WYZA® Exclusive: Helen Mirren on her latest role

In this Australian exclusive to WYZA® glamorous Helen Mirren, 70, talks about what it is like to play a Colonel and why she was drawn to star in the topical thriller Eye in the Sky.

Amongst the many scripts that land on Helen Mirren’s desk, she says that Eye in the Sky was one that she simply had to do.

A powerful film and an edge of your seat thriller, Eye in the Sky, directed by Gavin Hood from a Guy Hibbert screenplay, forensically examines the life and death decisions faced by politicians and the military as they track a group of terrorists, via drones, who are about to launch a suicide mission.


Watch exclusive footage from Mirren's latest film Eye in the Sky

Ms Mirren said, “I think most of the world doesn’t know very much about drone warfare, I just felt that it was important. We know about drones but we’re not quite sure how it all works – the moral issues, the terrible decisions that have to be made.

“I think it’s a great movie about war in general and those kinds of morally ambiguous decisions that have had to be made in war forever.”

Ms Mirren plays Colonel Katherine Powell the leader of a UK military team, based in London, working with its US allies as they monitor suspected terrorists in Nairobi. The aim of the mission is to capture the suspects with the aid of the Kenyan security forces.

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Helen Mirren plays a military intelligence officer in command of a top secret drone operation

Barkdad Abdi plays Jama Farah, an operative on the ground tracking the targets, and Aaron Paul is drone pilot Steve Watts based in Nevada who is under the command of Colonel Powell

When it becomes clear the targets are preparing for a suicide bomb attack, the stakes are ramped up and Colonel Powell seeks permission from the British government via Lieutenant General Frank Benson, played by Alan Rickman, to order a deadly drone strike on the terrorists.

But when an innocent young girl begins selling bread outside the house where the terrorists are gathered – in the ‘kill zone’ – they are faced with a terrible moral dilemma; whether to go ahead and, in all likelihood, take the life of an innocent young girl, or whether to hold off and risk a suicide bombing that could kill many more innocents.


Watch a clip from Helen Mirren's new film Eye in the Sky

To prepare for her role, Ms Mirren met a serving officer. “I met a military man, who was very valuable, just to give me the background on attitudes in the military. I asked, ‘who would this woman be to have reached this point? What kind of a person would she have been?’ He was really useful. He was great.”

Colonel Powell is convinced that the strike should go ahead – the ‘targets’ are known terrorists and she is certain that they are about to commit an atrocity that will claim the lives of up to 80 innocent people.

While the politicians debate the implications of giving the go ahead for the drone strike and taking the life of the innocent young girl, she remains steadfast as the clock is ticking.

“They get obsessed with a particular target and a particular person who they feel has betrayed their country or is the enemy. Apparently this does happen. They feel this one person is incredibly dangerous, is disseminating destruction and pain throughout the world and they have to target and get rid of them."


Eye in the Sky has elements of dark humour and suspense 

“In the military they’re not artists. They can’t be. They go into the military because they have a certain attitude. To survive in the military and to be successful in the military requires a whole mind-set that again is not the mind-set of an artist."

“They can be very smart and very imaginative and brilliant, but they have to have a certain linear mind-set – I guess, because I don’t like to make generalisations, it’s dangerous. To be a successful woman in the military means you have got to be very focused.”

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Academy Award winner Helen Mirren won Best Actress for the film The Queen (Photo: Featureflash/Shutterstock)

Ms Mirren was born in London. She won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading role for her performance in The Queen in 2006 and has been nominated for an Academy Award a further three times, The Madness of King George (1995), Gosford Park (2001) and The Last Station (2010).

Q: Did you learn anything new about drone warfare?

A: It’s not a world I know anything about, really. I had my assumptions. I have to say this was the film I most wanted to do this year. I said to my agent, ‘I don’t care what else comes along; this is the movie I want to do. I’m doing this movie.’ I just felt that it was important. I think most of the world doesn’t know about drone warfare.

We know about drones but we’re not quite sure how it all works – the moral issues, the terrible decisions that have to be made. I think it’s a great movie about war in general and those kinds of morally ambiguous decisions that have had to be made in war forever. I didn’t know, for example, how complicated these decisions are. You have to speak to lawyers and then the lawyers have to say, ‘Yes you can do that,’ or ‘No you can’t do that.’

I didn’t know about the politicians and the influence of the politicians on the lawyers, and how complex it is. When we see it in movies, it’s often so simplistic, isn’t it? ‘Bang, go!’ But no, that’s not how it works, and I think it gives great credibility to the military in many ways. It doesn’t vilify them but neither does it poof them up.

And this is technology now; can you imagine what it’s going to be like in 20 years?

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Eye in the Sky brings to light many controversial issues

Q: Did you arrive at any judgment on drone warfare?

A: No, I didn’t come to any stance on it myself. In the West, that is becoming more and more our theatre of war, and because of that I think that more people are beginning to understand the implications of it and how it works, and the kinds of decisions involved. The more educated we are the better, about what is being done in our name.

Q: What is it that’s so unsettling about remote warfare?

A: I remember my parents, who went through the Blitz in London, saying the most terrifying thing is what they called the ‘doodlebugs’. They were these unmanned bombs that would come over, which the Germans had developed. They made a certain noise in the sky, and when they stopped and became silent was the terrifying moment, because that was the moment they were dropping. So you’d be there listening, going, ‘Please don’t stop, please don’t stop,’ and when it went silent, then you knew.

“To be a successful woman in the military means you have got to be very focused.”

Q: Did you meet anyone with experience of drone warfare during your research?

A: I met a military man, who was very valuable, just to give me the background on attitudes in the military. I asked, ‘who would this woman be to have reached this point? What kind of a person would she have been?’ He was really useful. He was great.

“I have to say, that it’s a woman making these decisions. I think it really throws up the conflict, the dilemma, the dichotomy, in sharper contrast.”


Watch Alan Rickman in his last on-screen role

Q: Do you feel that playing strong, single-minded women come naturally to you?

A: I don’t know that it necessarily comes easy to me. What I always try to do with the roles that I play is to humanise them. To be a human being is to be full of conflict about things; it’s not to be sure. Even the people who appear to be absolutely confident go home at night and go, ‘Am I right?’

Politicians can’t afford to show it, ever. But my job as an actor is to show it, and is to show that human vulnerabilities, to me, are much more interesting than strong decisions. Insecurity and vulnerability are much more interesting.

“. . . I think the fact that there’s a woman in that role really makes the audience think about the implications of what has to be done – the terrible, terrible implications.”

Q: With controversy over British drone strikes in Syria, the film offers a valuable insight into the process that goes on before a strike is made. Did you feel that the film shed light on what happens before a strike is made?

A: Absolutely. You think it happens like, ‘Drones – send them in. Bang!’ No, it’s all of these discussions, the lawyers. The lawyers standing there saying, ‘No you can’t do that.’ ‘What do you mean I can’t do it? I’ve got to do it!’

Watch the trailer here.

(Featured image: s_bukley/Shutterstock)

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