He's rumpled, personable, vaguely brash, but just try asking him how he guided the seemingly unprepossessing film about Queen Elizabeth II's crisis of identity to six Oscar nominations. Eating with gusto, he says things like, "I believe in casting," adding that he blames himself if the performance doesn't work out the way he envisioned but then declines to really enumerate why Helen Mirren was so perfect for the title role of the queen.
He'd never seen Mirren's signature role as the cool, lonely detective Jane Tennyson in the TV series "Prime Suspect" — but he'd known her forever as part of the small British film world. "She has just been part of my life," says Frears.
"She played Cleopatra when she was 16! She has just always been there." When he met her for the first time, he found her charming, but at some level deeply private, almost opaque, like the queen. And there was the idea of the poster with Helen's mug — that amused him. "People see the poster and they start to smile."
Although it's hard to think of anything a middle-class, Leicester-born, artist-rebel has in common with the richest, most sheltered woman in England, this almost genetic unwillingness to reveal himself in public is at the heart of "The Queen," which details Elizabeth II's soul-searching in the wake of Princess Diana's sudden death.
In the film she battles with newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair over how much royal grief must be shown publicly to satisfy the mourning nation.
Indeed, as the queen has devoted herself to England, the nation and the concept, so Frears has devoted himself to the excavation of the British soul, from the ignored underclass in such films as "Dirty Pretty Things," its immigrants and outsiders in "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy and Rosie," its artists and entertainers in "Prick Up Your Ears" and "Mrs. Henderson Presents," to the gamut of society in a huge body of TV work by such British superstar writers as Alan Bennett and Tom Stoppard. Not to mention his exploration of Irish working-class life in a pair of films based on books by Roddy Doyle.
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Critic David Thomson once described Frears as "the least self-important of directors." There are tons of directors more famous than Frears, but few who have such a body of memorable movies, which also includes two stylish tours de force: "Dangerous Liaisons" and "The Grifters."
He's directed six women to Oscar nominations, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Annette Bening and now Helen Mirren. Writers Hanif Kureishi and "The Queen's" Peter Morgan were nominated, and Christopher Hampton won, for works animated by Frears, and the director is receiving his second nomination for "The Queen."
His spirit has even crept into another noteworthy film of the season, "Venus" — the bantering breakfast routine between geriatric theater pros Peter O'Toole and his longtime, moderately grumpy friend played by Leslie Phillips, has its roots in a weekly breakfast date between Frears and screenwriter Kureishi.
With vaguely scruffy clothes and darting eyes, Frears is like a benign bear who doesn't want to admit his own cuddliness. Still, he's clearly enjoying his moment in the sun — in part because, as someone who's known ups and downs, he knows how brief it will be.
"It happened in Venice," says Frears. They showed the movie in the morning, and "reports came back that people had gone mad about it. Then we did a press conference and the press stood up and clapped as we came into the room. Helen and I — all we wanted to do was say, 'What is it that you like? What have we done right?' "
He says he never dreamed that he'd be making a film about the queen. His first memory of Elizabeth II is of her coronation in 1953, which as a kid, he tried to watch on TV — "The most boring TV I'd ever seen. My brothers and I went down and played cricket on the lawn."
His view of the Charles-Diana marriage is even grimmer — he's appalled by myriad delusions that went into it. "It was barbaric! So irresponsible. She was like somebody who believed in fairy tales. You can see how Charles would have deceived himself, but the adults. The grown-ups should have known better."
This said, he admits there was something intriguing about Charles — who, at 58, is more his contemporary. "I could see Charles was at the same time the most privileged person and the least privileged person," he says, "but I think I somehow transferred that onto the queen."
Indeed, the film is animated by the queen's desire for normalcy within the ponderous shell of monarchy and national duty. One of the most memorable scenes is Mirren as the queen cleaning up during a picnic at what passes for the family's Balmoral, Scotland, country estate.
"It's just as you and I wanting to be the queen for a day, she would like to be an ordinary person. I think at the end of the war, maybe VE night, she and her sister put on scarves and went out amongst the people. For her it was a huge event."
Frears seems perfectly happy to gossip about the royal family, which he discusses less as real people than characters in his own private drama. Yet he downplays his involvement — indeed his artistic implacability — in making what will probably end up being the definitive portrait of Elizabeth II.
Indeed, such is the power of movies that, 50 years from now, what many will remember is less the real flesh-and-blood queen, that unknowable figure in the idiosyncratic curly hairdo, than Mirren's interpretation of her.
Frears' working-schmo persona is something of a ruse, says Morgan, who also wrote the earlier 2003 TV movie "The Deal" about Tony Blair for Frears. "It's all hideous subterfuge. He knows exactly what he wants. Helen's performance is all about how Stephen directed her. He pushed her and pushed her and pushed her and he knew what he wanted."
He was no less a perfectionist with Morgan. When Morgan gives Frears a script, "He says, 'I think the script is jolly good' and that's the last compliment you'll hear. From then on, you never hear another nice thing from him. He says, 'What do you think that scene is supposed to be? Then I suggest you write it better.' He does it about 400 times."
Then again, in the editing room, "he pretends not to know what he's doing," says Morgan. "He's very, very, very bright. He can huff and hum in a way that one thinks not. But it's a really first-class brain."
"I prepared for this film in my living room," insists Frears, though he does admit, "this one was quite complicated because everything in the film is wrong." He's apparently talking about locations, all the grand halls and castles that had to substitute for Buckingham Palace and Balmoral. "We couldn't film it in the right places. So on this film, I prepared by driving endlessly around Scotland, trying to find locations."
Given the subject matter, many of the British aristocrats who owned the kind of lavish estates needed were wary about lending their property.
Being Frears, this turned out to be a good thing. As when he's directing actors or writers, he never likes to settle.
"The people who were nervous were the ones who involved the most lazy choice," the stereotypical grand British estate seen in countless TV shows. "In other words the obvious choices, which weren't very good. I remember someone turning me down and all I felt was enormous relief. And once you are turned down by the obvious you have to go and look more carefully."