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Image: Irons and Mirren
Giles Keyte  /  AP
Jeremy Irons is the Earl of Leicester and Helen Mirren is Queen Elizabeth in the HBO miniseries "Elizabeth I."
updated 4/17/2006 6:42:12 PM ET 2006-04-17T22:42:12

Helen Mirren is a little conflicted about being a dame.

"My street cred is gone," laments the actress, best known as Detective Jane Tennison in the gritty PBS crime series "Prime Suspect."

The feminine equivalent of knighthood was bestowed on her by order of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in 2003, conjuring up images of "female impersonators" or "something from 'Guys and Dolls,'" laughs Mirren.

Professionally, however, Mirren's royal status has advanced far beyond the damehood level.

She plays the 16th-century queen in the two-part miniseries "Elizabeth I," premiering on HBO Saturday at 8 p.m. EDT. Later this year, she'll be seen as the current Elizabeth II in the feature film "The Queen," which takes place in the days following Princess Diana's death.

"They both came to the throne at 25. They both shared this absolute, total, disciplined, dedicated sense of duty to their role as monarch," Mirren said, as she talked over a cup of tea at a local hotel.

But that's where the royal similarities probably end.

Through research, Mirren discovered the mercurial Elizabeth I was "an incredibly passionate woman, a woman who could be so angry that she literally fainted with anger, and at the same time could laugh so hard, especially at vulgar comedy, that she fell off her chair ... She out-Cleo'd Cleopatra."

Elizabeth II tends to be more refined, of course.

Numerous actresses, including Bette Davis, Glenda Jackson and Cate Blanchett, have played Elizabeth I. Mirren says her favorite is Miranda Richardson's parody in "Black Adder."

"Elizabeth I" focuses on the virgin queen's two romantic passions — her heartfelt love for the Earl of Leicester (played by Jeremy Irons) and her tragic dalliance with the much younger Earl of Essex (Hugh Dancy).

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At an earlier news conference, Mirren, 60, had joked with Dancy about how "mortified" she felt in a love scene "when we were romping around on the cushions and you were pretending to be excited about it, with a terrible old woman underneath you."

Glancing over at the sleek and sophisticated Mirren — with her blonde bobbed hair and striking figure — Dancy had no problem sounding sincere when he said, "I didn't think of it that way!"

Scripted by Nigel Williams, the miniseries uses many of the intellectual monarch's own words. England's Palace of Whitehall was re-created in Lithuania inside a Soviet-era concrete gymnasium.

"It was this amazing set, all in one piece so you could walk from one room to another," says Mirren, describing the juxtaposition of the private and the public — the "almost erotic" atmosphere of the queen's bedroom being right next to the political council chamber.

She also has great praise for the costumes, designed by Mike O'Neill.

"The older she got, the more extreme they got and the lower cut. Funnily enough, there's a lot of talk about her baring her bosom," laughs Mirren, who has never shied away from playing nude scenes, but doesn't have to go that far this time.

Mirren looks at the two portraits of Elizabeth considered to be most true to life.

"Very beaky nose, long thin face, very deep set eyes. Not pretty, but definitely imposing," Mirren observes. "I'm sure she was extremely charismatic. Fun. She was fun ... a great giggler."

Elizabeth II wasn't on duty when Mirren was dubbed a dame — Prince Charles did the honors — but Mirren once met the monarch briefly at a polo match.

"It was a great place to meet because she was in her element," the actress recalls. "She's very charming. Sparkling. People don't see that ... she's just not interested in smiling when she doesn't have reason to smile."

Elizabeth II reportedly enjoyed "Elizabeth I" when it aired on Britain's Channel 4 and she requested a video cassette of the miniseries.

"She apparently hadn't got a DVD," says Mirren. "That's so classic her."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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