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Prime Suspect 6

Helen Mirren

Profile | Interview

Helen Mirren: An Interview

Prime Suspect has won four Emmys and unstoppable praise, particularly for its star, Dame Helen Mirren. Helen Mirren has been delivering uncanny performances since age eighteen, when she played a captivating Cleopatra in a youth production of Antony and Cleopatra. Many roles followed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, along with unforgettable performances in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover with Michael Gambon; The Madness of King George (Oscar nomination, Best Supporting Actress; Palm D'Or Award, Cannes Film Festival); Gosford Park (Oscar nomination, Best Supporting Actress; New York Film Critics Circle Award, Best Supporting Actress); and dozens of other films. Mirren has recently been seen in Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra at the National Theatre in London ("Extraordinary and memorable... Mirren is magnificent..." said She co-stars with Robert Redford in The Clearing, a kidnapping drama, due out in 2004. And she recently created a stir in Calendar Girls, as the ringleader of a group of British housewives who pose nude for a charity fundraiser.

Now Mirren returns to the role that first won her an Emmy and made her a household name in the United States -- that of Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect. Tennison is back, and she is unchanged. She is obsessed. Her personal life is a mess. She risks everything to get at the truth. In this new story, the murders take place in London, but they involve Bosnian refugees and immigrants living in the UK. They are in danger.

Mirren recently talked about the worldwide success of Prime Suspect, why she stepped away from the role for a time and why she is still drawn to the gritty and flawed character of Jane Tennison.

You thought long and hard about returning to the role of Jane Tennison after seven years. Were you concerned about bringing Jane back?

I just worried that I was going backwards and I don't like going backwards. Don't get me wrong, I very much wanted to do this. I thought very deeply about it. It's a great role, a beautifully produced film with great writing and fellow actors and the quality is very high so there was no reason not to do it.

I was quite resistant to the idea of coming back to it only because it had been so good before, and it's very difficult with this kind of television -- original scripts, four-hour stories -- it's very difficult to keep that standard high.

That's one of the reasons that we've never made it into an ongoing, like a weekly, series. We've only tried to make it what is known over here as 'event television.'

But it was a very intimidating thought -- coming back to it. It had been so highly regarded when we did it before. I really didn't want it to take a step down. And you know, I didn't know whether it was still relevant six, seven years later. Life moves on pretty rapidly. I wanted it to be relevant. And I wanted it to truly have an audience.

The script convinced me... it was about two years ago that ...I started thinking that maybe it was time I re-visit the character. It becomes a hard act to follow, you know. And I only want to follow it if we can find another script that's as strong and relevant as this one.

The only difficult thing about coming back is thinking about coming back before and thinking about the energy required to actually do it. It's obviously a very demanding schedule. But something weird happens to me as far as Jane Tennison is concerned; I absolutely don't think about it before I start. As soon as I start it just all comes back to me and I don't quite know how that happens, but it does. The difficult thing is thinking about it beforehand and then finding the energy to do it when I do.

Is it difficult when you approach other parts? Or is it just Jane that has this affect on you, this apprehensive effect?

No, this is the only thing I've done over and over again. I've never done anything twice, except Cleopatra. I have played Cleopatra three times. But Jane is something that I've come back to and, each time, I want it to be as good as the time before, at least as good as the time before. Each time I want it to be better than the time before. I feel that mantle on my shoulders, I feel that weight on my shoulders.

Also, I have quite a big responsibility now as far as the program is concerned. We've had different writers, producers, cinematographers. I'm the only person who's been the one constant, and so I've taken that responsibility quite seriously. I give it my all. I guess it's the apprehension of knowing that that's in front of me as well.

Is something like Prime Suspect still a fairly rare item, even in England?

Well, I think good writing is rare. Good dramatic television is rare. And it's rare because it's very difficult to achieve. We tend to spell things out less in Britain. We do give ourselves the luxury of having a four-hour story. We don't have to tell the story in an hour or even two hours. You know, we're given four hours to tell our story, so we can achieve the kind of complexity that other programs can't because of the requirements of time.

Were you involved in the storyline of this script?

Not really, although the storylines were presented and I did have input in choosing the storyline but I've always believed in a writer expressing themselves fully, and that they shouldn't be overwhelmed with too many people's input and notes from a committee: it's not a good idea. So there were small drafts and notes that I put forward, but that was all, I kind of just let it happen.

I am very pleased with the result -- it is really exciting and has great potential. For me it has all the factors of a good Prime Suspect. It's modern, and that is very important, because there have been so many police dramas made since the last series and it's very difficult to find a new way or a way that creates interest in another police story... I didn't want to go over old ground; it had to go forward -- and it does.

How would you define Jane Tennison?

I don't psychoanalyse the character too much. She's obsessed; she's work-driven, not really ambitious... it's quite hard to define, very much like real life in the way that you don't quite know what you want out of life. You only really discover yourself when you look back on your past and you suddenly see yourself in perspective and realize your motives for doing things.

