Welcome to The Helen Mirren Archives, your premiere web resource on the British actress. Best known for her performances with the Royal Shakespeare Company, "Prime Suspect" and her Oscar-winning role in "The Queen", Helen Mirren is one of the world's most eminent actors today. This unofficial fansite provides you with all latest news, photos and videos on her past and present projects. Enjoy your stay.
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Helen Mirren is one of the biggest stars on British TV. With the fifth PRIME SUSPECT about to air, Marianne Gray profiles the actress who never wanted to play a policewoman…
You might think that, as Helen Mirren lives a large part of her life in Hollywood, she would be something of a star there. But no, her talent largely remains a British asset. Although she recently received an academy award nomination as best supporting actress for her performance as Queen Charlotte in the Madness of King George, it is her multi-award-winning hit series PRIME SUSPECT that has the world hooked. For around five years she has been commuting with regularity back to England, mainly Manchester, to be Prime Suspect’s chain-smoking Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison. Now, with her run of marvelously detailed and intense performances as tough cop Tennison, she is undoubtedly the queen of British emergency television.
The Tennison role was, she admits, the role of a lifetime, one that would take her into new places. “I never would have said I wish to play a policewoman on TV, yet it’s one of the best things I’ve done,” she says of the role that has captured the public imagination and given her extensive coverage in both the tabloid and broadsheet press.
Working the system
“I was just lucky to be offered the role of Tennison. What Lynda La Plante (who scripted the first and third film and storylined the second) showed very clearly was that you could write a great role for a woman that is not a victim or that slightly American idea of a tough businesswoman. She showed that women can be very ambitions, uncompromising and direct, and very vulnerable. In a way, her sex is her barrier, but she knows how to work the system. “Some things she does meet with my approval though,” adds Helen. “She walks on men and uses them, which is just what men often do to women. I think women are just as capable of that as men–I just reckon they do much more of it than they’ve so far confessed to.
“She is like a friend of mine that I know fairly well and get on quite well with, but there are certain things about her I don’t like at all. I don’t like her brutality, I don’t like her extreme selfishness. I don’t like her job and could never be involved in a profession like it. I suppose I’m saying that I’m simply not a policewoman by nature, inclination, or ambition.
The Shocking Truth
“It quite shocked and scared me to find out that the material we use isn’t made up. Much of the content can be found in TV documentaries. We haven’t needed to exaggerate for the sake of drama.” The first of the series, in 1991, co-starring Tom Bell and Zoe Wannamaker, sees DCI Tennison’s prime suspect arrested within 24 hours of the discovery of the victim, a brutally murdered young woman who lived in a bedsit in Holborn. The second, co-starring Colin Salmon, focused on the topical subject of racism within the police force prompted by the unexpected discovery of a corpse in a street in a largely Afro-Caribbean neighborhood in London. In Prime Suspect III she was transferred from Southampton Row to the Soho vice squad for a large-scale clean-up of rent boys and prostitutes in the area.
The fourth DCI Tennison outing had a change of format to three two-hour films, The Lost Child, Inner Circles, and The Scent of Darkness [for which Mirren won an Emmy–ed.], and the fifth and last in the series is to be transmitted this month (October). [Note–Mirren has since committed to do Prime Suspect 6–hooray!–ed.] In this final installment, DCI Tennison has been transferred from London to Manchester, in effect demoted. She is investigating the murder of a small-time drug dealer. When a 12 year old boy confesses to it, Tennison does not believe him. Thence follows a gritty tale of police corruption and double dealing that pulls no punches. Her co-stars include John McArdle, Steven Mackintosh and Gabrielle Reidy.
“Prime Suspect might be the first time I’ve played a policewoman, but I wouldn’t say it’s the first time I’ve played a character like her,” comments Helen. “In fact the character I have played that is the closest to her is Lady Macbeth! Of course, she wasn’t on the right side of law and order, but their single-mindedness and their ambition are very strong. Tennison, in her plainclothes, has the mantle of authority and power.”
