On the right night, the Top of the Tower on the 26th floor of the Beekman Hotel is one of those New York spots that can induce the head-spinning thrill of the opening montage of Woody Allen's "Manhattan." Last spring, on such a night, Helen Mirren, the English actress best known for her portrayal of Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the hit PBS series "Prime Suspect," was relaxing at a window table after performing in Turgenev's "A Month in the Country." Drinks had arrived, and after a quick toast--"Cheers, sweetie"--she sat back and gazed out upon the city. Low-lying clouds reflected the brightly lit tops of skyscrapers, the lights of the 59th Street Bridge stretched out over the East River, and a gentle drizzle cooled the air. "You know, I suddenly have this feeling of being incredibly glamorous," she says. "Most of the time, I don't. But suddenly, sitting here, being an actress who's just done a show on Broadway, and in this incredible place with this view, I suddenly feel intensely glamorous."
It seems an odd remark from someone who has been photographed by Richard Avedon for The New Yorker and had just put in the requisite begowned appearance at the Tony awards. But the apparent incongruity of her sudden exclamation captures the shifting career trajectory of an actress who, in her own words, has been "an overnight discovery about six times so far."
Her acting life has been a mass of contradictions. This is a woman who left the Royal Shakespeare Company for a world tour with experimental theater director Peter Brook just as she had begun to establish herself in the early '70s, who wanted only to be a great classical actress yet snorkled in the nude in her first movie role, who has twice been honored by the Cannes Film Festival, yet arguably isn't on the radar screen of mainstream Hollywood. Film enthusiasts are probably more familiar with her work with independent-minded, controversial directors such as Peter Greenaway ("The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover") and Ken Russell ("Savage Messiah") than any of her Hollywood roles.
Mirren acknowledges that she probably made choices that steered her away from stardom. But when you ask her how her career is going, she'll tell you "I \o7 hate\f7 that word. To me it's not your career, it's your work--it's how your work progresses."
And five years ago, that progression brought her to the role of Jane Tennison in the PBS series "Prime Suspect," arguably the most compelling role on television for an actress. At 49, when many actresses despair of finding good roles, she has finally won a popular following, and tonight appears in the first of three new installments of "Prime Suspect." Earlier this year, she was named best actress at the Cannes Film Festival and received an Oscar nomination for the role of Queen Charlotte in "The Madness of King George." And she was nominated for a Tony this year for the role of Natalya Petrovna in "A Month in the Country," in which she made her Broadway debut.
Mirren's features are too strong and too intelligent to be beautiful by Hollywood standards, yet she evokes a passionate response from both male and female fans, who find her audaciously sexy. With the candlelight playing off her antique amber-drop earrings and gray-green eyes (she calls them the color of "dirty washing-up water"), Mirren is softer in person than in her portrayal of Inspector Tennison. She wasn't anticipating a formal evening and had dressed with the casual flair of someone who has an eye for color and line rather than for labels: a long gray linen dress ("from The Gap"), a jacket picked up at a secondhand clothing store and what she insisted are a pair of "nerdy sandals."
Her voice swoops through the vocal range, especially when she wants to make a point. She can stretch out the word "no" over two syllables as she descends the scale. But the intensity--of her opinions, her personality, her presence--never disappears. "Helen is never unkind, but she'll say what she thinks," says Los Angeles historical novelist Ciji Ware, a longtime friend. "She's Jane Tennison without the rough edge."
Her peers--especially her fellow actors--speak of her in glowing terms. "She has more charisma in her little finger than most actors have in a lifetime of beguiling performances," says actress Cherry Jones, who got to know Mirren while they were both working on Broadway this spring. John Benjamin Hickey, who appeared last season in the Broadway production of Terrence McNally's "Love! Valour! Compassion!", has called Mirren an actress "without vanity." Ron Rifkin, her co-star in "A Month in the Country," says that Mirren is "totally comfortable in her own skin." The description fans inevitably use is that Mirren is "so real." It is this quality, more than anything, that is so apparent when the camera lingers on Tennison's face. One sees a woman who sleeps too little, drinks too much and eats too many microwave dinners-for-one.