incredibly proud that this was his last movie, because what I love about it is that the Alan you see up on the screen is much closer to the real Alan Rickman that we all knew and loved. You see his intelligence, you see his wit, and you see his authority, and I think that, that was very much the Alan that we knew. The other characters that he played so brilliantly in the “Harry Potter” series, the baddie in “Die Hard,” and those sorts of things. He was a wonderful actor, so he always gave an incredible performance, but I think the Alan that we see on the screen in this movie is very close to the real Alan. The inner soul of the film, I think is very much something that Alan would have identified with, and would have been very proud to be a part of.

Q: You spoke about the still moments in this movie, which are incredibly powerful and intense. For both of you, were there new tools in your toolbox that you were able to access playing these still moments out?

Mirren: We were very lucky. The film, in a way, happens in real time. The two hours that you watch it in is the two hours in which the film happens. Gavin had done all the ground stuff before I came on board. I was the first up. The politicians (scenes) hadn’t been shot, the drone pilots hadn’t been shot, and we all shot completely separately from each other, for financial reasons. They couldn’t afford to bring us all to South Africa (which stood in for Kenya). We shot it in Cape Town, and we all stayed in the same hotels to save money. The people in the bunker with me were all brought in and we’d just shot our stuff. When I was talking on the phone to Alan (Rickman), or to Aaron (Paul), I was actually talking to Gavin, or the first AD or the sound guy. (She laughs.)


So there we are in our bunker, and I’ve never shot a movie like this. It’s very complex because this director had to keep in his mind all his cuts, the rhythm of how people would be talking in this room, how it was going to interact with this, it was extraordinarily complex actually, and we spent half the day, Gavin and I, just thinking about how we were going to shoot it, in what sequence, how we were going to do it, so basically, very roughly, we shot the whole movie, as far as I was concerned, my character, in one direction from beginning to end, and then we turned around and shot the whole movie from beginning to end in another direction. Again, financially the most economic way of doing it, and then…so I’m actually ultimately speaking to your point, that I was very lucky, in a sense that every day I was dealing with a sequence of what had happened, and exactly where each moment sat within the whole piece.

Q: In doing this film, what were some of the things that you found out about drones, and this sort of remote fighting that’s going on. What surprised you about it, or affected you?

Mirren: I had no idea how far the technology has gone, and because it’s gone this far how far, therefore, will it go in the future in the next 10 or 20 years, that completely took me by surprise. You sort of read in the newspaper, “Oh, there was a drone attack on blah, blah,” and you sort of go, “Oh, darn it.” I’ve never really thought about it, and it made me really consider the reality of this stuff on the ground, the extraordinary way in which warfare has changed. You think of the 19th century idea of warfare, of people riding into battle on horses with sabers, and then World War I came along with the idea of trenches and guns. Then there was the Second World War idea of airplanes and bombs, and now we’re in the sort of third war, where warfare is continuing on, and I suspect it will be very much a part of the future.

I do remember my parents, who went through The Blitz in London, said the most terrifying, the most terrifying thing about being bombed was not actually the airplanes, the German airplanes coming over, although that was terrifying, it was what the Germans had invented, this thing called the doodlebug, which is just a very early form of drone warfare, which was an unmanned vehicle that came over and made this drone sound, and she said the terror was when you heard the sound stop, because when it stopped was when it dropped its bombs, and so, my mother, in a way, had sort of firsthand experience of what these people (in the film) experience. It must be so terrifying, because it’s coming out of nowhere; you don’t know that it’s coming.

Q: When you watched the completed film for the first time with the other parts of it that were not involved in, what did you think?

Mirren: I was thinking, “You know what, in a way it’s like a courtroom drama, and the audience is the jury, and when the jury leave the theater at the end of the film, they’re going off to make their decisions about what is right and what is wrong, so I’m really hoping that people will leave the theater, go out to dinner, and have very intense conversations about morality, philosophy, and all that.


Q: Can you talk a little bit about any research you did ahead of the film, and what you did day of filming to get into that mind space?

Mirren: We were very lucky. We had a British military man who was on set all the time, and also he was very accessible for me, and I had long conversations with him about who this woman might be, who Colonel Powell might be. Obviously, a woman who’s joined the military maybe in her early 20s, maybe even her late teens, at a time when that was not common place, so what kind of a girl decides to do that in the first place, and then has the abilities that’s brought her to this position of authority and power within the military, and he was great in helping me, giving me guiding points about what he felt that sort of woman would be, and then he was very valuable, in terms of literally physical things, about the way you were your uniform, the way in which the behavior is, so he was very valuable.

Q: Some in the audience may want your character to authorize the bombing as the minutes tick by the suicide bombers prepare for their mission. Are they monsters for wanting you to do that?

Mirren: No, it was necessary because if you put the camera on put each one of the (potential suicide bombing victims) in the mall, who will die, you have to think about what about their lives? Are we sacrificing them? It’s a horrendous moral decision. I was thinking of Hitler’s invasion of Hungary, and Poland, and the way the British, the Americans, and the French, all looked the other way, saying, “Well, oh no, we don’t want war. Don’t let us have war. War is too horrible.” and then (the Germans) unleashed this unbelievable horror for the next five years, unbelievable horror. At some point you do need someone who makes a tough decision, a horrible decision, a hard, brutal decision, but makes it, and in making it saves many, many, many lives. In the case of Hitler, it would’ve been saving millions, and millions and millions of lives. There’s no easy answer.

The other thing the film does—maybe people will argue against me—but it actually is a good argument for democracy, because it’s the democratic process of the chain of command, the discussion sometimes it’s foolish. There’s a lot of funniness and farcical and funny, but there is that process. It’s not a military dictator saying to do it. There is a sense of conscious, and morality, and we know we have to talk this out and assess its legality.

Q: Are you working on something now, is there something coming up soon?

Mirren: I’m about to start work on a film called “Collateral Beauty,” which is with Will Smith. We’re filming in New York.