ONE OF HOLLYWOOD’S MOST open secrets is that the acclaimed British actress Helen Mirren actually lives here. Few seem to notice, however. “People always tell me how much they love my work, but they never ask me to do anything,” she said not long ago with a shrug and a laugh. “I’m a difficult person to fit into the American film thing.”
It was mid-morning and Ms. Mirren was seated in a near-empty cafe on the edge of Hollywood, sipping cappuccino and wishing briefly that she were elsewhere. She wanted to talk about her forthcoming Broadway stage debut, but another drama had intervened. “I was quite angry about this today because Rosa Lopez is testifying and I’m not watching,” she said, referring to the maid in the O. J. Simpson trial. “And I thought, ‘No, Helen, this is really getting to be too much. Get hold of yourself.’ ” The star of the popular television series “Prime Suspect” and a recent Academy Award nominee for best actress, in “The Madness of King George,” Ms. Mirren, who is 48, is unpredictable not only in her down-to-earth tastes (“Face it, Marcia Clark would be a great character to play”) but also in her offbeat acting favorites (Doris Day and Judy Garland), her personal life (“I prefer younger men in the Cher sense”) and her career decision to play women who shed their clothes and inhibitions. Several years ago Ms. Mirren was called the thinking man’s sex symbol. “I would quite like to be the sexy man’s think symbol,” she said without missing a beat. Then: “Yes, in many movies I’ve taken off my clothes. Not in ‘King George.’ I tried, but they wouldn’t let me.” She burst out laughing. “That’s not true!”
Within days, she will fly to New York from Los Angeles — where she lives with the film director Taylor Hackford — and begin rehearsals for the Roundabout Theater Company production of Turgenev’s melancholy comedy “A Month in the Country.” The play opens on Tuesday, with Ron Rifkin and F. Murray Abraham in a cast directed by Scott Ellis. Ms. Mirren plays the wealthy, bored Natalya Petrovna, who falls recklessly in love with her son’s young tutor (Alessandro Nivola). Last year in London, the actress appeared in the same role in a different production on the West End. “I don’t think of it as a period piece but more like a Woody Allen film, a drama with a lot of comedy,” Ms. Mirren said. “It’s amazing that it was written in the 1850’s. It could have been written in the 1990’s because it’s so psychologically perfect.” Her own Russian background has helped her draw a portrait of Natalya, “a fabulous character” who is “absolutely absurd, just a fool in love like we all are.” Ms. Mirren’s great-great-grandfather is mentioned in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and her father came from a Tsarist military family that lived near St. Petersburg and had country estates. (Her father’s name was Vasily-Petrov Mironoff, and only when she was 10 was the family’s name changed to Mirren. Her mother is English.)
“I actually come from a very working-class background,” she said. Her father eked out a living in England as a musician and taxi driver. “It was a hand-to-mouth existence,” she said. “You lived on what you earned that week.” Ms. Mirren began to appear on the stage as a teen-ager at the British Youth Theater. That led to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she made her mark in the 1970’s and 80’s with a wide range of classical roles from Ophelia to Lady Macbeth to Cleopatra. Her film and television work includes “Cal,” “The Long Good Friday,” “The Comfort of Strangers,” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” and, of course, the gritty, award-winning “Prime Suspect” series, shown on PBS. Most recently, there was “The Madness of King George,” in which she plays the loyal Queen Charlotte to Nigel Hawthorne’s British monarch. Mr. Hawthorne said of Ms. Mirren: “The first thing about Helen is her approachability. She’s totally democratic. There’s no temperament, no snobbery. She adapts to everything you do. And she’s sexy and playful and quite naughty. She has lots of jokes.”
