EW joined the show's cheeky host on set for a Dame-approved master class
Credit: David Giesbrecht

Even for an Oscar winner, filming IFC’s mockumentary series Documentary Now! alongside Saturday Night Live vets Fred Armisen and Bill Hader posed challenges. This season, the beloved Brit brings her gravitas to seven new episodes of nonfiction spoofs, including The Bunker, a parody of political classic The War Room; Globesmen, a play on the Maysles brothers’ Salesman; and Juan Likes Rice & Chicken, inspired by Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

EW stopped by the New York set to witness the Dame in action — and to find out how she nails her introductions no matter the genre. Here’s how she impressed her bosses in four simple steps:

1. Keep a Straight Face

Ironically, Mirren didn’t land the job because of her sense of humor — just the opposite, in fact. “After I was on SNL, Bill and Fred obviously thought that whereas I wasn’t a very funny person, I did have the seriousness required,” she recounts, poker-faced. “I’m the glue that holds the edifice together.”

2. Speak Very Clearly

“Anything to do with documentaries, for some reason people have very, very complicated names,” Mirren says. “Except for Michael Moore.” For The Bunker, a doc tracking a political campaign, Mirren had to say the word “gubernatorial” — and nailed it on the first take. “Not too shabby,” she remarks afterward, “but I’d like to do that again.”

Credit: IFC

3. Don’t Get Jealous of Your Costars

Armisen and Hader take trips (Armisen even ventures to Colombia for the culinary doc Juan), but Mirren’s not envious: “I’m an adventurer, so I would love to have been a part of it in that way, but on the other hand, it is nice to have a shower at night and a loo that’s not a hole in the ground.” It’s also a welcome break from the pair’s incessant critiquing, she jokes. “They are very demanding,” she says with a sigh. “They often say, ‘Helen, that was hopeless. Do it again, please.'”

4. Cheer On Your Material

The series has one goal (well, other than to make you laugh): to drive attention to docs. “It should be called Documentary Matters, because it does,” she says. “Documentaries are an extremely important way to learn about different cultures and worlds.” But what about the title’s seemingly essential exclamation point? She pauses. “It’d be like in Spanish,” she decides, “when you put an upside-down one on one side, to indicate the international flavor.” So, ¡Documentary Matters!? With enthusiasm like that, it’s no wonder she scored the job!

Documentary Now! returns Wednesday, Sept. 14, at 10 p.m. ET on IFC.

A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly issue #1430. Buy it here or subscribe now for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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