Helen Mirren goes from sexy TV sleuth to the schoolroom
When Helen Mirren showed up for the first time on the set of “Teaching Mrs. Tingle,” a teen comedy about the meanest teacher in America that opens Friday, her three co-stars were intimidated. They knew her to be a great British actress, with more than three decades of prestigious roles on the stage and stunning performances on the screen though, like many Americans, they couldn’t quite name any part she has played besides the homicide detective Jane Tennison on the PBS series “Prime Suspect.” The three of them, on the other hand, have been playing teenagers on TV: Barry Watson as Matt on “7th Heaven,” Katie Holmes as Joey on “Dawson’s Creek” and Marisa Coughlan as a guest star on shows like “The Magnificent Seven.” By the time she was their age, Mirren had starred as Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” onstage in London (when she was 18), become a member of the distinguished Royal Shakespeare Company (at 20) and debuted on film in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” directed by Peter Hall (at 22). Watson’s film debut was in “Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman.” So at that first read-through, they might have been visibly trembling as they sat around the table with her.
Suddenly, she leaned over. “I don’t know about you,” she told them, “but this is making me so nervous.” They all relaxed. “She definitely went out of her way; she was gracious and kind and humble and down-to-earth,” Watson gushes, and he’s not the only one to gush. “When I first met her, she was just the most amazing woman, so sweet and nice,” says Kevin Williamson, the screenwriter and director. “And I thought, ‘She’s fake.’ I thought, ‘By day five, she’ll be a bitch.'” Mirren laughs. “I don’t think I’m very good at being a bitch,” she says. “It’s too time-wasting and energy-wasting for me.” An instant later, though, she turns almost grim. “I do think the first words girls should be taught is **** off,” she says, employing a street epithet. “You’re taught to be nice, and really, what you mostly need to learn is to say **** off.” If to impressionable Americans Mirren seems like thespian royalty her role as the Queen of England in “The Madness of King George” was nominated for an Academy Award; she was also the voice of the queen in the animated film “The Prince of Egypt” this is a Shakespearean who says she greatly admires the acting of Eddie Murphy, has a permanent tattoo on her hand, lives at least half the time in LA. with the very American Taylor Hackford (the director of “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Devil’s Advocate”), whom she married in 1998 after living with him for 13 years, and can curse like a cabby. This makes sense, since she’s the daughter of a cab driver, a man who immigrated to England from Russia. Mirren was born Ilynea Lydia Mironoff, which helped her play the Russian cosmonaut in “2010,” as well as Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Russian lover and dance partner in “White Nights.” If there is anything consistent in a career of enormous variety and contrast, it’s… nudity. She played a nude scene as Lady Macbeth when she was 20 and posed topless for Marie Claire magazine when she was 50. She also “got my kit off,” as they say it in England, in the notorious “Caligula,” and also in “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.”
But she is best known and admired as Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in “Prime Suspect,” which was made sporadically in England from 1992 to 1997 and shown here on “Masterpiece Theater,” despite the many shots of burnt and beaten bodies as she went in pursuit of serial killers, child pornographers and child molesters, child rapists and child murderers. Far from a female Joe Friday, she was not just tough. She also was vulnerable with thwarted career ambitions, trouble with her bosses, a messy love life. Her husband leaves her in the first “Prime Suspect,” she has an affair with a black detective who is assigned to work for her in the second, she gets pregnant by an expert on serial killers in the third. In the final season, she has an affair with her new, married boss, who turns out to be corrupt. The part she played, and the fact that the actress herself was 50 and never married, helped her become a role model for women of a certain age. “Women will come over to me and say ‘I love you,’ and then quickly walk by,” she says. “The fantasy of me which is not really me, but a me pasted together by interviews and TV moments is a role model, because they don’t see me crying at 3 o’clock in the morning, ‘I’m never going to work again,’ or losing my keys, or all those silly things.”
She won’t have to worry about being a role model in Mrs. Tingle, a character created by Williamson to be just slightly less monstrous than the killers in his “Scream” horror movies. She is the teacher who gave you a hard time, who told you you’d never amount to anything. The plot requires that she remain an almost cartoon figure of evil since, in the ultimate revenge fantasy, she winds up bound and gagged on her own bed, three of her students guarding her with a medieval crossbow and arrow. She took the role over a part in “The Cherry Orchard” in Bulgaria because, she says, “a lot of what you do is a reaction to what you’ve done, and haven’t done, before.” She isn’t looking forward to being hated by a whole generation of American teenagers, nor by her own sister, who is a teacher. “She saw it as a real betrayal.” But she says, “There have been many inspirational films about inspirational teachers. Why not just one about a bad one?”