Nicholas Hytner, the director of “King George,” who also staged the recent hit revival of “Carousel” in London and New York, said: “Helen doesn’t like to be battered into the ground with line readings and moment-to-moment detail. She’s very spontaneous. If you give her some ideas, she’ll run with them. Of all the English actresses now, nobody is capable of more things than Helen.” Ms. Mirren seems to view acting — as well as life — as a no-holds-barred adventure. “In some ways, my inspiration is not actors but athletes,” she said. “Look at someone like Carl Lewis. The way they prepare. The expression on their faces before they start, and then the way they just… go. The commitment is so complete and direct. That’s what acting should be. The best actors are children and dogs because they’re not acting at all; they’re simply a life force. “Judy Garland had that. She didn’t mess around with technique. She went straight into the heart. It was all very unpsychological. Like Anna Magnani. One of my great heroines, who was so naked and just so bare.”
“Doris Day was different,” she continued. “She had extraordinary subtlety and was transparent as well. Unfortunately, she had horrible material and those dreadful clothes and horrible hair, always. But there was this wonderfully expressive and subtle face. I’d love to see her come back and do something really good.” In taking on her own roles, Ms. Mirren learns the lines slowly, thinking about the part but never dwelling on or analyzing the character’s psychology. She has a reputation for being willing to expose herself quite literally. Shedding her clothes on film mortified her at first. “I just wanted to die,” she said. “I wanted the earth to open and swallow me up. But then you get on with it and it becomes absolutely fine.” What has especially raised Ms. Mirren’s profile in England, and to a degree the United States, has been her portrayal of the complex and tenacious detective Jane Tennison in “Prime Suspect,” Parts 1 and 2. She won a best-actress award for the role from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and recently completed another installment of the show, which is scheduled to be shown in the United States later this year.
MS. MIRREN REGARDS the American film industry, which fails to employ her, with some humor. “People here love the British accent, but in the film business there seems to be a love-hate relationship,” she said. “Don’t ask me why. It’s so interesting. Whenever a totally disgusting evil person is depicted in American films, it’s usually played by an English person. In all those biblical films, the Roman emperors were always played by very English people saying, ‘Throw them to the lions,’ British accents and all. And the good ones were Americans in various shapes and forms.” While British visitors are sometimes quick to trash Los Angeles, Ms. Mirren will have none of it. “I love this strange, disparate, funky, funny community, and I do feel very much part of it,” she said. “What I don’t like about L.A. is the anger, which is frightening. And I don’t mean the anger of the dispossessed. I mean the anger of the very rich ladies in their BMW’s with their manicured fingernails who scream at you if you change lanes in front of them. You see these coiffed women in their Armani suits and their faces just distorted with rage screaming at you from behind the glass.” Ms. Mirren moved to Los Angeles after meeting Mr. Hackford in 1985, while appearing in “White Nights,” which he directed. (His films include “An Officer and a Gentleman” and the just-released “Dolores Claiborne.”) She lives in Mr. Hackford’s Spanish-style home and keeps a London apartment.
To her amazement, Ms. Mirren has received almost as much attention for her personal life as for her acting, especially her four-year relationship in the early 1980’s in London with Liam Neeson, seven years younger and an unknown actor at the time. It’s nonsense, Ms. Mirren said, to say that she took Mr. Neeson in hand and guided his career. “I loved him, and we had a great relationship,” she said. “Liam developed his career all on his own, just by his talent and the person that he is.” She remains close friends with the actor and his wife, Natasha Richardson. “We speak all the time,” she said. “I was very happy when they got together.” The age difference with Mr. Neeson was unimportant: “My mother was older than my father,” she said. “Besides, I don’t think people blink much anymore at this age thing.” Ms. Mirren said she generally prefers younger men, although Mr. Hackford is her age. “I tend to find that men under 35 are nicer and easier to talk to and more fun than over 35,” she said. “Younger men seem to find it much easier to treat women as friends or equals. This is a terrible generalization, of course, but the older ones grew up as boys and then everything got turned over and they were just left confused, and a lot of them went into a state of rejection.”
Ms. Mirren has finished her cappuccino. Before she leaves the empty cafe, she breaks into a smile and picks up the thread: “With older men there’s a cloudiness in their eyes, and when they look at you they seem to say, ‘You’re a woman, and I don’t know how to deal with this.’ Younger men seem to have a clarity of vision. They look at you as a person.” She laughed. “This is a dangerous area to talk about. People will misconstrue what I say. Oh, my.”