Female cops on American TV sooner or later assume a wide-legged stance, hold their gun in both hands and growl, "Freeze!" Less melodramatic, more realistic, Helen Mirren in "Prime Suspect" shows the day-to-day, behind-the-scenes struggle of a veteran British policewoman whose most characteristic quote is "Right! Let's get on with it."
She's an organization woman in an organization that doesn't want her, or at least doesn't want her to command.
"Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Jane Tennison knows she's good and that she can do the job better than they can, and they're not letting her," Mirren says. But when one of her male colleagues dies on the job, word comes down from the top to let her take over his murder investigation.
From then on it's a battle not only to solve the case but also to overcome the prejudice and backbiting of the men under her authority.
"Prime Suspect" (which airs on PBS' "Mystery!" for three weeks beginning Jan. 23) "is a whodunit-thriller," Mirren says, "but it's mostly a story about an obsessive person's struggle to gain recognition within her chosen field of endeavor. I don't want it to be thought of as an Agatha Christie, quaint-old-ladies-finding-a-clue sort of thing. It's a much stronger work than that, much rawer and incredibly contemporary."
Although the miniseries is nominally about the British police force, Mirren says: "It's about police forces all over the world and what's happening right now. Police forces are notorious for insularity and narrow-mindedness. The fact that Jane Tennison is a woman obviously has great value, but the story could just as easily be about a Latino in the Los Angeles Police Department.
"It's a fascinating world to penetrate for a second or two. Police forces have the appearance of being very open, and they have to be because the taxpayers are paying for them. The police are actually very clever about only allowing you in so far. There is a secret inner world which you'll never penetrate unless you're one of them, basically."
One of Britain's premier classical actresses, Mirren managed to get a look inside with the help of several women high up in the British police. "They were rooting for me and for the piece because it expressed so much of what they'd experienced," she says.
"There are only one or two DCI women--not many. Jane Tennison is a person of the future. It's not so much that it's difficult to be a DCI, which it is, but that's only the beginning of your problem. Then it's the problem of being given the jobs that you want. You want the glamour jobs, the 'hot' jobs, and they always go to someone else. That's very much what the beginning of 'Prime Suspect' is all about. They'd rather pull a guy out of the pub than give the job to a woman, who's the one next in line for it."
Mirren, 45, plays the role with short hair and no makeup. It's a far cry from the sexually provocative parts she is best known for in this country: the scantily clad wife in the controversial "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover"; the artist who swims nude in "Pascali's Island"; the sadist in "The Comfort of Strangers"; the sexually voracious murderess in the 1988 PBS drama "Cause Celebre."
"It's great to play someone so uncompromisingly who they are," Mirren says of her "Prime Suspect" part. "Certain roles are exactly right for you. You're the right age and the right mentality, and you don't have to pretend to be anything other than what you are.
"It's fun to play psychotics or stupid people--things hopefully different from how you are yourself. But I always find it much more satisfying if the role is close to who I am or who I'd like to be."
For the past six years, Mirren has put her career second to her relationship with Taylor Hackford, director of such films as "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "White Nights." They share a six-acre estate in the Hollywood Hills, but Mirren works primarily in Europe.
"It's a bit difficult when your life and your work are thousands of miles apart. I have to choose what I do quite carefully because I don't want to spend my whole life away from home."
She was in Italy recently, filming "Where Angels Fear to Tread," but has been unwilling to make long-term commitments to the British stage. "I don't know how to resolve it," says the woman who came to notice as a teen-age Cleopatra with Britain's National Youth Theater and went on to play many leading roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company. "I want to bring deep, serious, heavy theater back into my life because it's really important to me. I've spent days in deep psychological pain, and I have terrible sleepless nights feeling like I'm betraying myself."
To keep busy, she occasionally auditions for Hollywood films and has appeared in "The Mosquito Coast" and "2010." But the parts offered "are not things I can really be excited about," she says.
In February, she will return to London to make a sequel to "Prime Suspect."
"It's the first time I've done anything more than once," she says, "but Jane is a really wonderful character. You have to look for roles to show people that you are growing older, developing and changing and moving with the time. Life is now for this woman. She's very much a woman for this moment in time."