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Helen Mirren returns to ‘Prime Suspect’

It's been seven years since the actress has played detective; she returns in ‘Prime Suspect: The Last Witness.’
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ageism. Sexism. Frustration, fatigue and crazy-making pressure. Jane Tennison knows them all. More than ever.

She was never a blithe spirit. But now, with her return in “Prime Suspect: The Last Witness,” London’s crime-fighting universe where Tennison slogs it out is even darker than before. As is she.

“Time’s running out,” says Helen Mirren, who, in her sixth “Prime Suspect” turn, plays Tennison masterfully, like always — a chilly blend of angst, vulnerability and pique. But this time, there’s a fresh dash of dread.

No wonder. Tennison, though she’s been promoted from inspector to detective superintendent in the London Metropolitan Police and oversees dozens of investigations, is now being pressed at age 54 to take early retirement.

Then a particularly lurid case presents itself: the murder-by-torture of a young Bosnian Muslim woman. Tennison’s gut tells her there’s something bigger and even more sinister going on. She decides to seize the case for myself, in a campaign to reassert her worth to the higher-ups. And woe be to any underling who gets in her way.

“It would be a huge miscalculation to try to undermine my authority,” Tennison, now reduced to bullying, seethes to one of her detectives.

The four-hour drama airs Sunday and April 25 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

An indelible characterMirren, 58, first appeared as Tennison — a woman seeking respect in the toughest of men’s worlds — on “Masterpiece Theatre” in 1992. Since then, the quality of her evolving portrayal has spoken for itself.

As indeed it must. Mirren says she can’t.

“I don’t know anything about the character, quite honestly,” she insists over lunch during a recent Manhattan visit.

“Many other roles, you have to study. You have to think. But with Tennison, I don’t think about it, I just let it happen. I don’t make any prejudgments. That may be partly why it works. Otherwise, the performance would be self-conscious and calculating.

“I’m not like this character, thank God,” says Mirren with a laugh. “But I allow her to visit me.”

So why did it take so long (seven years) for her to let Tennison revisit her for a new “Prime Suspect”?

“I made sure the door was left open for another one,” says Mirren, “and every year they said, ‘Would you like to do it?’ I decided seven years is long enough.

“But still, I didn’t want a new film to appear to be an afterthought, as if we were just cashing in. And script development is so difficult!”

One key issue: Where, after all this time, should Tennison be in the police hierarchy?

There was thought given to handing her the top spot as commander. But no. “That’s too political a position” for someone with Tennison’s maverick, abrasive style, Mirren notes.

Still pondering whether to get on board, she looked at several script treatments. She gave her OK to one by Peter Berry (“The Luzhin Defence”), who was thus entrusted to write a script moving forward the world of “Prime Suspect” creator Lynda LaPlante. (The first two “Prime Suspect” editions, which LaPlante wrote, will encore on “Masterpiece Theatre” in May.)

“By then, you’re sucked in,” says Mirren, admitting she’s sucked in for “probably one more after this. They’ve sent me a story line that’s so wonderful.”

One fine dame
A native of Chiswick, England, Mirren visited Buckingham Palace for a ceremony tapping her a dame of the British Empire last June.

“It was fun to go,” she says, “and now I’m hoping everybody’s gonna forget about it.”

Meanwhile, Dame Helen lives in Los Angeles with her husband, director Taylor Hackford.

“I’ve become so Americanized, I use one utensil,” she says as she tucks into her Cobb salad.

How’s that? She is happy to demonstrate. The British way: fork in her left hand, knife in her right, working in tandem. The American way: the fork in her right hand just playing it solo.

“I’m a one-utensil eater and I love it!” crows Mirren.

But with Mirren, versatility is beyond dispute, and not just with silverware.

From glamorous to dowdy, from libertine to prim, she has tackled roles as varied as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra on stage and Ayn Rand in a Showtime film (which won her an Emmy). Her films range from “Caligula” and “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” to “Gosford Park” and last year’s comedy “Calendar Girls.”

Any common denominators?

“Uhhhh, every job is different,” she sighs. “And every job, when you first get on the set, you feel terrible and useless and you think everybody else is brilliant.”

But once you’ve gotten to a certain point in life, she chuckles, co-existing with other actors isn’t quite that hard. “There are fewer of you left.”