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In her hands, a cop show is something more

Helen Mirren, back in 'Prime Suspect,' has made Inspector Jane Tennison one of Britain's favorite characters.

April 18, 2004|Jacqueline Cutler | Special to The Times

The morning sun plays across Helen Mirren's face as she looks over the rooftop across the street from her Manhattan hotel. She has a light, artistic touch with makeup, and her ash-blond hair sweeps past green eyes.

Mirren, who has commanded stages on Broadway and in London and starred in movies, is perhaps best known as Inspector Jane Tennison, the heroine of PBS' acclaimed detective series "Prime Suspect." After a seven-year wait, the latest installment, "Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness," airs on "Masterpiece Theatre" Sundays, April 18 and 25 at 9 p.m.

Wearing a lavender sweater and a pink skirt, Mirren, 58, is comfortable in her skin. Even in the movie, Tennison talks about her age and uses her experiences to her advantage. She relies on her instincts and excellent mind to elevate herself through the male bastion of police work. She does not suffer idiots and always gets her man -- both the bad guys and her lovers.

When Mirren signed on to do the first "Prime Suspect" in 1991, neither she nor anyone else involved had a notion it would achieve such popularity. "With the first one, I had to share my trailer, which was about the size of this table, with every female member of the cast," she says, sweeping her hand across a small table. Mirren recalls trying to "learn my lines and keep my concentration going" while actresses changed clothes.

Today, of course, she has a Winnebago to herself. Well, she may share it unwittingly; Ben Miles, who plays underling Simon Finch, says he sometimes used her trailer.

This movie is about a Muslim Bosnian woman who is tortured and killed. Soon her sister is slain, and Tennison figures out who did it and why.

"The subjects they deal with are chosen very carefully," Miles says. "The subject matter of economic and political immigrants and the whole backdrop of that horrendous war of the '90s, which is kind of forgotten, kind of old news. Still, the situations are with us. You see these people every day, cleaning streets and cleaning the hotels. 'What is your story? Where did you come from?' "

The film intelligently tackles these issues, and audiences respond. When "The Last Witness" aired in Britain last fall, 40% of the country tuned in, "Masterpiece Theatre" executive producer Rebecca Eaton says.

She credits Mirren for the movies' successes. "I think she raises the level of the genre," Eaton says. "Because I'm thinking back to the first one, when I read it, I thought it was very good but not necessarily for us. Do we really need a procedural cop show? When she did it, she transformed it. It was riveting because of what she was doing."

Since the second movie, Mirren has been involved in the choice of writer, story and director. "I really believe in leaving the artists like writers and directors to fulfill their own vision," says Mirren, who also produces this film. "There is no point in taking their vision and trying to curtail it to mine."

Perhaps it is the lovely accent, or that the queen named her a dame -- a title she does not use -- but one expects Mirren to watch PBS and shop at Tiffany, at least judging by the large rock on her finger.

Mirren, however, happily admits to loving U.S. sitcoms, citing "Will & Grace," "Frasier" and "Malcolm in the Middle" as her favorites. She also enjoys browsing at Claire's, an accessory store at malls where preteens get their glitter fixes. Mirren is in the midst of a media tour, but her Manhattan plans include visiting Claire's and taking in some plays. She stops backstage after the performances to chat with actors she knows.

Other actors adore working with her, Miles says. He talks about her generosity on the set and willingness to listen to ideas from cast members. Then Miles, who is quite a sex symbol and a star on the British (and funny) version of "Coupling," says out of the blue, "She's hot."

Mirren laughs upon hearing this description. As an actress, she has had some steamy parts over the years and shed her clothes in "Caligula" (1979), "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" (1989) and last year's "Calendar Girls."

She has, however, had many more parts in which she remained dressed. An alumna of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Mirren has been an actor since she was 21 and aside from planned breaks has worked consistently.

Mirren was born Ilynea Lydia Mironoff. Her father was a taxi driver, and her family did not have the money or inclination to send her to theater classes. Still, Mirren knew early that the stage was her calling.

A deep, throaty laugh escapes as she rifles through her memory for her first time on stage. The woman who went on to play Lady Macbeth began as a blackbird in "Four and Twenty Blackbirds," the nursery rhyme that her class dramatized when she was about 6.

The teacher lined up the students in the hall "and I was the last one because I was last to get my stuff together," she says. The teacher went down the line: The first child was the king, the next the queen, then the princess and the viceroy. Eventually she motioned to those at the end of the line -- the blackbirds.

"Now I am in the pie with all the other blackbirds and they stink of all their kid sweat," she says with the hilarious indignation of someone born a drama queen. She vowed at that moment, "I am going to be the bloody princess next time," she says. "I won't be the blackbird again."

And she never has been.

Jacqueline Cutler writes for Tribune Media Services.

"Masterpiece Theatre's" "Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday and April 25 on KCET. The network has rated it TVMA-LV (may be unsuitable for children under 17, with advisories for coarse language and violence).

Cover photograph is courtesy of Granada.

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