If you go east on Sunset Boulevard and take a left onto one of those burned-out stretches of arterial road which cut across the main drag like stitches on a baseball, you pass laundromats, motels, gas stations, pawnshops, and burger stands, until the road abruptly dead-ends at the base of the foothills beside Runyon Canyon. Towering bamboo plants block any glimpse of what lies up above. To the side are the gates of a private road, a terrace hidden behind palm fronds and hibiscus. This vertiginous landscape is one of the places that the actress Helen Mirren calls home. To enter her driveway is like going from black-and-white to Technicolor.
Since she decamped from Britain to Los Angeles, in 1984, Mirren has spent much of her time living on these fecund six acres with her husband, the director Taylor Hackford (“An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Dolores Claiborne,” “Ray”). (They also have homes in London, Provence, and New York.) Mirren claims to have got Hackford interested in horticulture, but it’s forestry, more like. She gardens; he plants trees. Their driveway switchbacks up a steep incline—past Mexican palms, Italian cypresses, birds-of-paradise, jacaranda, oleander, carob, coral, eucalyptus, and Chinese lantern trees—to a clearing in front of a cream-colored Monterey Spanish-style house with faded green shutters, a shake roof, and wrought-iron balconies overhanging a veranda, which looks down onto a long aquamarine pool. Built in 1929 by the silent-screen star Dustin Farnum, the house exudes the patrician restraint of Old Hollywood—a regal indifference to the city, which can’t be seen or heard, just a few hundred yards below. The isolation of the place satisfies what the sixty-one-year-old Mirren calls her “appetite for solitude”; its scenic grandeur suggests her public stature. Much of what dazzles the eye has come into full bloom in the last fifteen years. So has Mirren’s career.
Until the first season of the ground-breaking television series “Prime Suspect” aired, in 1991, Mirren, even in her best films—“The Long Good Friday,” “Cal,” “The Mosquito Coast,” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover”—was always to be found on the edges of the story. “I used to feel like a racehorse pulling a cart in some of those roles,” she said. Since the success of “Prime Suspect”—“the most sustained example of great acting in the history of television,” Esquire called it—she has driven the narratives. In the last eight years, on the main stages of London and New York, Mirren, who was made Dame Helen in 2003, has played the long-suffering Lady Torrance in Tennessee Williams’s “Orpheus Descending,” the trapped Alice in Strindberg’s “Dance of Death,” the villainous Christine in Eugene O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra,” and, for the third time in her career, the rapacious Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” This fall, two more virtuoso exhibitions of her work will reach the public. On PBS, in the seventh and final season of “Prime Suspect,” Mirren’s steely and vulnerable Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison will fight one last battle against the London police force’s patriarchal attitudes, against criminals, and against her own flawed nature. And Mirren’s depiction of Queen Elizabeth II, in Stephen Frears’s “The Queen,” a deft exploration of the politics of sovereignty and the Royal Family’s reaction to the death of Princess Diana, will open the New York Film Festival this week.
Although there is nothing remotely grand about Mirren in person—she is lively and low-key—she is clearly comfortable with herself, and that strength of character translates easily to performances of the formidable. “Probably no other actress can let you know as fast and economically as she can that she’s playing a distinguished and important woman,” Pauline Kael wrote of Mirren, in an otherwise unenthusiastic review of “White Nights” (1985). “Even as a teen-ager, she had a thing about regality,” the actor Kenneth Cranham, whom Mirren calls her “first proper boyfriend,” said. “She’s always had that hauteur. It was that thing of being apart and having poise and taking it all in.” “I don’t mind if I don’t have any lines as long as I get to wear a crown,” Mirren once quipped. Her début with the National Youth Theatre, at the age of nineteen, was as the Queen of Egypt in “Antony and Cleopatra.” Over the years since then, her royals have gone from the ridiculous—in the unwatchable soft-porn “Caligula” (1979), a film that won her no glory but provided a down payment on her first home—to the remarkable, her Queen Charlotte in “The Madness of King George” (1994), for instance, a performance for which she earned an Academy Award nomination. Last year, she gave a thrilling, Emmy-winning performance as the title character in the British television miniseries “Elizabeth I.” In “The Queen,” she undergoes an even more extraordinary transformation. “It may well be that this was the part she was waiting for in some unspoken way,” Frears said. “She’s bright. She’s confident. She’s open and honest. So she is in herself challenging,” he added. “It seemed essential to cast somebody who made you nervous.”
