Mystery! is not only a series of classic thrillers, but it delivered a classic thrill for PBS when its series Prime Suspect raked in top ratings last season. Helen Mirren, a British actress who now makes her home in Los Angeles, brought a simmering, electric tension to the role of Det. Chief-Insp. Jane Tennison. This intelligent woman not only had a murder to solve, but had to overcome the blatant sexism of her male colleagues to do so. She struck a chord with millions of viewers. “I’ve really enjoyed playing her,” Mirren says, “and I’m pleased the character has inspired other women to be more confident and optimistic in their own lives. But I wouldn’t say I was aspiring to be their role model. Prime Suspect was never meant to be a propaganda piece for women.” Work begets work. Success begets sequel. Welcome Prime Suspect 2, which finds Tennison as frustrated as ever, and adds racial tension to this wicked, murderous dramatic brew in a four-hour series starting Feb. 11. To set the stage, PBS is re-airing Prime Suspect 1 starting Thursday. In a Los Angeles interview, Mirren, wearing a crisp cream blazer and slacks, says recurring roles are the exception in her career, although “I played Cleopatra twice.” Her acting credentials are impeccable, from her work with the Royal Shakespeare Company (she compares DCI Tennison to Lady Macbeth), to experimental stage work to world-class film roles, including Best Actress Award at Cannes in 1984 (in Patrick O’Connor’s Cal). North American film buffs will know her best from Excalibur opposite Nicol Williamson, as the Russian spaceship commander in 2010, in The Mosquito Coast opposite Harrison Ford, and as the head of the Bolshoi Ballet opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov in White Knights.
In “Prime Suspect 2”, the decomposed body of a young woman, presumably murdered, is uncovered when heavy rains wash away the dirt, where she is buried in an alley in London’s Afro-Caribbean community. Police and forensic experts, hastily called to the scene, combat the rage of local residents as they seek to learn the victim’s identity and whether she was white or black. That’s the hook. But as they say in dramatic writing: You get the hook and then you TWIST it. Here’s the twist: While she’s trying to solve a case involving black people, she’s having an affair with black Det. Sgt. Bob Oswalde, brassily and boldly played by six-foot, four-inch newcomer Colin Salmon. As the investigation proceeds, DCI Tennison calls on high-tech innovations including a police sculptor to reconstruct a victim’s skull. Police use a photo of the “sculpture” to ask residents if they recognize the victim. Mirren’s characterization of DCI Tennison has changed for this new series, just as any person would change over a few years. In the first series, she adopted a severe haircut, a minimum of makeup, dark dowdy suits and a serious smoking habit. In the second series, she has a natural authority that commands respect. She doesn’t smoke, her hairstyle is softer. The bolder color of her clothes reflects her newfound self-assurance. Already, Prime Suspect 3 is in script development, and Mirren has committed to the project. “We planned, right at the beginning when we did the first one, that, if the first one had been a success, that we would do two more,” Mirren told TV critics in Los Angeles. “And the first one was a huge success, so we’ve just done the second, and the third is being written at this very moment.”
DCI Tennison is also scheduled to leap from the electron tube to the silver screen, with Prime Suspect rights having been snapped up by Universal Studios. But it will be an American story, and Mirren has yet to be approached. She’s not even sure whether she will be. Would she be interested in the film role? “Do you think Julie Andrews wanted to be in My Fair Lady? I’d be a liar to say no.” (Distributed By SouthamStar Network.) NOLTE: Difficult rple to play. Nick took a risk with Lorenzo By Philip Wuntch (Dallas Morning News) LOS ANGELES Making Lorenzo’s Oil a film that tells the story of a terminally ill child and his courageous parents with a high quotient of medical terminology doubtlessly constitutes a risk. That’s what appealed to Nick Nolte. “I want risk,” he says. “I seek it out. That’s why I make films. Look, each film is like a military war getting up at a specific time, being on the set at a specific time. You have to have a real good reason for wanting to do it. It requires discipline, but I have no problem with discipline if I understand my participation in it.” Nolte (still in the good shape imposed on him by Barbra Streisand for last year’s The Prince of Tides), darkened his hair and affected an Italian accent to portray Augusto Odone, the odds-defying father who seeks a cure for adrenoleukodystro-phy, a fatal disease whose victims are from five to 10 years of age. ‘There are two levels to playing a real person,” says Nolte. “On one level, it’s easier because you have a real live person to study for form and shape. The difficulty is that you’re restricted by form and shape. You have to make a balance and become very selective about where you deviate from the character.” See NICK NOLTE, Page D8