Yet for all of her successes--three British Academy Awards (similar to Emmys) for "Prime Suspect," critical and popular acclaim on the Broadway stage and in films here and abroad--Mirren lives much of each year in Los Angeles, the capital of a film industry that seems all but immune to her charms. "It just hits me when I come back to Los Angeles," she says one day soon after her return from New York. "I just feel so out of it here. I feel so strongly that what I have doesn't count here," she says.
In England, what she has clearly does count. She has no trouble getting work. In fact, when "Prime Suspect" was being cast, she was the only actress ever considered for the role.
"Prime Suspect" was conceived in 1990 when Sally Head, then a producer at Granada Television in Britain, was looking for new projects. Writer Lynda La Plante came up with the idea of Jane Tennison after noting that "reality-based" crime shows never showed a woman heading up a homicide investigation.
During her research, she discovered that London police had only four women at the rank of Detective Chief Inspector, a supervisory position. One in particular, DCI Jackie Malton, served as her model for Tennison. The experience of watching her with the 45 "lads" under her command paid off. The dramatic tension of the series is propelled as much by Tennison's continuing efforts to battle her way into the boys' club of police work as it is by her efforts to solve the crime.
Head says that when she began to think about casting, "my very first idea was Helen--she had the voice, authority and presence." Although the choice seems inevitable now, Mirren says that "it was a leap for them to make. I was the Ellen Barkin of England, if you like. I was known for sexuality and stuff like that, and having long blond hair." During their first meeting, La Plante told Mirren that the hair would have to go. Mirren showed up on the first day of shooting with her hair chopped off. "She wasn't quite the Helen Mirren we'd seen for years," says Head. "She was a sort of shorn Helen Mirren who wasn't frightened of exposing herself."
"My reaction was this is a God-given gift. I thought I absolutely had to do this," the actress says. "Prime Suspect" shows what it is to be a smart, dedicated woman confronting a male culture and bureaucracy: How everything from long-standing connections to deeply embedded language conspires to exclude women. "Tennison was a long-overdue character," says Mirren. "There've been women like that out in the work force for the past 20 years, if not longer. But no one had bothered to put that character on the screen."
Tennison, one of the most memorable characters ever created for television, is also part of the growth industry in female fictional detectives in novels and on television. Women detectives are not a new phenomenon, but most have been either genteel meddlers (Jane Marple or Jessica Fletcher) or mavericks who work on their own (Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone or Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski). Feminist literary scholar Carolyn G. Heilbrun, who writes mysteries under the pen name Amanda Cross, says that what sets "Prime Suspect" apart is that "it shows the kind of antagonism a woman runs into in becoming a person of power."
Unlike "Cagney & Lacey," perhaps its closest American counterpart, "Prime Suspect" does not gloss over the price that daily battle costs. "We've tried to test the character," says Paul Marcus, who produced most episodes of the series and directed the third installment of this year's "Prime Suspect." "We're making the cases impinge on her sense of herself and her sense of justice. We do it in a way that the screw is tightened year by year, story by story."
Last season, for example, Tennison faced both personal and professional crises. She finds herself pregnant (and unmarried) which only intensifies her strong feelings about the child prostitution ring she's investigating. And when she discovers that a senior police official is connected to the pedophile ring, she's warned not to nose around any further. Her solution: She cuts a deal and insists on a promotion in exchange for limited silence about the police official, who by that time has committed suicide. "As she makes the decision to terminate the pregnancy and make a deal for the promotion, she's looking in the mirror, saying, 'Is this the sort of person I've become? Do I like myself?' " says Marcus.
Tennison continually compromises her personal life. Her love affairs are invariably troubled, and her relationship with her family is strained because of her dedication to her job. But those compromises also make her more human. "I like that she's a bit of a sellout," says Mirren. "She's not a perfect person."