As the current monarch, Mirren delivers an inspired study of royal restraint, which rescues the Queen from both satire and sentimentality. “I cried when I did my costume fitting,” Mirren said. “I saw the shoes lined up and the tweed skirts and the sweaters. I said, ‘I can’t do this.’ But I grew to love it.” Mirren, who argues that “you have to allow yourself to grow older in front of the camera—you have to not fight it,” continued, “Her complete lack of vanity was a comfortable place to be as a woman. You’re not striving to look pretty or beautiful or slim. You’re ‘I’m me. This is me.’ It’s a mark of a huge ego.” As she was speaking about the role, she suddenly stopped and held her hands up in front of her face. “I went like this before I did a take,” she said, pulling her palms slowly toward the back of her head, then suddenly swivelling her wrists and thrusting her hands forward, like beams of light, beside her eyes. “She’s way back inside herself,” she explained. “Her personality, her intelligence, everything is way back. Then she’s steadily looking out, as if through a porthole, with this incredibly nonjudgmental, confident gaze. I loved being her. There was an incredible sort of objectivity . . . a sort of deep knowledge of being a monarch.” She added, “I thought I had a lot in common with her.”
Mirren also identified with the Queen’s punctilio as someone who was “performing the role of symbol.” “I admire her as an actress,” Mirren said. “There’s one piece of film I watched over and over again. She was about twelve. She’s getting out of one of those big black cars. She’s got gloves on. She is very young. She’s all alone. It’s the way she gets out of the car. She puts her hand forward. She’s just doing everything absolutely correctly—that was long before she had any idea that she was going to be queen. She does it with such a sense of dignity and seriousness and discipline.” Mirren went on, “I think there are elements of that little girl in me. The sense of wanting to do the right thing, not wanting conflict.”
Mirren grew up with the legend of a lost patrician world. Christened Helen Lydia Mironoff, and called Ilyena at home, she was the second of three children born to a handsome, well-educated Russian émigré, Vasily Petrov Mironoff, in 1945. Her mother, Kathleen Rogers, was the thirteenth of fourteen children, a butcher’s daughter whose grandfather had been the butcher to Queen Victoria. Until his death, Vasily’s father, Pyotr, lived with the family in a two-story house in the suburban working-class backwater of Leigh-on-Sea, in Essex. Pyotr’s mother had been a countess whose distinguished military family is mentioned in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Pyotr himself was a tsarist colonel and military attaché, who was stranded in London while making an arms deal at the time of the Russian Revolution, which he always referred to as a “peasant revolt.” At a stroke, he lost his homeland, his pedigree, and his estate, Kuryanov—fifteen hundred acres near the town of Gzhatsk (now Gagarin)—which was, in his day, about twenty-four hours by horse from Moscow. Pyotr, who was, according to Mirren, “extremely proud, and identified with his Russian roots,” considered Britain “a gray nation, largely ruled by gray people.” He remained in a state of perpetual Chekhovian nostalgia for the motherland; he kept pre-revolutionary rubles in his dresser and etchings of the Tsar and Tsarina on his bedroom walls. “I remember sitting in my grandfather’s room and him drawing a map of his Russian lands—where the stables were and where the servants lived,” Mirren said. (Vasily, who called himself Basil, waited until his father died, in the early fifties, to change the family name to Mirren.)
If the Mironoffs had been dispossessed of their wealth and their social status, the newly minted Mirrens were, nonetheless, able to generate a sense of their own exclusivity. There was “a slightly us-and-them feeling,” Mirren said. “We were quite isolated as a family. We didn’t really have friends. Neighbors weren’t invited in. We were a little unit unto ourselves. We were trendier than anyone else. We ate yogurt long before anyone else. We were like the first people in our town to wear colored stockings. We were kind of bohemian.” Before the Second World War, Basil had had Communist sympathies; afterward, according to Mirren, he remained “extreme left wing.” Hatred of the British class system was one of the bonds between him and his wife. His critique was ideological; hers was personal. Kathleen left school at fourteen, and was raised, for the most part, by her sisters. In a sense, she, too, was a displaced person. “She was resentful and angry,” Mirren said. “She was anti the class system because it excluded her.” Kathleen always remembered an occasion on which she was turned away by a doorman at the Army and Navy store. Later, ambitious for her own children’s mobility, she was strict about proper speech; she scraped together money to buy her daughters—Mirren has an older sister, Kate—elocution lessons. Both parents were anti-monarchist and atheist. (When Kathleen died, at the age of eighty-seven, she requested that no funeral be held, and she donated her body to science.)
