It may be the last Prime Suspect, but Helen Mirren is off to fight crime on US television. Sarah Gristwood reports
There is a scene in the new Prime Suspect in which DCI Jane Tennison bursts out at her superior despairingly: ‘I don’t know what you’ve heard about me. ‘That bloody Jane Tennison – she’ll be storming into your nick, the balls of your best officers trailing from her jaws, spraying people with claret, calling people masons, threatening resignation.’ We’ll I just wanted to tell you I’m not a complete maniac.’ The reputation of Helen Mirren, the actress who plays Tennison, is in its own way hardly formidable, but she wears her laurels – even the spiky ones – differently.
Whatever Helen Mirren does the rest of her life, the ‘sex queen of Stratford-upon-Avon’ tag, with all the contradictions it implies, will never go away. Probably because she doesn’t want it to, not really: ‘I’m basically a good girl,’ she tells me, ‘who’s always had a craving, a dream, to be a bad girl.’ So she juggled Cleopatra with Calligula, and a good many years ago she gave a quote about setting the alarm early to make love to her partner, Hollywood director Taylor Hackford. Just to spice up a ‘day in the life of’ piece, she says now, but it still makes headlines in the papers today. She turned 50 this summer and posed for pictures in Marie Claire topless, on a fur rug, smoking. ‘Pretending to smoke, I’m afraid,’ she says, ‘and the fur may have well have been fake,’ but that only highlights the provocative intent. Why alienate one politically correct when you can get three with one blow?
The rough, tough edges work well with the persona of Jane Tennison. Even the conscious raunchiness fits in, oddly. Mirren has created a woman driven by her profession and her own ability at it – ‘an artist in her own way,’ she says. But still a creature of insecurities and inconvenient appetites who in Prime Suspect 5 has an imprudent affair with her boss. ‘We all do those things from time to time, don’t we?’ A pause. ‘Well, maybe some of us don’t. I don’t know.’ What chimes less well with the bending of the rules is the prevailing, professionally puritanical ethos of where Mirren has lived for the last decade: LA.
But then, in all the years we’ve been thinking we’ve lost her for good, that girl from Southend had gone from these shores permanently, Mirren has actually hardly worked in the USA. With typical perversity, reversing the usual migratory pattern, she’s used LA as a dormitory suburb which to make her professional forays back over here. Somewhere to do the garden, to walk the dogs. And to make love, presumably. But that, at this very moment, may happily be the process o changing.
RSC director Adrian Noble once spoke of her as a queen in exile, cut off from the parts which made her the first actress of her generation. Isolated in a place where people who didn’t know her stage work pushed her aside at parties to talk to Hackford. The man who made An Officer and a Gentleman is a player. Helen Mirren? Who she? And whenever journalists sounded the great If Only (‘If only she’d stayed here, if only she’d let her head rule her heart’), wasn’t here an element of crocodile tears?
To know what someone really wants, look at what they have, or so the saying goes. And, truisms apart, what Mirren has right now is extraordinary. A fulfilling personal life (the relationship with Hackford, she says, ‘just gets better and better’). Great parts. An Oscar nomination and Best Actress award at Cannes for The Madness of King George. And now, for the previous series of Prime Suspect, an Emmy. Prime Suspect has won Emmys before – but this is Mirren’s first personally. Accepting the award last month she told the US audience she was ‘dead chuffed… That means “I’m very, very pleased” in American’. Culture clash is a game she loves to play. She also likes leaving – ‘Leaving anywhere,’ she says. You can’t but feel that a divided life somehow suits her in spite (or perhaps because) of the occasional agony. Her one regret in not having children is the pain she’s missed out on, she said once, tellingly.
‘The pull of my country, my culture, gets stronger all the time – I guess because life keeps taking me further away. Well, not “life”, I hate that…(she says it’s the whingeing element that puts her off ‘women’s drama’) …Obviously I make the decisions I want to make. But I find that pull very, very powerful. It’s not even a logical thing.’ She gives a small laugh, embarrassed. ‘I cry, literally I burst into tears, if I find myself in certain parts of England,’ A return to the London stage is ‘a date I have with myself, probably in two years’ time’, ideally at Trevor Nunn’s National Theatre. But the eyes water for Stratford-upon-Avon especially. ‘Stratford is where I was first introduced to the English countryside, which I hadn’t honestly seen until that point. I lived in Southend-on-sea. I’d seen what happens between there and London, but that’s Dagenham and Basildon. We didn’t have a car. Living in Stratford, I was like a lover. I saw the beauty of England and I fell incredibly in love.
