Provocative woman on television. She doesn’t ask for your love, just your undivided attention.
Half the time she looks exhausted, strung out. She chews gum with the angry ferocity of an ex-smoker. In distraught concentration, she pulls at her dirty-blond hair. She’s curt and demanding to a new assistant, implacable in the face of an ex-lover’s romantic entreaties, adept at ruthless office politics and unblinking in the presence of the charred body of a dead boy prostitute. There is no heroine on the small screen-and certainly none on the large-who so little asks to be loved as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, the star of the PBS “Prime Suspect” series. And viewers cannot get enough of her. For when the camera scrutinizes the 47-year-old face of Helen Mirren, the actress who plays Tennison, you dare not blink for fear of missing crucial information. There is so much eloquent mileage in that face. So much intelligence and wit and hurt playing inside her clear blue eyes. So much lived-in, taken-for-granted sexuality in her manner. No wonder this obsessive, ambitious, thoroughly human detective has become the PBS pinup woman of the decade; next to Mirren, most TV heroines seem as antiseptic as ads, as flat as cartoons. Finally, a real contemporary woman has broken through the skin of television complacency.
The most highly rated show ever on the PBS “Mystery” series, and one of a slew of wonderfully tough British cop shows, “Prime Suspect” is now in its third incarnation. It’s lost none of its mesmerizing, gritty intensity. In the original 1992 show, created by writer Lynda La Plante, a much more tentative Tennison, in charge of her first homicide case, had to ferret out a serial killer while battling the bone-deep misogyny of the old-boy network in the London police. In part two, her investigation into a racially combustible murder became even more complex when her colleagues learned of her affair with a handsome black detective. In the grimly dazzling new show, again written by La Plante, she’s been shunted off to the Soho vice squad, where she plunges into the world of teenage “rent boys,” pedophile rings, homophobia and police corruption. As if that weren’t enough, Tennison finds she’s pregnant. With each episode, Mirren’s characterization acquires new barnacles of experience: Tennison’s confidence, her weariness, her passionate professionalism ripen from show to show.
“Prime Suspect’s” popularity (there will be a fourth series next year) has piqued Hollywood’s interest. Universal is developing an Americanized film version, set in Seattle, written by Tom Toper with La Plante’s input. Though Tennison’s role hasn’t been cast, one thing is clear: Mirren must give way to a more “bankable” American star. It’s somehow an apt anticlimax in Mirren’s bumpily brilliant career that she would be rejected for the part that brought her the greatest fame in America. She has been acting on stage, on screen and on the tube since she made her debut at 18 as Cleopatra at the Old Vic. Among her colleagues, she is considered one of the great talents of her generation. But she has never pursued stardom with the kind of tenacity that Jane Tennison applies to her investigations: life, love and a fiercely independent artistic spirit have gotten in the way.
It probably didn’t help that she was always taking her clothes off on screen. Hollywood nurtures the fantasy that classically trained English actresses are a tonier, more genteel lot than their American counterparts. Mirren continually confounded the image by appearing undressed in a range of movies that included the infamous X-rated “Caligula” (1980), “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” (1989) and “Pascali’s Island” (1988), making her a minor deity of art-house erotica. Well aware of her reputation as a wild girl on screen, she is unfazed. “Gerard Depardieu is my great role model,” Mirren says with a throaty laugh. “He drops his pants at the drop of a hat. I mean, what the hell? It’s life.” Back when she was 28 and could have solidified her stage reputation as a Royal Shakespeare actress or responded to the siren call of Hollywood, she took off for a year with Peter Brook’s experimental theater troupe to perform in African villages. Refusing marriage, she had a series of highly publicized romances-with a Russian prince, a fashion photographer (James Wedge), an unknown young actor and ex-boxer she met while making “Excalibur” named Liam Neeson, and John Lynch, her young Irish costar in “Cal” (1984), her favorite among her movies.
For the past 10 years, Mirren has lived with American director Taylor Hackford (“An Officer and a Gentleman”), whom she met when he directed her in “White Nights.” (She played a Russian in that film, but it didn’t feel like a stretch: her father, named Mironoff, was a Russian emigre; her mother was Scots.) Mirren divides her time between London-where she’s now starring on stage to great praise in Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country”-and Los Angeles, where she stays home with the dogs and doesn’t worry that the few plum movie roles for mature women go to actresses named Close or Pfeiffer. “I’ve learned the reality of what is called the Hollywood film industry. They know that if they have a certain name, they can guarantee at least two weekends of business.”
When La Plante wrote the part of Jane Tennison, she modeled her on a real detective, a slim woman who nonetheless had great “weight.” Mirren had that same weight. “She’s not physically heavy, but she has a strength inside her that is unusual,” says La Plante. “There’s a stillness to her, a great tension and intelligence in her face. The first time we met, Mirren had shoulder-length blond hair. She saw the look on my face and said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s coming off,’ and immediately I knew we’d struck gold.” Mirren approached “Prime Suspect 3” with some trepidation. “I didn’t want to hang around in the same person for ever and ever, and it was quite difficult to come back to it. But I feel pretty strongly that I haven’t used the character up. She will carry on.” As will Mirren. She has won three British Academy Awards for best television actress but still doesn’t think she has much of a career: “I made my bed, and I lie in it,” she says. “Quite comfortably.”