The family was not well off, and, with no television, no music, no cinema, and with only occasional exposure to radio, they were almost untouched by popular culture. At St. Bernard’s High School, a convent school, where Mirren and her sister were taught by nuns, the list of prohibitions included no jewelry, no short skirts, no sex education, no boys. Until the age of sixteen, when the girls were allowed out on dates, their only freedom was intellectual. “Our stimulation was discussion,” Mirren recalled. “Over the dinner table, we would have these serious talks about life and art and the soul.” In this straitened atmosphere, she said, there was always a sense “that this isn’t where we finish up. You take your opportunity, you get educated, you make yourself economically independent. And that’s still with me.” Mirren’s unabashed and un-English ambition was fuelled to some degree by the unspoken disappointment around her. “There was absolutely a sense of non-realized potential, especially in my father,” she said. By the accounts of both sisters, Basil was gentle, affectionate, attentive, solitary, and, according to Mirren, “very artistic.” Before the war, he had played the viola with the London Philharmonic; afterward, he drove a taxi. Eventually, he became a driving-test examiner, and drove his cab on weekends.
Mirren, who, according to the director Trevor Nunn, was known as Little Mother Russia during her early days at the Royal Shakespeare Company, identified strongly with her father and the frustrated trajectory of his life. “I wanted to be a great performer,” she said. “I mean great.” Her sense of drama and of glamour, however, came from her tempestuous mother. “I don’t think my mother was a natural mother,” Mirren said of Kathleen, who once held her out of the window and said, “If you don’t stop crying, I’m going to drop you.” Over the years, according to Kate, the two sisters and their younger brother, Peter, “all learned to be very protective of our egos, because we would have been completely destroyed. She could be truly horrible.” “When she was saying stuff I didn’t want to hear,” Mirren said, “I developed this trick of appearing to hear—‘Yes, yes,’ ‘Right, I’ll try that’—but having no idea what she’d said.” Nonetheless, Mirren’s own strength was defined by contending with her mother’s volatile intensity. “She was very imaginative, very passionate,” she said. Once, Mirren came home from school to find the house in chaos and her mother stumbling around blindfolded. “She’d been like that for five hours,” she said. “She’d read something about a blind person and had been very affected by it. She felt that she had to experience what it was like to be blind.”
Mirren also had an active imagination. Within the family, she was known as Popper or Pop, “because she would pop off into dreams,” her sister said. She slept with an image of Goya’s face under her pillow. “I thought that somehow I’d been caught in the wrong time zone, and really I was supposed to be Goya’s mistress or wife,” Mirren said. At thirteen, she was captivated by an amateur production of “Hamlet” at the local theatre. “Sword fights and girls going mad, evil kings and queens taking poison—what a fantastic world!” she said. “So exciting in comparison to walking to the launderette for the washing.” She began to read Shakespeare, and for a school production—grovelling on the ground and growling—she took on Caliban, a part that none of her classmates had wanted to tackle. “I just got into it,” she said, recalling the exhilaration “of living in this wonderful exotic world, of a creature locked in this awful physical prison but with a dim sense that there was something else out there.”
Although she has described her younger self as “totally and ridiculously inhibited,” Mirren found that she could be bolder in role-playing than she was in life. “All I knew was that I really loved it,” she said. “It was something I was good at without having to work too hard—or, at least, it was work I wanted to do.” “I want to be the Sarah Bernhardt of my generation,” she confided to her sister. Her parents weren’t pleased. “Don’t be ridiculous,” her mother said. “People like us aren’t actors.” There was no money for drama school, and Mirren grudgingly followed her sister on a scholarship to a teachers’ training college in London. Nonetheless, without telling her parents—“I didn’t want to fail publicly,” she said—she successfully auditioned for the National Youth Theatre. Mirren was eighteen; by twenty, she was selling out the Old Vic.
