Headmistress Helen has nothing to fear

Sulley, voiced by John Goodman, and Mike, voiced by Billy Crystal in Monsters University. Picture: PA Photo/Disney Pixar
Sulley, voiced by John Goodman, and Mike, voiced by Billy Crystal in Monsters University. Picture: PA Photo/Disney Pixar
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Dame Helen Mirren is one of those women who appear unflappable, but she’d like put the record straight and announce it’s all bravado.

“The good thing is to pretend you’re not frightened, just act,” she says.

That’s easy enough for an Oscar winner to say, but the 67-year-old actress is having none of it.

“You get on with it,” she adds, shrugging. “You go, ‘Okay, I’m frightened but it’s not the end of the world and it’s my business and my fear and I’ll just deal with it’. It’s just being practical.”

Mirren was given an early lesson when, at the age of 10, she was summoned to see the headmistress of her new grammar school.

“She was a Bernardine nun, dressed in black and white, and I was so frightened of her,” recalls Mirren, looking elegant in a green maxi dress and white floral print cardigan. “But she also gave me great advice. She said, ‘The only thing to fear is fear itself’.”

Fear plays a big part in her latest movie, Monsters University, and it was her former headmistress whom Mirren looked to for inspiration when creating the character of Dean Hardscrabble. “She was scary, but kind and wise underneath,” she explains.

A prequel to 2001’s animated adventure Monsters Inc, Monsters University follows Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) as he enrols for his first term at college.

Although wide-eyed and ready to learn, Wazowski’s plans to become a professional ‘Scarer’ are soon derailed when he crosses paths with Sulley (John Goodman) and the formidable Hardscrabble.

While it’s not the first time Mirren has voiced an animated character, the movie does mark her debut as a giant centipede, and she credits the movie’s director Dan Scanlon for helping her hone the character.

“I’m actually hopeless at voiceovers,” she insists. “I would’ve loved to have been in the room with Billy and John and watched the masters at work, but at least I had Dan helping me.”

Laughing, she recalls he had no trouble letting her know when something didn’t work.

“It’s always great to have a wonderful director,” says Mirren. “They sort of guide you and allow you to experiment and do different things and eventually the character appears.”

While the process of being tucked away in a studio all day could be isolating, there are benefits – namely you don’t have to worry what you look like.

“Oh, it’s fabulous! It’s great not to have to get up at 5am and sit in hair and make-up forever, and not to be fiddled with all day long. It just drives me mad but you have to be very patient.”

With 30 legs and spectacular wings, Dean Hardscrabble is a tour de force with no time for mediocrity, and her students know it. So when she witnesses the spectacular culmination of the rivalry between Mike and Sulley, she takes swift action, dashing their dreams in an instant.

But unlike her alter ego, Mirren appreciates Wazowski’s work ethic. “I think too many people think all you have to do is just have a dream and it will happen, and this movie very adroitly and elegantly teaches a lesson to young people,” she says.

“Success,” she states, “is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent sweat and hard work. Even then, there are no guarantees.”

And there endeth the lesson.