Helen Mirren was relaxing in the lobby of one of her favorite haunts, the venerable Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, discussing Hollywood's golden years.
"I think the beginnings of Hollywood will only get more and more important to Los Angeles as time presses on," said the British actress who has called Los Angeles home for the past eight years. She lives with Taylor Hackford, who directed her in 1985's "White Nights."
"What I love is seeing photographs of how Los Angeles used to look in the '20s and '30s," she said. "How rich those movie stars must have been compared to the rest of the world." Mirren glanced around the bustling lobby. "Look at it," she said, pointing out the vintage architecture. "It's great. It's fantastic."
But today's Hollywood. Well, that's another matter for Mirren, who toiled on the London stage as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and was featured in such acclaimed and controversial films as "The Long Good Friday," "Excalibur," "Cal" and "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover."
"Some very good things are made for American television, but there are some things that somehow the film industry or the television industry--whatever--just won't let go of in America," she said firmly. "They have formula lighting, formula casting. It is all done by formula. I suppose it is a kind of sort of relentless commercialism that in a way often backfires, because people actually respond very often to things that are not overtly or obviously commercial."
Case in point: "Prime Suspect," a gritty, four-part British miniseries that debuted to spectacular reviews and ratings a year ago on PBS' "Mystery!" series. A distinctly unglamorous Mirren--sporting short-cropped hair, a modicum of makeup and attired in plain, tailored suits--starred as London Det. Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, who had to fight rampant sexism in her all-male department while leading a murder investigation.
Mirren said it was rare for British television to offer such a meaty female role, "but what was not rare is the way one approaches something like it--the way it is shot and the hard-hittingness of the script. American television, especially network television, obviously tends to soften things up, so it all becomes a bit mushy."
There's definitely nothing mushy about the four-part sequel, "Prime Suspect II," premiering Thursday on "Mystery!" This time around, Tennison is still bucking sexism while trying to solve a controversial murder case in London's black community. The thriller explores racism and police brutality, the same volatile subjects plaguing America. The white Tennison comes under fire when handsome black police detective Bob Oswalde (Colin Salmon), with whom she had a brief affair, is assigned to work on the case.
"Lynda La Plant conceived of the character and wrote the (first) script," Mirren said. "Prime Suspect II" was penned by Allan Cubitt, who, Mirren said, "brought his own sensibilities to the piece. He has a much stronger political sensibility. He lives within the black community in England and he wrote the piece he wanted to write with his own feelings. He is tougher on the police than Lynda was. He is fairly critical of the police, which I really like. I think it is good to have a police series that doesn't just constantly paint police in a warm glow."
Mirren remarked how the world has changed for women since the first "Prime Suspect" aired. "It is amazing," Mirren said. "I think in retrospect that the year is an extremely influential year in terms of people simply saying they have had enough. No more. We have had it--with Anita Hill, the Mike Tyson (rape trial). Now, I am looking this morning (on TV) at new members of the Congress and there were more women sitting on that panel than there were men. I think things have changed. I think you will see a big change in the next two years."
She said she believes "Prime Suspect" has proved to be quite influential. "I have noticed already ways it has influenced writers," Mirren said. (Universal Studios currently has a feature film version of "Prime Suspect" in development.)
"There is a new awareness among male writers," Mirren said. "I think that they had chosen to be blind, too, for a long time (about women's issues). I think partly because women just kept quiet about (sexism). They knew the way to succeed was not by complaining about problems they were having. The very ambitious and clever women would not complain."
Women now, Mirren believes, are getting into "sufficiently high positions of power that they have become secure. They have become more secure that they can afford to talk about what happened earlier in their lives."
Mirren received strong feedback from London policewomen about "Prime Suspect." "Actually," she said, "the interesting thing is that it wasn't just the women in the police force. It was very strong support and admiration for it among the men. In a funny way, this whole sort of relentless necessity to be brutal and macho in the police force, I think in a way, wears on men themselves and they want to be liberated from that. They get kind of bored with it. This was a very good way of releasing them. It is great to throw light on something. You don't have to make a comment on it, you just reveal it. It has an amazing effect."
Mirren will return to London in June to begin "Prime Suspect III." She lamented the fact she will have to cut off her blond hair once again.
"It never gets to grow very long these days," she said with a smile.
"Mystery!: Prime Suspect II" premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. on KPBS, 9 p.m. on KCET, next Sunday at 8 p.m. on KOCE and 10 p.m. on KVCR.