‘1923’ Star Helen Mirren On Working With Harrison Ford, Her Character’s Irish Roots And Why You Won’t See Her On A Horse
February 27, 2023
The first season of 1923 ended Sunday with Cara’s (Helen Mirren) nephew Spencer (Brandon Sklenar) still far from saving the day in Montana, while the ruthless Donald Whitfield (Timothy Dalton) informed Jacob (Harrison Ford) that he pretty much owns the Duttons after having paid the property taxes on their ranch. In other words, life will probably get a whole lot worse for Cara and Jacob before it gets any better.
In her only post-season interview, Mirren talks with Deadline about what attracted her to 1923, why her character is Irish, and what she expects from Spencer in Season 2.<
DEADLINE: How did you first book the role?
HELEN MIRREN: I think the original approach came through my agent. And as one normally does, you say “Oh that’s interesting. I would love to read a script.” And he said, “Oh no no no there is no script.” That’s unheard of! How can I agree to something if I haven’t read a script? And the answer came back, “Well Sheridan likes to write for the people he knows who are playing the roles,” which seemed to me a very sensible way of approaching it. So I said, “If that’s the case then I should meet Sheridan” because maybe after he met me, he won’t want to write a role for me at all. He should know who I am. I went to meet with him in Texas and had a wonderful time. I knew of his work with Hell or High Water and Wind River. I thought his work was extraordinary. He came with huge credentials as far as I was concerned. I just really enjoyed his company. So I thought, “Yeah okay and I’ll jump in the deep end and have a go.” And I’m so thrilled that I did because I think it’s going to be one of the really great experiences of my life.
DEADLINE: Did he tell you what to expect, what would happen in the story?
MIRREN: No it wasn’t that. It was more about getting to know each other as people, what makes you laugh, what you like to eat. Just a general chit-chat, which I thought was really great. Then the script arrives, I see the character and the way the character is developing, and I could see it was like me. He had written specifically to my strengths, if you like. I thought of making her Irish because America very much in those days was a country of immigrants. I wanted to heighten that fact. He said, “Absolutely. That’s fine.” And off we went.
DEADLINE: Thank you for explaining that because we never did get an explanation for how Jacob met Cara and why she was Irish.
MIRREN: No. We don’t go into the backstory, but the reality was America in the late 19th century, early 20th century was full of many different accents. When we were shooting in Butte, which was an old mining town, the miners came from Maldova, Scotland, Wales, Ireland. They came from Poland. So there would’ve been this absolute mishmash of different accents and different cultures and different foods. That was how America was born.
DEADLINE: You’ve worked with Harrison before.
MIRREN: Many, many years ago, he played my husband, I played his wife in a film called Mosquito Coast.
DEADLINE: Had Taylor already booked Harrison by the time he talked to you?
MIRREN: Well, we don’t quite know. Harrison says that I was asked first and then he agreed because I had agreed [laughs]. My side of the story is that he was already cast when I was asked to join it, and I joined because Harrison had joined. So we’re not quite sure which came first, but I think it’s a wonderful pairing. We love each other very much as people. I love Harrison. There’s just no two ways about it.
DEADLINE: Did Taylor send you to Cowboy Camp?
MIRREN: I did go to Cowboy Camp. I said at the beginning that I don’t ride. I mean, I’ve been on the back of a horse many times, but I’m not a rider. I’ve never really learned properly how to ride. So Taylor had the great idea of putting me in a buggy, so I did have to learn how to drive a buggy, which was really great experience. That was my Cowboy Camp.
DEADLINE: So when you were out there shooting, did it ever feel rugged or was it positively high class?
MIRREN: No, it was very rugged where we were shooting up in the Montana hills, where it was completely wild and incredibly beautiful. I have to give enormous kudos to the camera crews because they worked so hard.
DEADLINE: Was Taylor out there much with you?
MIRREN: No, Taylor was writing. But we had two really great directors, specifically Ben Richardson, who I know Taylor really loves. He was originally a cinematographer, which is why it looks so very beautiful. Both of our directors were wonderful and trusted by Taylor, which I think is very important. Without being there on the set, Taylor is very hands-on. He’s very deeply involved in the creation of the world.
DEADLINE: So our first introduction to Cara in 1923 was seeing and hearing her scream out in the forest or wherever. That must have been kind of fun.
MIRREN: We have probably all lost it out in the middle of nowhere, though the place I’ve been closest to losing it is on a rainy night in Manhattan when I absolutely can’t find a cab. That’s when I feel like screaming to the heavens, “Why, God, why?”
DEADLINE: Cara is pretty much salt of the earth, right? Everyone loves her and vice versa.
MIRREN: It’s interesting. Doing this sort of work is a journey into the unknown. We have the first four episodes and we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next four. I’m fascinated to see where Cara is going to go. Taylor did say she is very much of her era, she’s looking after the house. That is what her job is. But then he said, “Wait, things are going to happen.” So we’ll see.
DEADLINE: When you met with Taylor originally, did he tell you there was the possibility of a second season?
MIRREN: No, that came later. His concept was always this was going to be a 10-hour movie, basically. Now it’s becoming a 20-hour movie. I think he realized he had so many wonderful elements, he needed more time, which was very happy news as far as I was concerned.
DEADLINE: Looking back on the season, what scene did you find the most exhilarating?
MIRREN: Well, the ambush was pretty exhilarating because of the number of stunt people, the way the whole thing was set up. There was another scene that I absolutely loved that involved a drone. It wasn’t a scene, but a drone shot of me driving the buggy through the mountains. They didn’t want to have any camera crew or anyone. It was just raw countryside, with me and my buggy and two guys on horses. We were in the middle of nowhere. Also, shooting in downtown Butte, which is a town built in this era. Architecturally, it’s perfect for our needs. Seeing those streets with people in costumes and the horses and buggies and period cars, it was just like history come to life.
DEADLINE: This series had three major plot lines going at all times!
MIRREN: Each story was so powerful. Taylor did say he was interested in Spencer being in Africa, being a big-game hunter, which is of course historically accurate. Likewise, the Catholic schools for the Indian children. That was very accurate. The great thing about Taylor’s writing is that he tries to write to the reality of life to a certain extent, with all the good and the bad mixed together. He doesn’t make judgments, although obviously, his feelings about the way Native American people were treated is pretty powerful. That’s been very hard to watch and hard to read.
DEADLINE: What does your gut tell you about what will happen in the new season? Do you think Spencer will show up pretty quickly or are we going to still have to wait to see him?
MIRREN: I think Spencer’s gonna show up pretty quickly. I got the sense that Taylor was really imaginatively attracted to Spencer’s adventures, which were great for the audience, I thought. He made a great storyline, which was really beautiful to watch. I hope Spencer comes home soon, though. I dunno how many more letters I’ve got in me.