Elizabeth I of England often appears in portraits to be more of a lavishly upholstered, whitewashed mannequin than a flesh-and-blood woman. The two-part BBC TV movie "Elizabeth I," airing Saturday and Monday, April 22 and 24, on HBO, aims to chip away at the image to reveal the person underneath.
Redoubtable British actress Helen Mirren ("Prime Suspect") plays the queen from the middle until the end of her reign in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a period that includes various conspiracies; the death of Mary, Queen of Scots; and the successful battle against the Spanish Armada.
Tom Hooper ("Prime Suspect VI -- The Last Witness") directs from a screenplay by screenwriter and novelist Nigel Williams. An HBO Films presentation in association with the U.K.'s Channel 4, "Elizabeth I" filmed in Vilnius, Lithuania, with many sets built inside an abandoned sports arena from the 1970s.
On top of all these inherent challenges, the slender, 5-foot-4-inch Mirren had to spend almost all of the shoot encased in huge, jewel-encrusted formal gowns, often with huge collars, elaborate wigs and headpieces.
"It was incredibly hard work," says Mirren, who, as an avid gardener at the Los Angeles house she shares with her husband, director Taylor Hackford, is used to hard work. "It was on all day, every day, and when I wasn't literally acting, I was learning tomorrow's work. And the weight of the costumes -- it was physically tough.
"They're very heavy, and just walking, everything would ache. But at the same time, I knew it as probably the greatest role I'll ever have in my life."
One theme of Elizabeth's reign was the endless pressure for her to marry, but the miniseries also focuses on two men -- both nicknamed Robin -- who captured her fancy but never were able to capture her hand in marriage. Jeremy Irons plays Robert Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester, the queen's long-standing favorite and confidante; and Hugh Dancy plays his stepson, the dashing young Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex.
"When push came to shove," Mirren says, "she was never going to betray her position, her power as a monarch, which Mary, Queen of Scots, absolutely did and what was her downfall. Elizabeth never did that. As much as she fell inappropriately in love with people, like Essex, she never let go of her power. She never gave herself.
"Elizabeth allowed her heart to operate, but she didn't follow it. She always kept back. She liked to be queen too much, ultimately."
Both Leicester and Essex fell in and out of Elizabeth's favor, but it was Essex who allowed his passions to lead him ultimately into ruin.
"Leicester was smart enough to know how to keep all the balls in the air," Dancy says. "So even when he realized that he wasn't going to be able to marry her, he stuck in there and kept his position and knew how to be a politician.
"Robert Devereux didn't have that capacity. He was an interesting man, but he was too headstrong to play the subtle power games of the time, and that's why he ultimately fell from grace."
Another cause for that may have been the generational gap between Elizabeth and Essex.
"Elizabeth and Leicester matured together from what was probably a passionate love into a friendship into a partnership," Dancy says. "They were able to make that transition together. I also think there's something in the Earl of Essex's character that would have prevented that kind of accommodation.
"He was, in many ways, admirable. He couldn't accept the notion of calming down your passion or conquering your passion for the sake of pragmatism. There's a great line in the piece where he says, 'When love turns into friendship, I'll have none of it.'"
Essex's temperament was one factor in why Dancy was ultimately cast in the part.
"Hugh had my vote right from the beginning," Mirren says. "It's not an easy role. He looks beautiful, and he had the ability -- which not a lot of male actors have -- to give, especially to a woman. And Essex absolutely had to have that ability, because that's what Elizabeth found so seductive about him, the way he gives to her.
"At the same time, she's suspicious. 'You say you love me. Do you really love me?' 'Yes, of course, I love you.' 'Hmmm, you're so good at that, but I'm not so sure it's really true. How can it be?'"
Although Elizabeth's fashion sense, especially as she aged, tended toward clothes that wore her more than she wore them, Mirren was determined to let her personality and wit shine through. For one thing, there was her public image -- The Virgin Queen, Gloriana, Good Queen Bess, etc.
"Elizabeth did brand herself brilliantly well," Mirren says. "She was one of the first monarchs who created her own brand, and she was a great self-publicist. She would go on these progresses, which was as much to do with showing herself to the public as anything.
"She wanted people to see her. She'd put on all the gear and go out, have a lovely time, be nice to everyone, and then come back and get on with the job of having people executed."
And then there was the private face Elizabeth showed to friends and counselors.
"She charmed people," Mirren says, "and she laughed, and she giggled. She had a wonderful, vulgar sense of humor. I wanted her to be intelligent, mercurial, passionate, extreme, someone capable of going to real extremes of love, really inappropriately, like with Essex, extremes of anger, extremes of remorse -- and at the same time, this clear, constant intellectual thing."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times