Last July, I joined Mirren and Hackford for their annual trip to Del Mar, in San Diego, for some horse racing: the sport of kings—and, apparently, of sometime queens. The track is two hours by train from downtown Los Angeles. On the way to the station, Hackford stopped to buy the Daily Racing Form at a newsstand on Hollywood Boulevard. When he got back in the car, he was pointing to the vender, a woman in sunglasses and a straw fedora behind a wall of magazines. “A classic Hollywood look,” he said to Mirren, who sat in the back seat with her cap of white hair still damp from the morning’s shower. “Did you see the lady with the nails? She’s got these long nails; every one is a different color.” Hackford is tall and thin, with a distinguished white beard and the rumpled nonchalance of a teacher. By nature, he is a doer and an explainer, a take-charge guy who answers to the nickname Jefe and whose knowledge is imparted with brio and the occasional sizzle of impatience. His curiosity has led him over the years from the Peace Corps to television investigative journalism and documentary filmmaking and, finally, to feature films. (He won an Oscar in 1979 for “Teenage Father,” a short; he was nominated again in 2005, for “Ray.”) Although he shares with Mirren a working-class background, he does not share her metabolism. Hackford churns up the water around him; Mirren considers herself “a slug.” “I always wanted to be Pierre Bonnard’s wife,” she said. “Lie around, have baths, be painted constantly as a young person surrounded by beautiful flowers and satin gowns.” At the train terminal, Hackford headed off at a trot. “O.K., babe, we’re gonna have to hoof it,” he said.
Mirren met Hackford in 1984, when she went to audition for “White Nights,” which he directed. He was twenty minutes late. “I was very angry,” she said. “I was sort of rude.” Hackford told the London Times, “I apologized but there was a cold disdain from her. I tried to make small talk and she said, ‘Are we going to read?’ She was smoking, man! Then she asked if there was anything else, and boom, she was out of there.” Mirren and Hackford moved into their Los Angeles aerie in 1986, and were married in 1997—she for the first time, at the age of fifty-two, he for the third, at fifty-three. (Hackford has two children from his previous marriages; Mirren has none.) “He wasn’t like anyone I’d ever been with,” Mirren said, once we were safely on the train and Hackford had been dispatched to the rear of the top deck to study the nags. “Much more edgy but also much more exciting, more driven. He still surprises me after however many years. He’s incredibly free as a person and he lets me be free. The other thing I’ve always loved is that he treats women with equality, without even thinking about it. He just looks women in the eye and takes their human value. That’s so un-Hollywood.” She added, “He can be very, very difficult.”
A leader onstage, at home Mirren seems happy to be led. “Let’s face it,” she told Barney Reisz, one of the producers of “Elizabeth I,” while discussing possible actors for one of the leads. “Every woman likes a man who makes a decision, doesn’t she?” “She’s always been wifely in all her relationships,” Kate told me. “She’s much more ‘Well, if that’s what you want, darling, we’ll do it.’ ” To me, Mirren explained, “I have to say, without sounding like a total tosser, that everything I’ve learned in life, and that has taken me out of my natural interior life, has been with men. They exposed me to things that I wasn’t aware of. I learned from all the guys.” The main relationships to which Mirren was referring were with the actors Kenneth Cranham, Bruce Myers, and Liam Neeson, the photographer James Wedge, and Prince George Galitzine. Onstage and off, Mirren has been defined by her intelligence; however, she still professes to “feeling rather stupid,” a sense of deficit that, incidentally, makes her a good audience. She listens, she adds to the thought, and she also wants to be told. She glanced out the window of the train. “There is that awful moment when you realize that you’re falling in love,” she said. “That should be the most joyful moment, and actually it’s not. It’s always a moment that’s full of fear because you know, as night follows day, the joy is going to rapidly be followed by some pain or other. All the angst of a relationship. You go, ‘Oh, no. Please, no.’ You go, ‘Yes, I’m in love. No, I’m in love.’ ”
She settled back in her seat, as the train sped past a beachfront amusement park. “I’ve always had that slight attraction to the fairground, the circus, the tattooed,” she said. As a teen-ager, Mirren worked as a shill for rides at a local Southend amusement park. “The boys who did the Dodge ’Ems, with their dirty T-shirts and their leather jackets. I never liked the clean guys. I liked the slightly dirty kinds.” From the outset of her career, Mirren made a legend of her daring, which included a certain sexual brazenness. “She was like a Rubens in bluejeans,” Cranham said. In 1968, as Cressida in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Troilus and Cressida,” she spun almost naked across the stage, and was soon dubbed by the British broadsheets “the Sex Queen of Stratford.” “I never wriggled out of that,” Mirren said. Over the years, she has both condemned and parlayed the idea of herself as a sex symbol. “I have traded on it,” she told the Independent in 2001. “I do the tousled thing from time to time. . . . I can do the dirty thing. . . . But at some point you decide enough of that, I had better move on.” To me, she explained, “I think for a long time it was very hard for people to see past my physical outward appearance. I was a blond girl with big tits. I hated that image. It was so uncomfortable for me, and distasteful.” Nonetheless, when Mirren auditioned for the R.S.C., in 1967, Trevor Nunn, then a director with the company, recalled, “A girl came out who appeared to be wearing a garment constructed of black string. It had more spaces between it than it covered. Conversation stopped completely. Jaws dropped. We saw from her C.V. that she’d had no professional experience. She was passionate about doing classical work. I make no bones about it—I think the red blood cells and testosterone were up a considerable level. I don’t think anybody contemplated for a moment that she should be told to go away and get experience somewhere else.” Nunn added, “We were looking at a major leading player after she’d been with the company a couple of years.”