‘I don’t feel English because I’m half Russian and the daughter of an immigrant, and I do have slightly an immigrant’s attitude. There is an objectivity.’ But she still keeps her flat in London. What is the first thing she does when she gets back here? ‘Find an Indian restaurant. Even better, a take-away.’ Talk of London provokes snap of the jaws – the only one in the conversation. Ask whether she still has a flat in…(its location has repeatedly been printed) and: ‘Go ahead, tell the world where I live, that’s going to be very convenient for me.’ Her objection is reasonable, especially since she was recently troubled by an obsessive fan. And, thinking of the things journalists habitually ask her, one can only wonder at her tolerance, frankly. But she is slightly scary.
While her looks are ageless – softer and classier than Tennison’s – her voice is precise. Cool as well as friendly, like the good teacher her parents once wanted her to be. You can’t believe she is happy in California making her English garden, believe it when she says she’d like to escape from her own unappeasable ambition, even if she did cry herself to sleep with frustration those first months in LA. How much has her position really changed since then? Certainly she gets the recognition she never used to. Commercially speaking, it may be two different stories for film and TV. Emmys don’t buy big feature film-roles. ‘Helen Mirren is like that favourite restaurant you know about but, thankfully, the rest of the world hasn’t discovered yet,’ says one Hollywood insider, pointing out that most of her beat work has been generated from the UK. In fact, this autumn she starts shooting an American film for Sidney Lumet, but the generalisation holds true for Some Mother’s Son (soon to be shown at the London Film Festival). Made by the people behind In the Name of the Father, with Mirren herself an associate producer, it casts her powerfully as the mother of an IRA hunger strike, an associate of Bobby Sands. Though Mirren says it’s less about politics than about ‘women clearing up the mess men make’.
She was never going to be cast in the feature-film version of Prime Suspect that was once mooted and may, for all she knows, still be on the cards, she says detatchedly. She’s not big enough at the American box office, not Michelle Pfeiffer… not young enough, basically. American TV, on the other hand, seems to bee giving Mirren the recognition she deserves. Nothing is signed and sealed yet – there’s plenty of room for the proverbial slip – but a series about a US federal law-enforcement agent is in development, built around Mirren and US TV star Dana Delaney. It goes some way to making amends for old affronts. Mirren may yet be able to rise above the fact that she is turning 50 in the two most age-conscious cultures on earth: Southern California and the entertainment industry.
She really didn’t register her birthday when it came round in July. ‘I had much more serious things on my mind. It happened on a plane and I totally forgot.’ Her mother died recently. ‘But I’ve never, in all honesty, ever found any birthday traumatic, or particularly exciting. I think there are moments in your life when suddenly the scales fall from your eyes and suddenly you confront the reality of where you are and what happens next, but you may be a 43-and-a-half or 35-and-a-quarter when they happen, sitting in a field in the middle of the afternoon.’ They don’t follow the calendar – or even the big events. ‘Is this it?’, Mirren confessed o thinking as she was handed that Emmy.
‘I’ve been an actress for quite a long time. I’ve gone through the ups and the downs. You have moments of recognition and moments when your struggling and you know both will pass. The most important thing – and the hardest to achieve – is continuity. Just to keep going if you can.’ Hand in hand with the continuity goes versatility and that’s why this is goodbye to Tennison. Let’s hope the US project goes ahead because Mirren has turned down offers to make more Prime Suspects, however lucrative. ‘I love doing it, but I don’t want people to think that’s all I’ve ever done, and I am in danger of getting to that point. It’s always more interesting to do the thing that people are not expecting.’ Though ‘funnily enough’ other people, cast in a different mould, seem to want the expected, she says wonderingly.