Despite her image as a quintessential British actress, Helen Mirren was actually born Ilynea Lydia Mironoff, the daughter of a Russian taxi driver, and has lived in America for nearly two decades. But then everything from her unpredictable film choices to the place she calls home is a part of Helen's cosmopolitan outlook.
Born on July 26, 1945, in Chiswick, England, her father changed the family name to Mirren in the Fifties. Helen decided to embark upon a stage career after becoming "obsessed" with Shakespeare as an adolescent. It was Joan of Arc - portrayed as "the wicked witch" in the bard's Henry VI - who first sparked her interest. "I loved her for that," says the actress.
Having taken part in a school production of The Tempest aged 13, Helen made her mark five years later playing the Egyptian queen in a National Youth Theatre production of Anthony And Cleopatra at the Old Vic. She went on to join the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she became dubbed "the sex queen of Stratford" in recognition of her willingness to strip off on stage. Famously comfortable in her own skin, Helen admits to "being famous for being cool about not being gorgeous".
She was not always so sure of herself, however, and not long after making her TV debut in a BBC production of Herostradus when she was 25, a "depressed" Helen took a characteristically unusual route to find her path in life. "I went to a hand reader," she explains. "This Indian guy in a funky neighbourhood. He said: 'The height of your success won't happen until you're in your late 40s'."
It was a prediction the thespian took to heart. "From that moment on," says Helen, "I felt much better, because I realised I didn't want to know what was going to happen. I just wanted to get on with it."
And get on with it she did. Her instincts kept her in both theatre and films and, after proving herself on the London stage, she cemented her big screen credentials in the late Seventies and early Eighties in such classics as Caligula, Excalibur and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover.
It was the part of Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in TV series Prime Suspect which made her a household name in the UK, however. Her portrayal of the unglamorous police officer in the Nineties drama earned her three BAFTA awards, along with an Emmy for the fourth series. Helen calls the role the "biggest break of my career".
It certainly fulfilled the palm reader's prediction from 20 years earlier. And her success was further reinforced by a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod for the murder mystery Gosford Park in 2002.
Six years before landing Prime Suspect Helen made a move uncommon for British stage talent by decamping to Los Angeles, California, to make the big budget production 2010. "I left England because I was dying for a change in my artistic life," she says. "And I've always been a great admirer of American actors, unlike some of my fellow actors in England."
The actress, who counts among her former beaus Excalibur co-star Liam Neeson, put down roots stateside, marrying her longtime partner, the American director of Proof Of Life Taylor Hackford, on New Year's Eve 1997 in Scotland. And Helen is characterstically frank about the grounding of their relationship. "We'd lived together for 15 years," she says. "If there was any hating to be done, we've done it and come out the other side."
In 2006 Helen, who was made a Dame of the British Empire three years earlier, hit a career high. At the age of 61 she was feted across the globe for her role as Elizabeth II in the movie The Queen and also for her TV appearance as Elizabeth I. "It's been the most incredible year for me ever," she said as she received two Golden Globes at the 2007 ceremony. She went on to repeat her Golden Globe double glory at the Screen Actors Guild awards and quickly became the hot favourite to win the best actress title at that year's Oscars ceremony. Bookies paid out on the actress winning the award even before the event, and Helen did not disappoint, walking away with the coveted statuette to wholehearted applause from her peers.
And since then the honours have kept on coming. In 2007 she won another Emmy for her role in Prime Suspect: The Final Act and in 2010 she earned her fourth Oscar nomination for The Last Station.