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No-frills Helen Mirren

The actress is stripped of her usual glamour in PBS’ ”Mystery! Prime Suspect”

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Naked. Helen Mirren had scrubbed her face naked of all makeup to play Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison last year in Prime Suspect on PBS’ Mystery! Now she’s about to return in Prime Suspect 2, and you just know that critics are once again going to ooh and aah about the daring of her naked face.

Which is pretty funny, if you think about it. Because in more than two decades of richly varied work — with the Royal Shakespeare Company, in countless BBC productions, and in such idiosyncratic and under-commercial films as The Long Good Friday, White Nights, Pascali’s Island, and, for heaven’s sake, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, where she engaged in frank sex and stood around frontally bare for minutes on end — well, audiences have seen Helen Mirren totally, completely naked throughout her career.

But not like this. Oh, no. Never so plain and tired, so grim and determined and vulnerable.

When it first aired, the taut, whip-smart British police drama by Lynda La Plante — about a tough New Girl boss who battles sexism to head up a squad of Old Boy cops — pumped a dose of bracing new blood into the sometimes anemic public-TV anthology series, and the drama showed up on many critical 10-best lists for 1992. Most of those critics singled out Mirren’s intelligence, her magnetism. And most fixed on her courage: to chop her hair short. To clip her fingernails clean. To button up in plainly tailored dress-for-camouflage suits. And to let the camera pull in close on her bare, frankly 40-plus features, garlanded in cigarette smoke.

”Oh yes,” says the London-born actress, crumbling rolls at a posh New York restaurant recently, ”I’ve got a strange and eclectic body of work. To have done The Cook, the Thief and then gone to Prime Suspect is not the kind of normal career that people have.”

It is, however, a normal Mirren career move, and there’s more to come. Following a rebroadcast of Prime Suspect on Mystery! for three weeks starting Jan. 21, Prime Suspect 2 will air in four parts on Thursdays at 9 p.m., beginning Feb. 11; a third Jane Tennison drama with Mirren heads into production this summer. In the meanwhile, Mirren has completed work on The Hawk, a theatrical movie thriller (due out in England this spring) about a woman who suspects that her husband may be a serial killer. She will soon be seen in an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre. And she has also carved out time to relax in Los Angeles, her home six months out of the year, where she lives with her companion of eight years, American director Taylor Hackford, 48 (An Officer and a Gentleman).

”I knew absolutely that the role (of Jane Tennison) would change my image,” says Mirren, 47. ”And I wanted that. Because, you know, you grow up. You can slowly find yourself in an area that you can’t come back from. I recognize that this is a wonderful role to take me as an actress into my next generation of roles.”

”I told Helen, ‘I dare you to go for it!”’ says Lynda La Plante, who is now writing the script for the third Prime Suspect drama. ”Helen is quite capable of playing a very exotic, sensual woman — but she had never been seen doing this kind of woman. She didn’t care that she looked wrecked. She went for it. You know, when she first walked in to meet me, she had long blond hair. And she said, ‘It’s all right. It’s coming off.”’

Mirren was born Ilynea Lydia Mironoff, the daughter of an English mother and a Russian father. She began her career at London’s National Youth Theatre at age 18 and has always worked her own way, mixing contemporary and classical theater productions and television and film. She has always lived her own way, too, choosing a life of independence over marriage or children.

”It may be unconventional, but it is definitely sensible,” she says. The sensible independence has entailed a succession of love affairs, including a onetime relationship with Irish actor Liam Neeson, which has subsided into warm friendship. Her blessing: ”He’s one of the more gracious people that walk this earth.”

”Sometimes I’ve had the feeling that maybe I was a bit out of step with the rest of the world,” Mirren continues. ”But as I’ve gone through life and watched people who are dear friends get married (and then get divorced), I think, my God, I’ve actually had my head screwed on all along. I’ve always said I’m not opposed to marriage, but I am opposed to divorce. I’ve never had the confidence to look at someone and say, ‘I will live with you for the rest of my life.’ Never. I think it is a sad manifestation of our times that (such commitment) has become a thing of the past.”

Her own relationship with Hackford, whom she met during her work with Mikhail Baryshnikov in Hackford’s 1985 film, White Nights, has its advantages. While the director prefers discreet silence about their life, Mirren is slightly — just slightly — more forthcoming. ”I think ours is the kind of relationship that people are more and more having to deal with. If you want to be successful in business, for men or women, you have to travel quite a lot.” At home in Los Angeles, she gardens, shops, drinks tea, entertains. ”I always say I live in America and work in Europe.” She also maintains an apartment in London and a house — often used by her sister, her nephew, other members of her family — in the South of France.

If you look closely, you can sometimes see the memento of a long-ago visit to an Indian reservation in Minnesota — a small hieroglyphic tattoo between the thumb and forefinger of Mirren’s right hand. ”When I got it, only criminals and sailors got tattoos, and I loved it for that reason,” she says. ”It shows I’ve done time, you know. I can always make up a story: ‘Well, I was a bad girl in my past.”’ Mirren smiles, very sly. Sometimes, she says, people admit they are frightened of her. And she swears she doesn’t know why. ”I never shout at anyone. I think of myself as a wimpy little mouse, you know.”

The wimpy-mouse conceit makes La Plante laugh. ”I’ve never met a man who hasn’t swooned over her. When she walks into a room you know that Helen Mirren has walked into the room.” Mirren picks at her buttered roll and shrugs off artifice. ”This (Prime Suspect) role says: ‘This is me. This is how I look now. Here I am.”’

Stare as much as you want. Helen Mirren doesn’t mind.