Helen Mirren, reigning queen of the British screen, is smart, sex, warm, and ‘real’. So what’s she doing in L.A.?
It rained the morning I was supposed to meet Helen Mirren at Langer’s, the last of the old Jewish delis in Los Angeles. I thought I heard dismay in her voice when I rang to fix the time, so I started to say maybe we should reschedule. She said no, the time was fine; the only trouble was that she could really use a good cup of coffee–and the coffee at Langer’s is lousy. “But,” she said a little sorrowfully, “I had wanted you to see Langer’s.” It was a nice thing for her to say. It meant that she had completely entered into the spirit of my crazy idea–which had been to come out to LA not to interview her about her upcoming appearance in the Roundabout Theatre’s production of Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country”, but just to sort of hang with her.
Offhand, I couldn’t think of anyone I would more like to hang out with and less like to interview. The whole idea of interviewing actors embarrasses me (“And how do you prepare for a role, Ms. Mirren?”). I think most actors like to feel that their work speaks for itself–particularly classically trained actors with a no-nonsense air about them, like Mirrten. Interviewing her would have been out of step with the whole tone of the Turgenev enterprise, in any case. It wouldn’t have been cool, and everything about the Roundabout production is cool. It’s cool of Todd Haimes, the company’s artistic director, to give New Yorkers a chance to see Mirren’s portrayal of Natalya Petrovna, which Londoners saw last season. It’s cool that Mirrten will make her New York stage debut–her Broadway debut, no less–at the dear old Roundabout. And there is something delightfully hip about showing us Mirren in a role that is so radically different from the one with which most Americans have come to associate her: Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, in the PBS series “Prime Suspect”.
Actually, Tennison isn’t a characteristic role for Mirren, who, having–in extreme youth– emerged as one of Britain’s premier Shakespearean actresses, has recently embarked on a second career playing very uncallow romantic leads. She’s sort of the thinking man’s blond bombshell–an actress who radiates sexuality and nobility at the same time and who keeps carving out different definitions of womanhood and feminine virtue– Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange rolled into one. Whether Mirren sexualizes intelligence or makes sex seem intellectual is not immediately clear, but she certainly makes winsomeness and womanly grace interesting to watch. Mirren’s obsessive, embattled detective inspector, who seems to lose or give up something in each installment of “Prime Suspect” (a ]over, a habit, a baby), cannot afford to appear winsome. But the heroine of Turgenev’s 1850 play, a kind of proto-drawing-room comedy with soul, is definitely winsome. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra (whom Mirren has played twice), Petrovna is the kind of woman whose ‘infinite variety’ men would notice.
As actors are at their best when they have something to focus on, I had asked Mirren what she would think of our doing something together–something quintessentially “L.A.” like going to a Lakers game, or people-watching at Spago. Mirren had replied that the idea sounded fine, only preferably not a Lakers game. Of course, I had no idea that Mirren actually lives in L.A.–or does when she isn’t in England shooting “Prime Suspect”. When I told her that I’d had the idea that I was going to show her around, she laughed and said, “How very sweet.”
Needless to say, it was the other way around. We took in two coffee bars, three or four neighborhoods, and a restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard where you just knew Raymond Chandler must have hung out. When we met I was making the sort of patronizing observations visitors from abroad tend to make: that I “loved” the way you could buy “Daily Variety” in the supermarket or the way you might come upon somebody’s headshot and bio on the back of your breakfast menu. “Oh, no– that I’ve never seen!” Mirren said. “An actor’s bio or a chef’s bio?”
“An actor’s bio,” I said, adding that it might have been meant tongue-in-cheek. She said she doubted that, “They’re not very big on tongue-in-cheek here.” Mirren likes to say that there are many different L.A.’s, but the notion of Los Angeles as a laid-back sort of place–full of beach bunnies and surfer boys–is completely wrong: It’s full of incredibly hard-working, hard-driving, obsessive people. “There’s an enormous amount of repressed rage in this town. I’m not talk- ing about the ‘black rage’ of poverty and powerlessness. I’m talking about white- people in their BMWs on the freeway– they scream at you, you know, and this unbelievable aggression comes out.”
When she isn’t in L.A. or working in London or abroad, Mirrten spends a lot of time in New Orleans, which she says is “like some mad, exotic Gothic novel.” She gives the city’s name four syllables somehow, “New Or-le-ans,” as though it would be a pity not to let the name last as long as it could. I asked her how she’d happened on that particular part of America, and she said the guy she lives with had shot a movie down there, and she’d completely fallen in love with the place.
The guy in question turned out to be the film director Taylor Hackford, and the movie in question “Everybody’s All- American”, Hackford’s poignant chronicle of the marriage between a former football star (Dennis Quaid) and a former prom queen (Jessica Lange). It made sense to me, somehow, that Mirren should live with Taylor Hackford, who makes long, slow, unsentimental, well-observed movies like “Everybody’s All-American” and “An Officer and a Gentleman”.
Mirren focuses on real people in the same way that Hackford’s films do. “I’m not really interested in good roles for women in literature,” she said in response to the one interviewish question I asked her. “I’m more interested in good roles for women in life, you know?” She is fasci- nated by [O.J.] Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark, for instance. “There was a wonderful moment during the preliminary hearings to see whether it should go to trial,” Mirren went on. “I think it’s my favorite media moment ever.” Marcia Clark had been asking questions of one of the senior supervisors of the LAPD crime lab, before Judge Kennedy-Powell, and all three of them were women. “I think that’s the first time that I’ve ever seen three women in different fields, all at the top of their professions, together in one place, and not because they were all involved in the Women-In-Law Organization or whatever. They were there simply doing their jobs.”
We talked for a while about other things, but later the conversation turned back to the Simpson trial–I think because Mirren said wasn’t it nicer being where we were than at Spago’s, and I said I’d heard the happening place to be just now was Eclipse, the restaurant part- owned by Robert Shapiro.
“Aren’t they spooky, those lawyers?” Mitten said. “There’s something so fundamentally spooky about them.”
I said yeah, and that the weirdest thing was the way none of the commentators seemed to pick up on how spooky they were–the huge gap between how real people experienced the defense lawyer’s behavior and how it was described in the media. “I know,” Mirrten said. “The lawyers will do something absolutely nauseating, and then the commentator will say, ‘Excellent, he’s really scored a point there!’ And you’re sitting there going, ‘That was absolutely disgusting, what that person just did.’ ”
Mirren said that she thought it would end up being one of the great unsolved mysteries of our generation. “I just don’t think it’s ever going to be clear. And not because of the slickness of these appalling lawyers. It’s just not going to be clear, because it isn’t dear. Do you know what I mean? No one saw him. No one’s found the knife. No one’s found one single piece of clothing belonging to him covered with blood. There’s not one really clear, direct thing that says this guy did it.”
Thus spake Jane Tennison.