Dame Helen Mirren: ‘I came of age as an actor in Prime Suspect’

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Dame Helen Mirren in ‘Prime Suspect’.

Oscar-winning actress, Dame Helen Mirren talks to www.theluvvie.com about Prime Suspect, a television series during which she says she came of age as an actor.

Dame Helen Mirren began her acting career with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967, and is one of the few performers to have achieved the triple crown of acting, having won the Academy Award for best actress in 2007, (as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen), an Olivier Award for best actress in 2013 (for her West End performance in The Audience, in which she also played Elizabeth II), and a 2015 Tony Award for best actress for her Broadway performance in the same play.

Mirren has also won three consecutive BAFTA Awards for best actress and her first of several Emmy Awards in 1996 for her performance as police detective Jane Tennison in the TV series Prime Suspect, presently on ITV Choice (DStv channel 123) on Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm.

The three series will run concurrently with two episodes back to back for a two hour slot.
Despite her impressive list of film and theatre roles prior to Prime Suspect, it was in the 1990s, she says, that she came of age as an actress with her role as DCI Tennison in that series – a character she would pick up over and again for a decade and a half.

Through those years, she really feels she learnt about acting for the screen.

Her characterisation has set the example for female leads in drama – single-minded and thorough – but flawed. Without Jane Tennison it seems there wouldn’t have been a Carrie Mathison in Homeland, no Vera Stanhope in Vera and no Annelise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder.

Sofie Grabol, who played Sarah Lund in The Killing, when asked whether she was inspired by any other performances said, “Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect. It was so well acted.”

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Dame Helen Mirren.

Mirren is quick to deflect any praise onto others, primarily writer Lynda La Plante, not only for creating such a perfectly complex character but for that implacable demeanour that was so recognisably Jane Tennison.

“After the first week of shooting, Lynda came up to me and said ’You’re smiling too much. Don’t smile,’ and I thought, she’s absolutely right. One was used, as a woman, to making people feel at ease. But Jane Tennison was, ‘No, give it to me.’

“The other great thing I learnt from a policewoman was to never fold your arms, because folding your arms is defensive. And the other thing she said, and it’s absolutely true, ‘Touch people’. Politicians, especially in big summit conferences, they’re all vying with each other to be the first one to touch the other one, because then they’ve got the initiative and the other one becomes the lower one.”

For Mirren personally, Prime Suspect had huge consequences; she got the chance to play Elizabeth II in The Queen for which she won a best actress Oscar.

“It came about because of Andy Harries, who was the producer of the last Prime Suspect,” she recalls. “We were having our first read through, and when you’ve got a big cast like that, I always try to get there first so I can greet people as they come in and just be friendly.

“The cast started coming in and I’d be going up and saying hello to people. Andy says he was sitting there thinking, ‘It’s like people meeting the Queen,’ and then he thought, ‘and she looks a bit like the Queen, too’. And then, he said to me: ‘We should do a film about the Queen.”

And the rest – as they say – is history!

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The cast of ‘Ptime Suspect: Tennison’, which will be screened on ITV Choice.

In what’s been billed as “a prequel to Prime Suspect”, a brand new series, titled Prime Suspect: Tennison has been scheduled for ITV Choice on Thursday, April 6 at 8pm, very soon after it premieres in the UK.

Written by Prime Suspect creator Lynda La Plante, and based on her book Tennison, the six part prequel series will reveal how Tennison became such a complex and formidable character in the Metropolitan Police.

Starring Stefanie Martin (Doctor Thorne) as the young Jane Tennison , the series is set in 1970s at a time when  women police constables are being uneasily ‘integrated’ into the force. We’re introduced to 22-year-old Jane, a probationary officer in a world where high-ranking police officers were notoriously chauvinistic and the rules and regulations often bent.

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