Helen Mirren Assumes a Queenly Role at Shakespeare Theatre

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009; 11:50 AM

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.

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