In 1972, Mirren interrupted her R.S.C. career to join the director Peter Brook’s experimental theatre company on a yearlong international tour, which included three months in African villages—what she called “a voyage into the unknown.” In “Conference of the Birds: The Story of Peter Brook in Africa,” the critic John Heilpern describes Mirren—the last actor to join the troupe—this way: “Helen Mirren, twenty-six, a star perhaps, outspoken, generous, bright, luscious, lost.” He continues, “Part of her dilemma might be that she couldn’t decide whether to be a classical actress or a Hollywood movie star. You can’t have both apparently. The Brook experiment was entangled with her search for an answer.” According to Mirren, her goal in joining Brook was “to liberate myself.” Although nudity was not difficult for her—she has bared all in several films, from her first, “Age of Consent” (1969), to “Calendar Girls” (2003), and, at fifty, she posed naked for the cover of Britain’s Radio Times—she felt weighted down by a sense of physical embarrassment. “I’ve always been battling against my sense of dignity and refinement,” she said. “I was embarrassed by any bodily functions when I was younger. I could never even blow my nose. When I went out on dates as a girl, I could never say, ‘Excuse me, I want to go to the ladies’.’ That’s why I got a reputation for refusing to kiss anyone at the gate. By the time I got to the gate, I was always dying to go to the loo.”
This conflict between inhibition and exhibition has had a bearing on all aspects of Mirren’s performing. “I think a lot of my life, and especially my work life, has been spent learning how to be brave,” she said. Her sex appeal seems to reside not in her cleavage but in her emotional availability, her complicated combination of hauteur, courage, and empathy. “Helen doesn’t say, ‘Please love me. Look, I’ll smile nicely, and you’ll love me,’ ” Frears told me. “She’s not inviting you in the way other actresses often are. She just says, ‘This is what it’s like,’ and that’s what you love about her. She confronts something, and she doesn’t sentimentalize it.” “She goes for life,” Jeremy Irons, who co-starred with Mirren in “Elizabeth I,” said. “That’s why she’s alluring to men. She is the complete antithesis of the vapid.”
Mirren’s reputation for wildness owes much to the vividness of her early performances. In the mid-seventies, she followed a sinister and seductive Lady Macbeth (“I really do regret that Shakespeare never knew Miss Mirren,” Harold Hobson wrote in the London Sunday Times) with a breakout appearance as the drunk and disorderly rock singer Maggie Frisby in David Hare’s 1975 “Teeth ’n’ Smiles,” the first and best British play about the barbarity of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. “It was such a great role,” she said. “Your first entrance is being carried across the stage over someone’s shoulder, completely drunk. Everyone’s been talking about you for the last twenty minutes, anyway. It was fabulous.” Mirren, who had to belt out a number of songs, couldn’t carry a note. “I am profoundly unmusical,” she said. “But I learned this amazing thing. If you’ve got the chutzpah, you can persuade the audience of anything.”
The same year, at the first read-through for Lindsay Anderson’s revival of “The Seagull,” in which Mirren gave an acclaimed performance as Nina, opposite Joan Plowright’s Arkadina, the cast was sitting around after deconstructing the first act, when Mirren said, “I wonder if Nina and Trigorin ever have an affair.” “Joan looked at me,” she said. “ ‘Helen?’—her little brown eyes beadily looking at me. ‘Have you read the play?’ I realized I’d made the most appalling gaffe. I’d just heard that it was a great role. Joan was in it. Lindsay was directing. Of course I said yes. But I’m terribly lazy. I find it very hard to read plays. I find it hard to understand who’s who and where they’re supposed to be. I get utterly confused.”