Defection in the Ranks
Although raised in Britain, Helen’s roots lie in Russia. She is the granddaughter of a colonel in the Tsarist army, who was in England negotiating an arms deal when the Russian Revolution began. Prudently, he never returned to mother Russia. Perhaps because of her background, Ilyena Mironoff (to use Helen’s real name) feels that being described as “a British actress” sounds boring. “But,” she comments wryly, “perhaps it is exotic to some.” She certainly has a quality that suggests most un-British depths of passion and feeling but, apart from that subliminal impression, there is little evidence to show she is anything but British.
“I’ve never felt particularly British. As a family, the Mironoffs never went back. I’ve been to Russia a few times, but for work. The press used to latch onto my apparent Left Wing politics but I’ve always been what I suppose you could call a bourgeois anarchist. I’ve never toyed with the idea of joining the Communist Party. I think that would have been a fearful mistake.” (She did, however, stand unsuccessfully as a Workers’ Revolutionary Party candidate for the council of Equity.)
Her acting career started while still at a Hampstead teacher training college, where she played a teenage Cleopatra with the Old Vic’s National Youth Company. Her film debut was in 1969 with James Mason in Age of Consent, and she quickly achieved huge theatrical success with the Royal Shakespeare Company in her twenties. She has said she looks back on that period of her life as being “repressed and stifled.” Clearly labels that have always stalked her–“Stratford’s “lusty sexpot”, “the woman who put sex into Shakespeare”, “the thinking thespian’s tea cake”–irritate her. Although now, living in America, a lot of that has evaporated.
For the last 10 years she has divided her time across the Atlantic: living with her partner director-producer Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman) in a large old Spanish house in the Hollywood Hills; and in the pre-war flat she bought years ago, overlooking Battersea Park in London.
“I always say I live in America and work in Europe because that is how it’s worked out for so long now. The work I really want is in Europe but Taylor is in the States and his work is there. It would be impossible for him to do it anywhere else. “I’m certainly much more anonymous in America–although, because of the success of Prime Suspect, that’s changing quite a lot. But Taylor is a bit of a mini mogul. He’s influential enough for people to elbow me aside to talk to him, dismissing me as a non-entity.
“Of course perfect bliss would be me working with him again. [They met when he directed her on White Nights in 1985.] We’d be together and I’d be earning money–although I think I actually might be a bit nervous! In Hollywood, where she has sort of been out-glitzed by her partner, movie-makers have, amazingly, failed to grasp her talent. They apparently snubbed her for the film version of Prime Suspect which Michelle Pfeiffer and Meryl Streep are said to be battling over. Looking down her filmography, the American movies like 2010, White Nights, and Mosquito Coast somehow pale when listed beside British films like Madness of King George, Long Good Friday, and Where Angels Fear to Tread.
“I know the English have always been very snooty about the Americans but my moving to the United States had a lot to do with wanting to learn from the Americans, both as an actress and as a person. I’ve always enjoyed watching American actresses and the mythology and tradition of the Hollywood studios. Walking into MGM, for example, has an incredible sense of history about it. “At the same time, after a six month stint in the United States I tend to get homesick for the sort of work I can do in Europe and I start looking for an excuse to come back.
“It;s impossible to say what I’d like to do in the future apart from saying that, naturally, I’d like to do some Shakespeare roles again because you constantly see them from a new perspective. I had always resisted doing a series before Prime Suspect, and look what happened. When it comes to films, though, you never quite know what’s out there. I don’t think I could ever, for example, have predicted something as strange and wonderful as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.”
No-one can know what’s out there for Helen Mirren, but for an actress in her fifties when, traditionally, roles for women grow thinner, she seems pretty busy. There is talk of stage work in New York and London. Next Spring there’s the film Losing Chase, directed by Kevin Bacon, in which she falls in love with Kyra Sedgwick (Mrs. Kevin Bacon) but reportedly refused to take part in a lesbian love scene because “from watching the lesbian channel in New York, I find that one of the biggest turn-ons for men is to see two women having sex together”. Instead, she and Sedgwick just kiss, an event on which Ms. Sedgwick remarked: “My lips couldn’t tell the difference”.
There’s also the Danish-made Prince of Jutland and the controversial Irish drama A Mother’s Son, about a jailed IRA hunger striker’s mother, a film that claims to be a fictionalized account of the 1980 “dirty protest” at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. And contrary to recent rumors, she will also be starring in a sixth Prime Suspect, to be set in South Africa, due to be shown in 1997.