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In a sovereign state

Grit as well as skill define Helen Mirren, befitting the monarchs she has been playing to acclaim.

October 03, 2006|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

MOST actresses when they hit 40 fade from the screen. Hollywood considers them too old to even star opposite men in their 50s and 60s, and too wrinkled to have interesting inner lives of their own. They turn into ephemeral specters, flitting through the occasional art film, or donning the interesting character part. Remember Jessica Lange? Michelle Pfeiffer? Even ... Meg Ryan?

Dame Helen Mirren is not one of those actresses.

It is the morning after the Emmy Awards, and the 61-year-old Mirren is still giddy from last night's victory for her portrayal as the volatile Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, in an HBO miniseries. It is days before she storms the Venice Film Festival and wins another award for her portrayal of the current monarch Elizabeth II in the film "The Queen," which opens Friday. In her off time from inhabiting the two iconic Elizabeths, Mirren also made the seventh installment of her iconic TV series, "Prime Suspect," resuming the character that first made her famous on these shores at the ripe old age of 43: Jane Tennison, perhaps the coolest, fiercest female police detective to hit prime time, one without a stereotypically feminine -- i.e., nurturing -- bone in her body. Her intelligence is her greatest cudgel.

Asked why her career has seemed to improve with time, Mirren merely states the fact baldly. "I guess just because I'm still standing," she says. "I think if you're left still standing, it gets easier in a way. There is less of you around."

That's the demure answer, the factual answer, but there's also a question of grit. "Toughness is my business," says Mirren, "and the reality is that a lot of people really don't or can't make a living acting."

Toughness is a motif that runs through many of Mirren's characters, although this afternoon on the verandah of the Four Seasons, where she's stopped between photo sessions, she's hardly dressed the part. Instead, she is decked out in a flirty black and white sundress, with a salmon-colored sweater and salmon high heels. Her sleek blond hair nips below her ears.

Mirren isn't conventionally pretty. Her eyes are too small, her nose rather too long and prominent, the whole bottom half of her face is too confident and forthright to suggest the passivity that often accompanies great beauty. But her smile, which isn't often seen in some of her greatest parts, can be sly and dazzling. For years, male interviewers seemed to fixate on her sex appeal, which hasn't dissipated with time.

Mirren didn't attend the Emmy ceremony anticipating victory. "I was hoping, but you can't 'expect' it. That's a road to disappointment. I've lost enough times. I've done my 'I'm so pleased that someone else has won' face so often." She riffs on the excruciating practice of smiling for the cameras when you've lost so publicly. " 'Of course she should have won. I'm just a worm by comparison!' " She laughs heartily. "I'm very good at that face."

There's a good chance that Mirren, who's been nominated twice for an Oscar, won't have to do that face much this season. In "The Queen," she successfully humanizes a character who is at once completely public and still completely unknown.

"The queen is very formidable," says director Stephen Frears. People "always talk about being tongue-tied in the presence of the queen. You're asking someone to embody a person with that amount of power. When I met Helen, I believed that -- that this woman could be that powerful."

Still, she insists she hesitated before accepting the part. "I go, 'Oh well, no, no, I can't do that.' Just because it's such a hot potato. In England, the media has such an obsession with the monarchy, so it is dangerous. Every living person in Britain has basically spent their whole life with the queen."

Growing up in Essex, Mirren was the daughter of a socialist taxi driver (and the granddaughter of a White Russian stranded in Britain during the Russian Revolution). The family was strictly "anti-monarchist" and "republican." "When I was growing up, my mum would say, 'You know, even the queen has to go to the lavatory!' It was a 'The queen is just a human being like the rest of us' kind of attitude."

While Mirren now seems more admiring of the queen than her lineage might suggest, her ability to animate Elizabeth II is what carries the film.

"The Queen" chronicles the strange days after the shocking death of Princess Diana in 1997 and the prickly relationship between Elizabeth and the newly elected prime minister, Tony Blair, as he tries to coax the reticent and proud monarch away from holing up in Balmoral, refusing to acknowledge the people's grief and hence committing PR hara-kiri. The film shows Elizabeth at her most removed from ordinary life, and her most vulnerable.


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