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Garden Chat

Whether in L.A. or Provence, Her Favorite Stage Is the Garden

July 26, 2001|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the movie "Greenfingers," which debuts Friday, the hero is a gardener, in good company with the likes of Edward Scissorhands or "Being There's" Chauncey Gardiner. "I'm a gardener. I'm a gardener!" our hero shouts at the film's apogee, "a bloody good one as well." Now that's a hero I can identify with.

The gardener, played by Clive Owen, is helped and encouraged in his endeavors by co-star Helen Mirren, who plays an English gardening expert, author and television personality. Performing the part of a gardening celebrity was "quite fun" since the accomplished actress happens to be a real-life gardener. She has gardens in the Hollywood Hills, outside Nice in the south of France and on a third-floor balcony in London. Gardening in three locales, she gets to compare garden cultures and climates.

Many in the acting profession have nice gardens, but few are hands-in-the-dirt gardeners, since they simply aren't home enough to tend to them. Mirren's home here has been rented out for the last two years, and her sister stays at the place in Provence. But Mirren has a garden on a 4-by-8-foot balcony at her home in London, where she has been performing.

"I make sure that everywhere I go I garden," the 55-year-old actress said. "If I'm in the theater, I make sure I have a little shelf of houseplants to look after." She once found some abandoned in a dressing room, "so every time I was offstage, I was cosseting these little orphans. I still have one of them."

"I very often plant things and don't see them for months or even years," said the actress at an interview in my garden during a two-day visit. The absences can be frustrating, but they also "can be really exciting since nine months later you think, 'Wow, would you look at that,"' surprised by all the growth.

"But," this plant person admits, "the one thing I'd love to have in my life, really, is a garden I could consistently look after."

In "Greenfingers," Mirren plays Georgina Woodhouse, a name that sounds suspiciously like Penelope Hobhouse, the esteemed English garden author. Mirren says that the character bears no resemblance to actual English women gardeners, however. "There are some very grand women in the British horticultural scene, and none of them are remotely like Georgina." Mirren is not at all like the pale and reserved Woodhouse either. She is tanned and much more animated and outgoing. She beams when talking about plants.

Mirren won an Emmy for her role as Jane Tennison in the enormously popular "Prime Suspect" on PBS, as well as another for her recent portrayal of Ayn Rand in a Showtime production. She also was an Oscar nominee for her role in "The Madness of King George."

The actress brings a good deal of believability to her part in "Greenfingers"--sounding as if she knows what she's talking about--though there is one line about the all-important "crystals" in the soil. There is no such thing, of course. "Thankfully, it wasn't my line," said Mirren.

You expect the English to get a movie about gardening right, except, as Mirren pointed out, writer-director Joel Hershman was born in Brooklyn and raised in Los Angeles. Though the cast is British, "it is really an American movie," said Mirren. "Only an American would observe the British horticultural scene and find it fundamentally amusing, which it is." The movie pokes a little fun at what Mirren calls "the county set," which "takes gardening so seriously."

The film is about a disillusioned inmate of Her Majesty's Prisons who discovers gardening and, in the process, rediscovers life. Mirren's character helps the talented neophyte to boldly secure an invitation to enter a plot in London's Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, arguably England's finest and the world's largest. Though this heroic tale is purely fictional, it is based on real-life prisoners at HMP Leyhill in the Cotswolds, who twice walked away with the gold for their creations at Hampton Court.

With the cooperation of the Royal Horticultural Society, the movie's scenes were filmed at the actual flower show in 1999. "The showgoers became our 'cast of thousands,"' said Mirren. The garden shown in the movie--supposedly built by the prisoners--was a genuine garden--not a set--built by the movie's crew. "Lots of people came by and thought it was a real show garden. It was really beautiful and could easily have won a medal."

There are, of course, much bigger issues in this well-done and likable film, including the hero's friendship with an older, dying prisoner, his own self-discovery and his love for Woodhouse's daughter.

In the movie, Mirren's character encourages the prisoners by hiring them to work on a neglected estate in the Cotswolds, whose restoration she is overseeing. These scenes were filmed at a genuine neglected estate, Norney Grange in Surrey, which was revived for the movie.

Mirren and her husband, Taylor Hackford, have some experience in these matters, since the six acres they bought high in the Hollywood Hills were "terribly neglected."

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