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Prime Suspect 7

Helen Mirren: Tennison's Final Act

How did the role of Jane Tennison come to you originally?

Well, it came in the classic way actually, nothing at all out of the ordinary in that the script was sent to my agent. When I read it, I thought it was very interesting. Obviously it was a great role, but I certainly didn't realize at the time just how iconic it would become.

We had a wonderful director, and an incredible cast and all of those elements came together to make it work. Jane was undoubtedly a really, really great role and in the end it was about her and the script.

That first series was hailed as ground-breaking, a moment when barriers were broken down for women on screen. Did you see it that way?

It wasn't actually completely groundbreaking in the sense of having a female cop on television as you'd had Juliet Bravo before (a BBC crime drama that ran from 1980-1985) and of course Cagney and Lacey (a CBS television program, 1982-1988).

But I think certainly in terms of the issues that it dealt with, with it being a very realistic, very hard-hitting, dark kind of story -- that was what was ground-breaking.

The sexism within the police force really hit a nerve, and the show really caught the zeitgeist. Not just in terms of women within the police force, but of women in all professions that were traditionally perceived as the domain of men: women in the legal profession, in the medical profession, and in many different business environments. The setbacks they had all experienced were in some ways uniform, and suddenly being held up for everyone to see.

Jane Tennison has become one of television's most recognizable characters. How did you develop the character?

Lynda La Plante (writer of the first three Prime Suspect series) gave me a great piece of advice which at the time I was a bit taken aback by. She said, 'You're smiling too much, don't smile.' It's a very female thing to do, to smile, and charm people, and Lynda said, 'That's not Jane Tennison. She doesn't work that way,' and she was right. It was a wonderful piece of advice. For Tennison to try to beguile and charm people is wrong. She is strict and intimidating, and uses her smiles very, very carefully.

The other pieces of advice, given to me by a senior policewoman, were to never cry, and to never fold my arms. If you are a woman on the force, you don't cry, and if you're going to cry, you go and lock yourself in the loo when no one can see or hear you.

As for the folding of the arms... well, I took that quite literally. You can watch all 22 hours of Prime Suspect and I never fold my arms. It's a defensive act and while you might think folding your arms looks strong, you're actually putting up a barrier to defend yourself. The police are so into body language, they understand it absolutely perfectly. A good detective can read you easily. For Tennison to have used such basic body language in her own incident room would have betrayed her instantly.

How important was the physical look?

Well, obviously, it was important that I looked like a policewoman, and so the hair was an issue. I'd always had long, blonde hair, and the general feeling was that it should be cut as I knew policewomen didn't, and don't, run around with long flowing hair, as people can grab it. So if they have long hair it's either tied back, or it's short.

Lynda La Plante thought that mine should be cut and I was very happy to do it. So one day, at 6am, the wonderful Trevor Sorbie came to the set and chopped all my hair off!

Tennison has had an extraordinary career within the police force, and this has taken its toll on her as a person. How has Jane has changed over time?

Initially, Lynda had written a sort of selfish, self-obsessed, egotistical and untidy sort of person and that's what made, and still makes, her great. That's what initially made her an interesting character to play, without a doubt.

She's still all of those things, but of course, she has changed. There are really, really, profoundly disturbed people out there, and she's seen it all. No matter how strong a person is, facing those horrors is going to have an effect, and consequently she's now in a very precarious position psychologically.

That and the fact that she's older of course! I think the sheen has gone off her, you know? Her sense of drive and ambition has lessened and there is a greater sense of reality, and of cynicism perhaps.

Prime Suspect is renowned for its powerful, gritty storylines. Have any shocked you?

Yes, it was the second series I think. When the new owners of a new house began re-doing the garden, they found a dead body in a shallow grave. On further investigation, another body is discovered and I remember thinking at the time we were perhaps pushing it a bit. But very shortly thereafter the Rosemary and Fred West case hit the headlines. (For more about the infamous West crime, see the feature "Filming at the Old Bailey" at the Web site for The Jury.)

I realized that, while I may have thought we were taking the boundaries of a drama too far, real life can be even more horrific. And it was the fact that something so awful could be lurking behind the façade of a very ordinary looking little terrace house. I found that profoundly shocking.

After the fifth series, you suggested that you wouldn't do another Prime Suspect; what changed your mind?

Although I was in the very privileged position of being able to do theater and film projects in between each Prime Suspect, television is very powerful and can stick to you like glue. I did feel I was becoming too identified with Jane and I wanted to put an end to that.

Over the seven-year gap between series five and six, I was approached on a number of occasions but said no -- I just didn't feel I was ready. Then the producers came back to me at a time when I felt I had put enough distance between myself and the character. Not only had I got my own identity back as an actress, but the script was just so strong that I felt able to move forward.

Tell us about filming this last series...

You know, it's been great to be doing a piece with the director Philip Martin. London isn't just background in this installment. He has really taken the city and made it an intrinsic part of the life of the story, so much so that it's almost become another character, and it's been really wonderful to watch him do that.

I have had the incredible advantage and huge pleasure of working with very talented actors throughout the whole series. We have always had the same casting director, Doreen Jones, who has been with the series from the very beginning, and who has cast every single one. She is the most remarkable casting person and finds extraordinary talented people that in most cases no one has heard of. But as a result of this show they really make a mark.

Ralph Fiennes is a perfect example of her genius for casting... And there have been many, many more extraordinary actors involved as a result. I think that that's been my overall pleasure -- just getting to work with incredibly good actors.

Will you miss Jane?

I won't miss Jane in the short term but probably, as more time passes, I will.

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