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VAMP, DIVA OR GRANDE DAME? DOES SHE HAVE TO CHOOSE? : Helen Mirren Goes Where Other Actresses Fear to Tread, With Unparalleled Results

October 22, 1995|Bruce Shenitz | Bruce Shenitz reports on social and legal issues for Newsweek from New York. His last article for this magazine was a profile of psychologist Evelyn Hooker.

In preparing to play Tennison, Mirren talked to numerous London policemen and policewomen. She says she learned two particularly useful tactics: "You never let them see you cry, and you never fold your arms." While the first point is obvious, the second isn't. "That was a great insight to me. And it was when I'd just been to a wardrobe fitting, and I'd been putting my costume on and standing and trying to look butch and casual at the same time." The reason for avoiding the folded-arms position is that it's basically defensive, she says. "You want to come on like you don't need protecting; you're so tough."

Mirren is telling me all this in Wattles Garden Park, not far from the Hollywood Hills home that she shares with director Taylor Hackford. She had driven up in her 1967 turquoise Mustang convertible, looking as much in place in Los Angeles as she did in New York toting shopping bags onto subways. As she talks about Tennison, Mirren sometimes jumps up to demonstrate a point. When she describes how intently the police size up a suspect, she suddenly turns her gaze in my direction. She shifts her eyes up and down, all the while delivering a commentary: "They've checked out your shoes and how expensive they are. They've looked at your watch and your glasses . . . ." And just as quickly, the policewoman is gone and Mirren is back. "They're checking you like that while they're talking to you. They're incredibly observant; their brains are going all the time."

For her, it's been one of her "six overnight discoveries." Her role as Tennison has done what she had hoped it would do: "Taken me on to my next generation of work [so that] I won't be left back in the sort of by-water of how I used to be."

When "Prime Suspect" begins this week, it will be seen on "Masterpiece Theatre" rather than on "Mystery!", where it was that series' most popular program. Rebecca Eaton, executive producer for both programs, says "Masterpiece Theatre" is moving toward the made-for-TV-movie format instead of the multi-part, continuing series it favored in the past. The audiences for the two programs have similar demographics but share only about a 30% overlap; the change could introduce new viewers to the series, which this year is three independent episodes. Even if it doesn't, "Prime Suspect" is in the planning stages for next year. But it will definitely be the last one. "There's a point at which you have to move on," says Mirren. "And I'm so afraid of it becoming ordinary sort of TV stuff. It's always been extraordinary from the moment it was conceived and first made, and it's maintained that quality. You know it can't go on like that forever."

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Mirren grew up in a working-class home in Southend, which she describes as the "Coney Island of London." Her father, the son of a czarist army officer, drove a taxi and changed the family name from Mironoff when Helen was 10. A casting disaster in a primary school dramatization of "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" stoked her early ambitions.

"I remember this so clearly, I think I should have known at that moment I was an actress," she says with a laugh. She desperately wanted to play the role of the princess, but the teacher assigned parts randomly, and Helen ended up in the \o7 corps de\f7 blackbirds. "I remember sitting in that pie, with a big cardboard crust over our heads, all squashed together in our black leotards and black tights, and sort of horrible yellow beaks on our faces. And I remember thinking, 'I'll be the princess one of these days.' "

Within a couple of years, she had graduated to the lead in "Hansel and Gretel," and by the time she was 15, Shakespeare had grabbed her imagination. "Movies just didn't hold a candle to Shakespeare," she says. "The stories seemed to be so mundane and stupid and undramatic."

In her late teens, she joined the National Youth Theater of Britain, a non-professional group for young adults who couldn't afford to go to drama school. Her parents reacted with "horror" to her theatrical aspirations, so she studied for a teaching degree and worked in the theater in her spare time. She made what must have been an extraordinary impression at the age of 18 when she played Cleopatra in Shakespeare's "Anthony and Cleopatra," because she was promptly invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company by a group of directors that included Trevor Nunn.

She spent more than 10 years with the company, turning down a number of movie roles because she didn't want to leave it. "Shakespeare was all I wanted to do. I was asked to do two or three films. Which I never did, if it meant not playing 'Hamlet' or not playing 'Richard III.' I was very, very concentrated at that time with the idea of becoming a great classical actress."

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