With her still countenance, her demure doe's eyes and her well-placed beauty marks, Helen Mirren has cultivated an image of sheer British grace.
She's got that BBC-PBS thing happening. But how easy it is to overlook the reality of Ms. Mirren's rather risque resume, a roster of intense and uncomfortable films that range from the taboo-ridden "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" and the doomish "Cal" back to the high-porno lows of Bob Guccione's "Caligula" in 1980. With all her dignified and delicate airs, Ms. Mirren, 48, is no Staid Suzie.
Most visible among Ms. Mirren's grittier work is her beloved Emmy-winning PBS TV series "Prime Suspect," in which she plays Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison with a razorlike will and a steely ambition. Forget about her 20-plus movie roles, including "The Mosquito Coast" with Harrison Ford and "Pascali's Island" with Ben Kingsley. Ms. Mirren was virtually ignored by the American limelight until she downsized to the small screen in 1992. Now, the blond actress is approached by "Prime Suspect" fans on the sidewalks of Hollywood as well as London, the two towns between which she splits her time.
Her taste in roles
Ms. Mirren's adventurous taste in roles has most recently led her to a bold 18th-century comedy called "The Madness of King George." Taken from a London stage hit that toured the United States in 1993, the ironic film follows George III's journey into giddy insanity -- a view of a monarchy in disarray that drips with neat present-day parallels. Ms. Mirren, who has no children herself, plays George's German-born queen, Charlotte, the fierce mother of no fewer than 15 children.
"Once you get on a roll, I guess . . . ," Ms. Mirren jokes, on the telephone from Los Angeles, about her character's fertility. Her droll, deadpan humor recalls her acting style: restrained, never in your face, there to be looked into.
She says she was drawn to "King George," in which her role is peripheral, because she likes making the kind of "idiosyncratic and a bit off-the-wall" movies that she'd choose to see. Also, she wanted to counteract the "power suits" of Jane Tennison of "Prime Suspect" with some frilly royal garb: "I thought it would be great to do a costume drama that kind of blew that away a little bit," she says.
Such shifts are characteristic of Ms. Mirren's career, which began on the stage in the 1960s at the British National Youth Theatre. Not only does she leap from the artsy to the mainstream, but she likes to wander from movies to TV to the stage and back. Last year alone, she made "King George," filmed three more episodes of "Prime Suspect" (to be aired on PBS in late '95 or early '96) and starred in a West End production of Turgenev's "A Month in the Country," which she will resurrect on Broadway in April.
"It's a luxury we have in Europe that doesn't exist in America," she says. "It's opening up here, but it's still fairly separated: You're a TV actor or a theater actor or a film actor, and you're not allowed to travel between the three."
America and Europe
Ms. Mirren is acutely aware of the differences between acting in America and in Europe. Because she lives in Los Angeles with director Taylor Hackford ("An Officer and a Gentleman"), but works mostly in England, she prides herself on her perspective.
"You become conscious of the fact that 'There is a world elsewhere,' " she says, quoting Shakespeare's Coriolanus. She reports that British actors have a Fun Ethic missing when they work in the States.
"In England, laughter is part of working. Which it doesn't seem to be in America. Being an actor seems to be a frightfully serious business here. It's not as though we don't take it incredibly seriously in England. We take it far more seriously in a way than a lot of American actors, because we give up more for it. We get paid much less and work in more difficult circumstances."
Ironically, working on Peter Greenaway's artsy-gross-out movie "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," in which she was the wife of a sadist and had to film a scene among pig carcasses and maggots, was among her jolliest shoots.
"It's what in Ireland they call the crack. 'The crack was great on that film, and I spent every day in fits of laughter.' We were a little band of people who'd had the courage to make the movie.
"We were the actors who'd said yes, as opposed to the actors who'd said, 'You must be joking.' I couldn't wait to get on the set. More mainstream movies are often a nightmare to do. Nobody laughs, they're all so paranoid. They can't look you in the eye, you can't make a joke; if you make a joke they look at you like you're something the cat brought in."
She is also high on the filming of "King George," which stars Nigel Hawthorne as the king remembered for losing the American Colonies.
"We laughed all day long on that set." While critics are making analogies between broken British monarchies then and now, Ms. Mirren has a different take: "The monarch that we're talking about in 'King George' is a far more powerful person than the present-day monarch. To me, it's more the story of what would happen if the president of the U.S. went mad. As indeed, in my book, a few of them have. In recent history, I might add. Maybe Alzheimer's came on earlier than we think."