Most actors are liked by those they work with. A few are loved. With Helen it was unquestionably the latter. People would light up at the mention of her name. I was one of those people.
When I was directing Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night as my final productions as artistic director of the Donmar in 2002, I asked Helen to play the role of Sonya in Uncle Vanya. Word came back that she would love to have a chat about it. She strode into my office, sat on the sofa and immediately told me I had it all wrong. She told me she should be playing Yelena – the other young female role – and then proceeded to spend the next hour telling me exactly why. She left the room with the part. This has never happened to me before or since. All I can say by way of explanation is that it just felt inevitable. She was clearly already half way to giving a superb performance, I simply had to get out of the way and let her complete the job. Which, of course, she did – with utter brilliance.
She could talk for England – even an old blowhard like me was put in the shade – so rehearsals were always a hoot. Opinions, gossip, secrets, wisdom, all dispensed with fervency and passion. Once on stage, however, she was utterly focused. A kind of electricity surrounded her, a force field of energy. When Yelena made her entrance down the aisle, you could see the lace on the brim of her hat vibrating. It wasn’t nerves – it was pure, contained energy.
The entrance itself was completely mesmerising: her Yelena walked slowly across the stage, poured a cup of tea, stirred in some honey, and exited, while Mark Strong’s Astrov and Simon Russell Beale’s Vanya gazed at her with barely disguised longing. Two minutes of silence, I would guess, but you knew so much about the character by the time she left the stage, it was a kind of masterclass in behaviour. Mark and Simon would joke that they could sense the kind of performance Helen was about to give that night – sultry, or enraged, or sullen, or vulnerable – from the way she stirred the tea. She was unpredictable, charismatic and incredibly exciting to watch.
The explosive energy she was attempting to harness sometimes led to mistakes. In Twelfth Night, her Olivia summoned the Sister to officiate the wedding with the immortal line “Bring forth the holy Fister!” It wasn’t just the malapropism, but the imperiousness with which she bellowed the line, that sent the cast into paroxysms of laughter. Helen, meanwhile, stood gloriously uncomprehending in the middle of the chaos.
A decade later, when I was directing Skyfall, I needed an actress who could publicly haul Judi Dench’s M over the coals, whilst also making a roomful of other giant personalities and talents cower. Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear, Naomie Harris, Javier Bardem – who could impose herself on all of them without a second thought? Of course I thought of Helen, and she didn’t disappoint. On top of which, she was just … fun. It’s an underappreciated trait, but so important in what we do. Helen understood how to take the work seriously, but never yourself.
All death is a tragedy, but some feel especially cruel. As if the intended course of someone’s life has been thrillingly mapped out for all to see, and then turns out to have been written in vanishing ink. So it is with Helen. She so clearly adored her wonderful children, and of course Damian. They had somehow managed to navigate the choppy waters and endlessly changing winds of a showbiz marriage, it seems unbearably sad that they won’t now be hearing her laugh, or feeling her love.
Unbearably sad, too, that we won’t witness the wonderful performances she was yet to give. I’m pretty sure, however, that Helen would have absolutely fought that sentiment. Bollocks to that, she would have said. I’ve lived a wonderful life, had a wonderful family, and I’ve seen and achieved so much more than I ever imagined. And on top of that, it was just so much bloody fun.
I already miss her.