Mirren’s legend of her own laziness (one that is easily belied by a quick glance at her résumé, with its forty-five films and thirty stage roles) is not, it seems, a pretension but a sort of psychological self-defense—a way of protecting the impulsive, childlike part of herself and her imagination. Describing “Composition VII” by Wassily Kandinsky, her favorite painter, she said, “Color, form, the appearance of improvisation: in fact, it’s intensely, beautifully worked out.” She could easily have been talking about her own acting. Of all her theatrical influences, Mirren claims the painter Francis Bacon as her “great guru.” Citing the book “Interviews with Francis Bacon,” she said, “You have to learn technique. He describes how painful the process is. How you feel paralyzed, restricted, frustrated by it. You feel like you lost your early instinctive inspiration. You have to learn it to forget it.” She went on, “Sometimes you just can’t get there. Other times, you’re there without thinking.” In Adrian Noble’s 1982 Stratford production of “Antony and Cleopatra,” in which she starred opposite Michael Gambon, Mirren felt that she’d reached the pinnacle of “making it live anew almost every night.” When she didn’t win the Laurence Olivier Award for her performance, she left the country. “I thought, Fuck it, that’s it, they obviously don’t want me,” she said, in Ivan Waterman’s 2003 book “Helen Mirren: The Biography.” “They don’t like me. They hate what I do. I’ll go somewhere else. I wasn’t being asked to do any work in England. Suddenly, Hollywood was a way of saying, ‘Fuck you, England.’ ”
Mirren wasn’t immediately happy in California. “I felt like a fish out of water,” she said. “I was invisible, and really lost my identity as a British theatre actress.” In film, she claims to have felt for a long time like “a rabbit in the headlights.” Her technical breakthrough came on Peter Weir’s “The Mosquito Coast,” in 1986. “I was working with a lot of children and I thought, I’m just gonna use this experience to make myself feel free,” she said. “I’m not gonna worry where the camera is. Of course, it drove Peter Weir around the twist, because I was always wandering out of shot. My desire was to learn not to care about the camera.” Mirren added, “That’s where your technique, as Francis Bacon says, supports you. You don’t even think about it anymore. You recognize the good accident. You allow the accident to happen.” For one scene in Nicholas Hytner’s “The Madness of King George,” Mirren—as the loving consort to the King (Nigel Hawthorne), Queen Charlotte—was sitting on the edge of George’s bed, laughing about the events of the day. “In the middle of the take, Helen suddenly ducked down and bit his belly,” Hytner recalled. “The cameraman was there, and it’s in the film. She just went for it. He loved it. You know—if you’re the director—that that’s going to pay dividends right through the film: a moment that just says how necessary they are for each other. So that, when you rip them apart, it’s heartbreaking.” Hytner added, “Helen immediately identified that woman’s unconditional love for her husband, her physical ease with him. Of the actors I know, she is the one for whom the emotion love is most easily coupled with physical desire. That was a kind of revelation. It became the heart of the film.”
We were well past San Clemente before anybody on the train took notice of Mirren. Then the conductor—a short bleached-blond woman named Marcie, with a nose ring and a tattoo on her wrist—asked if it was O.K. to take a photograph. “That’d be fine,” Mirren said. Marcie handed me her camera phone and slid in beside Mirren, who promptly took off Marcie’s blue Amtrak cap and put it on her own head. They leaned in close. I snapped the picture and held the viewfinder up for Mirren’s inspection. “It’s not very good,” she said. “Make sure we’re in the center.” The second shot worked. “I love your hat,” Mirren said. “It’s done a few miles, hasn’t it?”
At the track, Hackford explained his system for betting—a complicated equation of running times, track conditions, jockeys, trainers’ and owners’ rankings, horses’ earnings, and claiming prices. He favored the quinella—a wager that required picking the first- and second-place horses, which had a bonanza payout if you hit it. “It’s almost impossible to win,” he said, “but, when you do, you feel like a god.”
