Waiting for Helen Mirren

The line to see Helen Mirren live and in person is long but not embarrassingly so, not of the wrap-around-the-corner variety that encourages passers-by to get nosy about your business. The only thing New Yorkers love more than standing in line is asking people who are standing in line why they are standing in line. As a person who loathes standing in line for more than 30 seconds to do anything, I have never been able to care long enough to crack either of these codes. Yet here I am, for Helen Mirren.

We who arrived more than an hour early to get the good seats press up against the cold stone exterior of the library at 42nd Street—the fancy one, the one with the lions out front and Bryant Park out back, the one where Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big did not get married—and watch those who arrive later scowl over their own poor life choices. Some of them, being elderly, hover at the front for a minute or two, hoping someone will take pity and let them cut in line. But this is New York, pops, and none of us care: you made it this far, you can make it a little farther.

Inside the venue it's a mad dash to empty chairs: open seating at public events featuring the famous is a blood sport, in this and any town. There is no mercy. Hostages will be taken. Again the latecomers wander to and fro near the front, prepared to pounce but inevitably ferried backward, back to the forgotten aisles, back to the losers' lanes. The stage is small but bright and there are large screens placed on both sides of it: no one in this room will miss anything, but still. That bare spotlight in the center stays lit for a reason. We are all moths bumping up against its flame.

We wait. They're serving wine somewhere, and coffee somewhere. Cookies. One woman crosses back and forth three or four times carrying what looks to be champagne to her seat. She's wearing a brightly patterned jumpsuit under a dark blazer. Sarah and I agree that no one dressed in a jumpsuit should ever be drinking anything: it's a trap, and there's no escape. A girl in front of us is sitting with her parents; they talk to one another while she Snapchats. It looks frantic and unpleasant but I long to ask how she learned to type so fast on her phone, understanding that such knowledge in my hands would be useless. We were born in different ages. Our fingers are made for different tasks.

I know before the lights go down that if there is a question-and-answer segment following the interview, both of these women will rise to ask questions. I am not wrong.

The lights go down. Helen Mirren appears, looking especially Helen-Mirrenish. You know what I mean. You all know Helen Mirren. The fellow interviewing her, Paul Holdengräber, is light and loose but very intense, and deeply enamored of pauses. Too much maybe. They talk about Shakespeare, about Peter Brook and Africa and Russia and the RSC and Robert Altman and the business of film, the business of acting and the inspiration of art, of lifelong passions and the Italian cinema. Cell phones. Cameras. Modern-day scourges.

They talk about the queen. You know which one I mean. He shows her this photograph by Thomas Struth and reads a very long quote about this photograph, also by Thomas Struth. It's interesting but decades pass. They talk about costumes and duty and presentation, what it would feel like to be dressed the way a queen must dress, to seldom be allowed to wear what one actually wishes to wear. And yet: "Have you ever touched a movie star?" Helen Mirren asks. He reaches out and touches her hand. She shakes her head: she means male movie stars, she says, the really big ones, the ones who can afford to wrap themselves in the insanely expensive cocoons of outrageously fine garments, the thickest cashmeres and the richest silks and, I don't know, Rumplestiltskin's maiden's golden straw. That's what it's like to be dressed like a queen, is the point of Helen Mirren's story. Don't feel too bad for the queens.