Most actors are popular with those they work with. Some are loved. With Hélène, it was undoubtedly the last. People lit at the mention of his name. I was one of those people.
When I was directing Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night as my last productions as artistic director of Donmar in 2002, I asked Helen to play the role of Sonya in Uncle Vanya. Word returned that she would love to discuss it. She walked into my office, sat on the couch and immediately told me I was wrong. She told me she should play Yelena – the other young female role – and then spent the next hour telling me exactly why. She left the room with the room. This has never happened to me before or since. All I can say for explanation is that it seemed inevitable. She was clearly already halfway to giving a superb performance, I just had to step aside and let her finish the job. Which she did, of course, with absolute brilliance.
She could speak for England – even an old blowhard like me was put in the shade – so the rehearsals were always a hoot. Opinions, gossip, secrets, wisdom, all dispensed with fervor and passion. Once on stage, however, she was totally focused. A kind of electricity surrounded him, an energy force field. When Yelena walked down the aisle, you could see the lace on the brim of her hat vibrate. It wasn’t nerves – it was pure, contained energy.
The entrance itself was completely fascinating: her Yelena slowly crossed the stage, poured a cup of tea, stirred in honey, and left, while Mark Strong’s Astrov and Simon Russell Beale’s Vanya stared at her with barely disguised desire. . Two minutes of silence, I guess, but you knew so much about the character the moment she left the stage, it was kind of a behavioral masterclass. Mark and Simon joked that they could sense the kind of performance Helen was about to give that night – sultry, or enraged, or sullen or vulnerable – the way she stirred the tea. She was unpredictable, charismatic, and incredibly exciting to watch.
The explosive energy she was trying to harness sometimes led to mistakes. In Twelfth Night, her Olivia summoned the sister to officiate the marriage with the immortal line “Bring the holy Fister!” It wasn’t just the malapropism, but the urgency with which she bellowed the line, that sent the cast into paroxysms of laughter. Helen, meanwhile, stood gloriously incomprehensible in the midst of the chaos.
A decade later, when I was running Skyfall, I needed an actress who could publicly transport Judi Dench’s M to the coals, while also creating a room filled with other giant personalities and talents. Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear, Naomie Harris, Javier Bardem – who could win all over without thinking? Of course, I thought of Helen, and she didn’t disappoint. Besides, she was just… funny. It’s an underrated trait, but so important in what we do. Helen understood how to take work seriously, but never yourself.
All death is a tragedy, but some feel particularly cruel. As if the intended course of someone’s life had been drawn in an exciting way for everyone to see, and then turned out to have been written in endangered ink. The same is true with Helen. She adored her wonderful children so clearly, and of course Damian. They had somehow managed to navigate the choppy waters and ever changing winds of a showbiz wedding, it seems unbearably sad that they no longer hear her laugh or feel her love.
Extremely sad, too, that we won’t be witnessing the wonderful performances she had yet to give. I’m pretty sure, though, that Helen absolutely would have fought that feeling. Bollocks to that, she would have said. I have lived a wonderful life, had a wonderful family, and have seen and accomplished so much more than I imagined. And on top of that, it was so much fun.
I miss her already.