It's the same with Jane, I've always allowed her to just 'be.' Obviously it's seven years later, so she's clearly older and wiser -- or not -- as the case may be! I just let the world and myself around me impinge on the character and allow that to come through -- I try not to act too much, quite honestly!

Before I did any Prime Suspects, I never really thought too deeply about the character... I just kind of let the character happen to me in a way. I did the same again this time round but it wasn't until about the third or fourth week of shooting that I started to feel back at home with the character.

When Prime Suspect started, Tennison was facing prejudice because she was a woman. Now she's facing prejudice because she's in her fifties. How much prejudice is there against people because of their age?

Supposedly there is no prejudice against women anymore. I believe there still is in reality, especially for women in high-powered jobs. I mean, it's very interesting that the American people find it impossible to contemplate having a woman as President, for example. And that's just an example of a kind of universal prejudice. It certainly exists.

The age thing... well, you know, I think we're facing an interesting conundrum, because there are an awful lot of people -- you know, the "bulge" generation -- moving through life. And people in their forties, fifties and sixties are becoming the majority and they have economic power and they have political power.

To what do you attribute the success of Prime Suspect?

I don't know... it's like lightning in a bottle and you can't define it, you just don't know why... I guess if we did, then every television drama would be wonderful!

Prime Suspect appeals to a wide audience...

I think that the first Prime Suspect had a very strong impact -- the storyline was very strong. The fact that there was a female lead too... Although there had been female leads before, such as Cagney and Lacey, they were never from that edgy, dark, serious kind of drama. So I think that made an impact and when viewers like something, they want more. They like what's familiar.

It then became like a brand name, instantly recognizable and really valuable, particularly on American television. Some really good television gets made in America and other countries, but it doesn't always grab the audience quickly enough and I think that's the key: to get the attention straight away.

There are some returning characters in this Prime Suspect, in addition to new ones. How do you feel about this new cast?

And I was very lucky in this one to be surrounded by some truly great actors. Mark Strong [DCS Larry Hall] is wonderful, and the miracle of having Mark is that he was in one of the previous Prime Suspect series (Series 3 - 1993), so you get that sense of continuity. He plays the same character as before but he's kind of leapfrogged over me and is now my boss! Ben Miles [DCI Simon Finch] is playing what we call a 'high-flyer' who has had a very good education and gets promoted very quickly. So he is a very new style policeman, and Mark is the old style.

One of Ben Miles' [DCI Finch] favorite moments is a scene where you and he are dashing from a shop, dive into the car and screech away at high speed...

(Laughs) Really? Well, you know Ben is a great driver -- I felt very safe and secure with him! A lot of actors aren't, because they rush too much trying to be macho or get over-excited and forget to put the car in gear or to take the hand brake off! But with Ben it was wonderful and normally, for that kind of shot, I would've liked to do the driving, but I was very happy for him to do it.

Has it been fun returning to the role of Tennison?

Yes it has, absolutely. I was rather sad when it finished. I never thought I would actually say those words, but I really was.

You've lived with Jane for a very long time... her train wreck of a personal life is very important to Prime Suspect. Do you think Jane is capable of happiness, now that you've spent these many years with her?

Oh! Yes, I mean, I haven't actually lived with Jane. I don't live with Jane except for when I'm working on Prime Suspect, and even then, you know, I don't take her home with me. We work long hours so I'm in that personality for quite a long part of the day, but... there's nothing that Jane is that's related to me.

But I think she is happy. I think she's very happy. She loves her job, she loves being a professional woman, she loves the demands. There is no such thing as perfect happiness -- we all pay, we all make sacrifices for the things that we want to do, whether it's family or work or whatever. So yes, she's prepared to make those sacrifices, but I don't see her as an unhappy person.

Do you consider Tennison your 'signature' role? Do you feel proprietary toward it? Are you happy no one in this country has ever tried to play her?

Well, you know, I think many people have done versions of Jane Tennison. She's only a female police officer, after all, and we've had many of those. And each person who does that brings their own characteristic and their own personality to the role, and it becomes whatever it becomes. Jane Tennison just happens to be the one that I did. No, I don't feel proprietary towards it.

One of the reasons I stopped was that I felt I was becoming too identified with it, although I'd always done lots of other work in film and theater and television. But that's the price of success. It was the reason that I stepped away from it for seven years; I really didn't want to be knocked over by a car and have my obituary just talk about Prime Suspect.

How do you choose your roles?

You know, I don't choose my roles really; they choose me to a certain extent. You can only do what you're asked to do in the end. Of course all great roles have to do with conflict, without a question, whether it's internal or external conflict. And you know, I've played many, many, many different sort of roles in my career, which has been incredible fun.

I don't particularly see a theme there, you know. I usually try to play characters who appear in the last scene. (Laughs) Especially on the last page, that's the most important thing of all. If they're not on the last page, I think, "Hmm, I've better have a good look at this one..." So I always read scripts backwards. It's terrible.

Would you do another Prime Suspect?

This one is a hard act to follow. And I only want to follow it if we can find another script that's as strong and relevant as this one.

Helen Mirren: A Profile

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