“Taylor and I live a very parsimonious life,” said Mirren, who, according to her sister, could “use a tea bag twice.” In L.A., she rents an economy car; except for the occasional gourmet birthday treat, she said, “I go for cheap.” As she stood at the betting window for the first race, her tightfistedness was apparent. “I’m a two-dollar bettor, so there’s no gain, but also no pain,” she said. She put her money on Lockitup. The horse promptly romped first around the six furlongs and earned her almost seven dollars, paying for her next bet. By the third race, all her lessons forgotten, Mirren was flying blind. “I bet what the guy in front bet,” she said. The fourth race featured a six-to-one shot called Royal Cheer, which she resisted. By the seventh race, a certain wistfulness had crept into her excitement. “Oh, God, here we go,” she said to Hackford, as the horses were being eased into their gates. “I arrived with such optimism. Can I borrow your glasses?” Hackford, already bent over his calculations for the next race, handed her his binoculars without looking up. The race began. Mirren stood with the field glasses trained in the direction of her horse, a ten-to-one shot. “Take off the end, baby,” Hackford said. Mirren glanced quizzically at him, then at the binoculars; the lens caps were still on. Mirren’s horse finished third. “I won nine dollars on the last bet, Tay,” she said, when she returned from the betting window. “Because I’m doing it across the board.” “Good luck, baby,” Hackford, who was not having much success, said. “Really, really good luck.” In the ninth race, Hackford finally won the quinella.
On the way back from the track, Mirren sat by herself as the train sped along the Pacific shoreline, past bonfires, waving children, surfers bobbing like seals on the glistening swells. The sun dipped below the horizon and cast a tangerine glow against the sky. “Incredible sunset,” she said. “Glorious.” After a while, she added, “The ease of American life. The blessing.”
Mirren’s London home is a former customs house, near Tower Bridge, on the cobbled backstreets of East London. Her front door looks out over a communal garden—the southeast corner is allotted to her peonies—that is the only garden on the Thames; in the days of sailing ships, it was a loch that led to an inland cove. All that remains from that era are a few black steel pylons along the edge of the greensward, where the big ships used to tie up. Mirren loves this garden and the sense of community with her fellow-gardeners. The gardening of her private space, however, sometimes requires some prompting. There is a large note fixed to her kitchen window: “Don’t Forget to Water Me! I’m outside this window!”
On a glistening early-August morning, in a blue-and-white striped boatneck jersey, bluejeans, and espadrilles, she headed off to a small basement dubbing studio on Wardour Street, in Soho, for a looping session, one of her last days of work as “Prime Suspect” ’s Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison. “You can’t go on,” Mirren said, explaining her decision to end the series. “I think I’ve gone on probably too long anyway.”
“Prime Suspect” was the first British police procedural to put a woman’s professional and psychological life squarely center stage. Over the years, Mirren had often complained publicly of the paucity of great female roles. “There isn’t a ‘King Lear’ for women, or a ‘Henry V’ or a ‘Richard III,’ ” she said. “Prime Suspect” was a far cry from Shakespeare; nonetheless, her translation of the part into something iconic had to do with her Shakespearean expertise—her ability to transform herself into people who, as Hytner pointed out, “are larger than life, speak better than life, feel more deeply than life.” He added, “She can take someone like Jane Tennison and speak for a whole generation.”
“Prime Suspect” introduced Mirren to a wider American public; in England, where it attracted more than fourteen million viewers, the show also reintroduced her to the British public, from whom she’d been absent during her California years. (“Helen is the Queen in exile,” Adrian Noble said.) Before “Prime Suspect,” female detective shows (“Dempsey and Makepeace” in the U.K.; “Cagney & Lacey” in the U.S.) had aped the male action formulas. “Prime Suspect” ’s creator, Lynda La Plante, looked scrupulously at psychology and criminology and took her story into new areas of sexual politics as well as of crime detection. In the series, many professional women found a metaphor for their frustration. “They had put up with it for twenty years and none of them had been able to complain publicly about anything because it would have been the death of their careers,” Mirren told the press. “Suddenly, there on the screen was a woman who was saying, ‘Screw you.’ A yell went up from all the women in all the professions, saying, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.’ ” So far, “Prime Suspect” has won twenty-seven awards, including three Emmys for best miniseries and one, in 1996, for its star.
Mirren was the only actress to whom the producers of the series offered the part, back in 1991. Aspects of her emotional profile made her a natural fit for Tennison. Both were smart, independent, and ambitious; both were feminists who liked the company of men; both were Bolshie victims and survivors of the era’s sexual politics. “Women are taught to smile, to be pleasant, to be charming, to be attractive. To say things like ‘You’re a darling—thank you so much.’ They get their way like that,” Mirren told reporters. “Tennison doesn’t do that. She is driven, obsessive, vulnerable, unpleasantly egotistical, and confused. But she is damn good at what she does and is totally dedicated.” To me, Mirren explained, “Jane’s really weird for me, because I never think about her, not for one second. Of all the characters I’ve ever played, Jane is the one I’ve most allowed just to be. I walk out on the set and let it happen.”
