Actress finds time for movies and the stage

During a rehearsal break for August Strindberg's play "Dance of Death," coming to Broadway Sept. 18, actress Helen Mirren walked over to a corner and sat down. She removed her shoes and closed her eyes. Someone attempted to ask her a question, but a stage manager shook his head, suggesting, "She's going over her lines."

No such thing. She was thinking of the wind blowing across a field of lavender near her cottage in Provence, France. She finds such mental pictures relaxing. At another time, it's the fog slowly lifting from the street outside a London flat belonging to Mirren and her husband, director Taylor Hackford.Or it might even be a recent memory of her sun-splashed garden at their Hollywood Hills home.

This penchant for being able to relax in the middle of extreme activity is a gift. What other actress would suggest a chat while jetting from Los Angeles to Toronto and continue it going through customs? Or how about questions and answers in an empty board of directors' room, so cold you could have hung meat in it?

Ms. Mirren and I have had conversations in both situations. But the funniest was when her hotel suite was so filled with flowers and friends that the only quiet place to tape an interview was in the bedroom. Sitting cross-legged in the center of the bed, she waved me over to talk about a variety of subjects, ranging from her Russian parents to her attending Britain's National Youth Theater as a young actress, and later, joining the Royal Shakespeare Company.

She talked about her continuing love for the stage. "It does accelerate one's spirits. Amazingly, I've made five movies over the past 15 months, so ["Dance of Death"] was a perfect time to get back to a live audience." The Broadway play, also starring fellow Brit Ian McKellen and American David Strathairn, will be staged at the Broadhurst Theatre.

One of the five films the Oscar-nominated actress has in release is "Greenfingers," in which she plays an expert horticulturist. It's the true story of a prison inmate who competes in a national gardening competition. "This was such a fun project with a young American director, Joel Hershman. He named my character Georgina Woodhouse and insisted at all times [that] I wear either a hat blossoming with flowers or a floral print dress."

Mirren went from flowers to freezing when she played a villain in the coming fantasy drama "No Such Thing," filmed in Iceland. Next, she was in London to star with Michael Caine in "Last Orders;" then to Canada to play William H. Macy's mother in the life-affirming drama "Door to Door" (airing next year on TNT), and director Robert Altman asked her to play the housekeeper in the murder-mystery "Gosford Park."

"My thing," she says smiling, "is I love to work. If it's a huge role, a cameo, or walk-on, that's OK if the script says something. I've always been this way. I don't like to sit around."

Mirren, who received an Emmy in 1996 for her role as police inspector Jane Tennison in the popular PBS miniseries "Prime Suspect," says she wouldn't mind playing Tennison again. "I called it quits when I was becoming too identified with the role. Now that time has elapsed, and the production company has changed hands. If the script was right, I might just say yes."

Perhaps at no other time was the actress's vivid imagination more at work than at her own wedding a few years ago. After eight years of togetherness, she and Mr. Hackford (who directed "Proof of Life" with Russell Crowe) found themselves in the same place, without family or business commitments.

His two sons were grown and attending college in the United States. He decided it was time for Helen and him to return to England. "I knew she longed to do the theater," Mr. Hackford says. "I felt it was my turn to join her in London, as she had me in Los Angeles. What a perfect time to get married!"

She agreed. Since they were going to be in Scotland, and they had an invitation to weekend at a castle, they decided to have family and close friends join them.

"It was New Year's Eve," she says, "and this part of Scotland was clear but cold. As I arrived at the church, many of the villagers whom I had met while shopping for flowers and food were braving the chill standing outside. I invited them in."

Hackford, wearing kilt and family crest, watched his bride enter, followed by the entire village. Suddenly, the ancient chapel was filled. Afterward, the owner of the castle picked them up in his Rolls and drove them to his regal estate.

"We got out of the car," Mirren recalls with eyes shining, "and walked across the bridge, singing and dancing. Even in winter, the evening sky was clear and star-filled. It felt as if we were living out a romantic sonnet."

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