Nudity No 'Big Deal' For Dame Helen

Morley Safer Profiles Award-Winning Actress Dame Helen Mirren

This segment was originally broadcast on Jan. 7, 2007. It was updated on Aug. 3, 2007.

Dame Helen Mirren, the 62-year-old British actress, won acclaim this year for her three memorable performances as Queen Elizabeth I, as a troubled police detective and as Elizabeth II in the movie "The Queen," an account of the crisis that enveloped Buckingham Palace in the week following the death of Princess Diana.

For that role she won both an Academy Award and Golden Globe for best actress.

Dame Helen can fairly be described as a great trouper in the grand tradition – classical theatre, questionable movies that required nudity as much as they did talent, and memorable television roles. But as correspondent Morley Safer reports, her specialty is playing formidable women, women of great power, women with great flaws.

She plays women like Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the reigning queen of England. And with equal ease, Mirren became Elizabeth I and dominated every scene, much the way this Elizabeth dominated her realm.

These women may appear to be made of tempered steel but Mirren disagrees. Speaking about Elizabeth I, Mirren comments, "Vulnerable, stupid, silly …. Made such ridiculous mistakes."

"And a tempestuous person, a very vulnerable personality," Mirren points out. "Bursting into tears one minute, throwing her shoes the next minute."

Elizabeth I, says Mirren, was a very volatile personality. "Not steel at all. And I think that that's what makes any character interesting, is their vulnerability, their fear, their insecurities."

But the most flawed of Mirren's strong characters is Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison of the cult television series "Prime Suspect." She plays a tenacious single cop with a long, impeccable list of bad habits, including heavy drinking and sleeping with the wrong people.

Mirren plays her with a total absence of vanity, especially in the very last installment of "Prime Suspect."

"You look like crap. You're hung over. You know you've done something naughty the night before but you can't even remember who you did it with," Safer remarks. "You have a shot of vodka for breakfast."

"Well, to get through the day," Mirren says.

"And then things start going badly," Safer continues.

"And then they go downhill from there, that's right," she agrees.

Tennison is known for getting even with men, especially the chauvinist cops who blocked her promotion. In the series, she uses words as if they were bullets.

"Was the opportunity to play a role in which a woman treats men like dirt…," Safer asks.

"Not all men," Mirren objects. "No, she doesn't treat all men like dirt. You know Morley that's, now I think that's a bit of a sexist remark."

"If a male is messing up, she's unafraid of saying so," Mirren explains.

Famous People And The Stars Who Bring Them To Life
Photo: Helen Mirren
Mirren's Tennison never uses what used to be called feminine wiles. There's no sweetness, no light. "As a woman, you're used to getting your own way or asking for things with a smile, you know. 'Would you mind?' 'Is it ok?' You know, 'Morley, could you?' You know," Mirren says.

"Of course," Safer agrees.

"Instead of saying, 'Morley, go get that for me,'" Mirren says.

But how much Jane Tennison is in Helen Mirren? One critic said, 'She's all about sex and domination. Part submissive, vulnerable and yet invincible. Pretty good.'"

"Very accurate," Mirren agrees, laughing. "Now that is kind of true. I think there is great truth in that."

Those are the roles that are written for her but Mirren says she chooses them.

"Well, I don't choose them, they come my way and I don't say no," she adds.

"You make them into submissive, vulnerable, yet invincible, correct?" Safer asks.

"Maybe. I mean that's not conscious, Morley, I mean I'm not conscious like that. One isn't. You just do, you do what seems right at that second," she explains.

When Mirren started in theater, her goal was to be a great classical actor. Originally, Mirren says, she was inspired by Shakespeare.

Asked if she was inspired by the language of his writing, Mirren tells Safer, "The language, but really more the stories, the characters, the imaginative world that these people lived in that were just so much more exciting than the dull, little world that I lived in Southend on Sea, Essex, the armpit of England."