Looping is a cleaning-up exercise for already taped footage—fixing sound glitches, misspoken or mistimed words, and adding a fine filigree of vocal nuance. It’s painstaking, tedious work, a sort of aural equivalent of needlepoint. When it was time to start, Mirren positioned herself on a stool with the pages to be corrected on a music stand in front of her, about two feet from the screen. The sound engineer watched through a window to her left, lobbing in comments over a microphone; behind her, on a sofa, sat the season’s director, Philip Martin. “There’s a kind of visceral, let’s-just-do-it-and-think-about-it-later quality to Tennison and to Helen,” he said. “She likes to work quickly.” And so it proved.
Donning red-framed eyeglasses, Mirren set to work picking through the dialogue and rerecording it—sometimes adding a word, sometimes a mumble, sometimes improvising half sentences or exclamations so that the lines landed better in the scene. She was meticulous and exacting. After each fix, she folded the script page and put it to the side of the podium. With her little nips and tucks, Tennison and the plot became more vivid. At one point, when Tennison came to a door and flashed her I.D., she said, “Mrs. Philips, I’m Detective Jane Tennison.” Mirren spoke the line, then turned to us. “Probably the last time I’ll ever say that,” she said.
Later, Mirren had to rerecord the lyrics to “Be My Baby,” which Tennison sang and danced to in a scene set in her childhood home, where she returned on an errand while her father was dying in the hospital. (The song was changed in the final version of the episode.) In the dubbing studio, with her headphones on, Mirren swayed and sang. “She comes in very strong and hard and sometimes provocative,” Martin said afterward of Mirren’s dramatic attack; the dancing scene was a transfixing example. On the screen, Tennison bopped by herself with all the joy of a sixteen-year-old experiencing the song for the first time, then by degrees collapsed into a drunken, exhausted sleep on her childhood bed. With those few seconds of unexpected delight, which only compounded the scene’s sadness, Mirren transformed the sentimental into something poetic. “When she hits the bull’s-eye,” Hytner told me, “it takes on a mythic resonance.”
Earlier in the morning, one of “Prime Suspect” ’s executive producers, Andy Harries, had made an official call on Mirren in the dubbing studio. “That’s a fabulous line you’ve got: ‘Don’t call me “Ma’am,” I’m not the bloody Queen!’ ” he said, of one of Tennison’s speeches. “We’re gonna put that in the trailer.” The line resonated nicely, of course, with Mirren’s career; however, it was her delivery of another bit of dialogue that seemed to carry the most haunting personal weight. Asked, by a teen-ager, what had made her become a police detective, Tennison replied, “It was the power. The freedom. And the stupid thought you could do some good.”
Mirren’s achievements have come at the price of a certain world-weariness. At our first meeting in California, we trudged up the cantilevered steps behind her house, following a sort of nature trail past an olive grove and lemon trees, until we arrived at a plateau high above the house, where, beneath an arbor of ancient cedars, two weathered green chairs were positioned with all of Los Angeles spread out below them. “I’m in a slightly weird place just now,” Mirren said. “Of not being sure I ever want to work again. I want to refind the desire to pretend to be somebody.” In what she calls her “Russian moments,” when she feels “that somehow there’s something between you and life, you don’t know how to get out there and participate,” acting has always been what pulls her back into experience. “It feeds the other side of my Russianness, which is emotional and passionate,” she said. Gazing out over the brilliant horizon, Mirren got to thinking about the many changes in her life—changes of fortune and of family. Among the biggest, she told me, was the change in her attitude toward acting. “I’ve lost my idealism,” she said. “I lost my sense of vocation—that you were fulfilling a serious and necessary function in your culture. It just very slowly slipped away.” Mirren went on, “It was a fabulous liberation just to be venal and practical and not fucking holy about it. It’s a bit of work and a bit of dosh. It was all so angst-ridden. I think I’m a better actor for it. I’m not saying I don’t take it seriously; I do. But pomposity has gone out of the enterprise.”
She glanced out toward the Pacific, where sailboats speckled the skyline, then she looked back at me. “I didn’t want to sublimate my ego, my vanity,” she said. “You know that kind of ensemble feeling—‘We’re all in this together.’ No, actually, we’re not all in this together. I am the queen. I am the star, and, you know, suck it up.” Just as soon as the words were out of her mouth, she was modifying them. “Except, I don’t behave like that at work,” she said. “I’m no Ethel Merman.”