As the Oscar-Winner Assumes a Queenly Role in D.C., It's Fair to Forecast Another Triumphant Reign

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Helen Mirren never went in much for prophecy and all that supernatural jazz, but as a self-conscious young actress in London, worried about making her way in one of the most unforgivingly judgmental businesses of all, she found herself in the Golders Green living room of a palm-reader from India. Though she'd later report that most of the session passed in a blur, one of his prognostications stayed with her long after -- and not because it gave her comfort.

The fortuneteller declared that while she would make it in show business, she'd have to wait a while. Her "greatest success," he told her, as she recalled in her 2007 memoir, "In the Frame," would come when she was older, "after the age of 45."

Perhaps the memory banks reserve a special compartment for predictions that really do come true. For no sooner did Mirren cross the threshold into her later 40s than began the most successful chapter of her acting life, starting with her portrayal on and off over the next 15 years of the uncannily intuitive yet emotionally stifled homicide investigator Jane Tennison.

At an age when most actresses -- beautiful ones like Mirren, particularly -- pass into the career phase of "Who are you, again?," the British stage mainstay and film actress bumped into true stardom. And she didn't even need a mole and a wand and a teaching post at Hogwarts to do it. Mirren's cerebral glamour, combined with the quality of the writing of "Prime Suspect," turned the gritty urban police procedural into a bona fide franchise, the sort of television event that created fresh buzz with each new installment.

So even though she had not always been a bankable name in this country -- at the advanced age of 38, for instance, she needed letters of recommendation from famous stage types to obtain her green card -- Mirren managed to avoid the problems of an actress's pesky middle years.

"I was lucky with 'Prime Suspect,' that it launched me through that era," Mirren says by telephone from her dressing room at the National Theatre in London, where she was finishing a summer-long run in Jean Racine's 17th-century drama "Phèdre." With co-stars Dominic Cooper and Margaret Tyzack, the production now begins its only American engagement, starting Thursday at Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall -- where Mirren also makes her Washington stage debut.

She's aware, she says, that "Prime Suspect's" Tennison was a leap forward in many ways, that the part compelled her to look at herself in the present. "A lot of actresses cut their own throats by trying to cling on to something they once were," she explains.

"It allowed me to grow up and grow older, grow into a different generation. And a lot of actresses don't have that possibility, when they're no longer young things."

Mirren is no young thing, having turned 64 in July. (She lives in Los Angeles and London with her husband, film director Taylor Hackford.) Through some combination of technique, work ethic and luck, however, she has parlayed the popularity she acquired on "Prime Suspect" into an asset, renewable, no doubt, into her dotage. In the meantime, she seems to work as much as she wants: She made four movies last year alone. And the exceptional parts have multiplied over the years. On top of a remarkable stage performance in 2003 in the National's revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Mourning Becomes Electra," there was the little matter of that turn as Elizabeth II in the unlikely 2006 screen hit, "The Queen," a role that earned Mirren, on her third nomination, an Oscar.

With "Phèdre," Racine's adaptation of the Euripides tragedy of yet another queen, one who falls in love with her stepson, Mirren returns to the theater, where her career began, and to another collaboration with the National's Nicholas Hytner, who directed her onstage in "Orpheus Descending" and opposite Nigel Hawthorne and Rupert Everett in the 1994 movie "The Madness of King George."

As proof of her drawing power, one has only to consult the Shakespeare Theatre Company box office: Tickets to the entire run of "Phèdre" sold out in four hours. And no one's crediting Racine.

Still, it would be an error, apparently, to assume that the theater holds some kind of romantic fascination for her, that it's all about the smell of the greasepaint, that because of her long association with it, it's the place she prefers to work.

"Not necessarily," she says, with emphasis. "I mean, all the different disciplines have their advantages and disadvantages, and it's great to be able to move between them. But no, the stage isn't where I long to be.

"Especially when I'm doing it," she adds with a laugh, "I wish I wasn't doing it."

Mirren, who's descended from Russian aristocracy -- her grandfather went from being a czarist military officer to, after the 1917 Revolution, a London cabbie -- cut her teeth as an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company. And from an early age, her sensual aura was one of the traits that got her noticed: It's no accident that she has been cast three times as Cleopatra, the quintessential classical temptress. While her appeal goes much deeper than skin, she's also aware of the powerful allure in her arsenal. As she notes about her life as a young actress in "In the Frame": "I had to overcome a toxic mix of great physical shyness and a palpable physical presence."

Whatever mixed feelings she harbors about the theater at this point in her life -- she declares her admiration for American actors, saying they are "brilliant" at "gutting it out, eight times a week" -- Mirren owes a lot to her training on the British stage. Although she's about a decade younger than Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith, her career harks back to the so-called golden age of British theater, when the RSC and the National, run by such heavyweights as Trevor Nunn and Peter Hall, were producing extraordinary work and grooming an entire generation of great actors, from Ian McKellen to Judi Dench.

"She has a tremendous hold on the stage, a tremendous sense of formal command," says Hytner, who in "King George" directed Mirren to her first Oscar nomination.

"For those who've only seen her on TV or film, who would think of her in the naturalistic tradition, they will find that she has available to her the grand manner. And I would see her great achievement in this role is to humanize this grand manner."

Mirren makes a point of carving out time for theater roles -- though this is her first in six years. (Her Broadway résumé is fairly thin; she's performed only in Turgenev's "A Month in the Country" in 1995 and in Strindberg's "Dance of Death" with McKellen in 2001.) It was her idea to do "Phèdre," even if it wasn't a project that had percolated up from some deep and long-held desire.

"Nick approached me, asking if I wanted to do something at the National," she says. "Off the top of my head, I said 'Phèdre.' I didn't know the play very well, but I figured, 'That's going to be a good part!' "

Hytner recalls, "We organized a reading for her, and after the reading of this translation [by the late British poet Ted Hughes], she became so enthusiastic." Hytner, who runs the National, signed on to direct, in large part for the chance to work with Mirren again. "She was, is and always will be a stage animal," he avers. "She keeps returning to the stage because, I have a hunch, she feels most at home here."

Taking a British production to the United States without a stop in New York is unusual, but not unheard of: During its multi-year relationship with the Kennedy Center earlier this decade, the RSC, for example, rarely included New York in its itinerary. "Phèdre" is coming, Hytner says, largely because the British ambassador, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, "is an old friend. We've known each other for 30 years and he had said that while he was posted in Washington, 'You have to bring something.' "

The notion appealed to Mirren. "One thinks of New York as a theater town; your ambition as an actor is always to play in New York," she says. "But I love Washington. I've visited it a few times and I find it an absolutely fascinating city. I did a [TV] pilot that was sort of based in Washington, and in the process of doing that pilot I got to meet a lot of Washington people. It's got an extreme mix of small-town psychology and global sort of influence. It's a very strange, fascinating place."

To this strange and influential city she is bringing the portrayal of a powerful woman of antiquity who lets her guard down and pays dearly for it. The antithesis of that contemporary English queen whose self-discipline and reserve she had to embody. " 'Phèdre' is all about self-indulgence and being riven by emotion -- it's a hopeless, desperate, pointless love. That's really what Racine is exploring. And the queen I saw and played wouldn't let her emotions take control."

Mirren didn't have to immerse herself in Greek drama or French theater for "Phèdre." She read some, she talked some. Largely, though, this is a character that emerges from within.

"Your research is your life," Mirren says, conclusively. "I tend to jump in at the deep end. That's kind of my modus operandi."

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