UK Actress | Born Helen Mironoff in Hammersmith, London, England, 26 July 1945
Helen Mirren is probably best known to American television audiences as Inspector Jane Tennison, the complicated and obsessive homicide and vice detective of Prime Suspect. But Mirren, who began her acting career playing Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth in Royal Shakespeare Company productions of the 1960s and 1970s, has appeared in over thirty productions for British, Australian, and American television. These have included film or taped versions of Royal Shakespeare productions, original television plays and dramatic adaptations of literary classics (e.g., the BBC’s serialization of Balzac’s Cousin Bette, which eventually appeared on American PBS’s Masterpiece Theater) produced by Grenada, Thames, and other companies for the BBC, ITV, and Channel Four in Britain, and such American television series as Twilight Zone (the 1980s version) and The Hidden Room (Lifetime cable production). The British stage training Mirren received in her teens and twenties encouraged her embracement of diverse roles and risky projects on stage, television, and screen (including a couple of notorious X-rated European art films). As with many such classically trained British actors, her breath-taking acting range and frequent appearances in every dramatic media made stardom elusive.
Prime Suspect, first aired on British television in 1991, finally made this 25 year acting veteran an important international star. When it was broadcast on the American PBS series Mystery! in 1992, it became that show’s highest rated program, won an Emmy, and made Mirren, according to some television journalists and executives, PBS’s “pinup woman” of the decade. Three Prime Suspect miniseries have followed and the American film company Universal is working with Britain’s Grenada Productions on a theatrical film featuring Inspector Tennison (rumors are that Mirren is considered too old to attract a wide audience to film, so another actress will probably be cast).
Critical consensus attributes the success of the television series to the collaboration of Mirren and writer Lynda LaPlante, who created Jane Tennison as a composite of several female police detectives she interviewed. LaPlante did not want to compromise their integrity by making Tennison’s character too “soft,” so she considered casting critical to the success of her vision of the character and these professional women. LaPlante found Mirren had the kind of presence and “great weight” she believed crucial to the character: “[Mirren’s] not physically heavy, but she has a strength inside her that is unusual. . . There’s a stillness to her, a great tension and intelligence in her face.”
Mirren has claimed that she likes Tennison because she is “unlikeable.” The complexity of Mirren’s performance resides in how she conveys this unlikeability while still making us sympathetic to Tennison’s ideals and vulnerability. The character is clearly discriminated against because of her sex–and she knows it–but her own behaviour, especially in personal relationships is not beyond reproach. The tension LaPlante admires in Mirren’s face also permeates the stiff posture Mirren adopts for the character, the quick pace of her walk, the intense drags she takes on a cigarette, the determination of her gum-chewing. Tennison, that unlikeable sympathetic character is given life in Mirren’s world-weary eyes, which do not betray emotion to her colleagues–except when she lashes out in often justifiable anger. But in private, the eyes express the losses suffered by a successful woman in a masculine public sphere. Although American and British television made strides in the 1980s and 1990s in depicting strong, complex women in law enforcement, for many viewers and critics, Mirren’s performance finally enabled “a real contemporary woman [to break] through the skin of television’s complacency.”
Mirren’s stock is now higher than ever thanks to her double roles as Queen Elizabeth the first in Eliabeth I (for which she won an Emmy and for playing Queen Elizabeth the second in The Queen (for which she won an Oscar). -Mary Desjardins