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Mirren pushes herself to find fresh roles

Britannia Award for artistic excellence in int'l entertainment

Few actors move as easily as Helen Mirren across genres, media and continents.

In 2004 alone, she appeared in projects as varied as U.S. indie “The Clearing” and the mainstream romantic comedy “Raising Helen.” While many actors find themselves repeating the same kinds of roles in the same kinds of films, Mirren dares where others fear to tread by taking parts in films as controversial as “Caligula” and the nuanced television series “Prime Suspect.”

“I have always made a big effort to do things that scare the shit out of me, things that I’m not really sure if I can do at all,” says Mirren, recipient of the Britannia Award for artistic excellence in international entertainment. “Then when I’m working I seem to live in constant terror of what I’m about to do. I just try to do something like that and then just wait to find the next thing that’s good.”

Though the actress is known for her fearless choices and rich, moving performances, she admits that she’s never sure how it will all turn out when she decides to make a film. “It’s always a bit of a crap shoot and the only thing that seems to work is if it’s a great script,” Mirren says. “You never know whether something is going to be completely embarrassing or whether it will win you awards. But if the script is good it all seems to work out.”

While Mirren, who lives in L.A. with husband American director Taylor Hackford, is a veteran of nearly 80 features and chooses her projects with considerable care, she’s not shy about working on a character or a script until she feels it’s right.

“Often with female characters you find that they’re these sort of script creatures that don’t exist in real life at all and they’re just there as a plot point for the male character to make him look brave or sensitive or something like that,” Mirren says. “So the script will require some tweaking between you and the director and the writer, and good directors are always open to that because they want their characters to be humanized.”

By all accounts, helmers appreciate this kind of careful attention to the script and desire to collaborate on the direction of the film. “She does drama, com-edy, plus Shakespeare and the classics, yet you always know she can be hot and sexy on cue,” says director Garry Marshall, who worked with Mirren on “Raising Helen” earlier this year. “It was a great learning process for me to work with her.”

Donald Haber, executive director of the British Academy of Film & Television Arts/LA, believes Mirren was a clear choice for this year’s Britannia Award for artistic excellence in international entertainment for many of the same reasons.

“There’s a centuries-old tradition with British actors of attention to craft and real respect for their profession and for the work that actors do and Helen Mirren exemplifies that work ethic and that deep reverence for her art,” says Haber. “There really isn’t anything she can’t do in this profession.”

Mirren will admit to enjoying many of the awards bestowed upon her over the years, but there was one that she hesitated to accept. Mirren, the daughter of a Russian nobleman who came to England during the Russian Revolution, was reluctant to take the title dame. “I think I resisted it initially as the daughter of an immigrant who saw things from the outside and felt like an outsider growing up,” Mirren reveals. “But eventually I gave into it. My parents aren’t here anymore but I knew they would have just be so proud of that so it seemed the right thing to do.”

In 2005, Mirren will once again move into unfamiliar territory as she plays the part of an assassin for the film “Shadowboxer.” The preparation for this film brought Mirren to another unusual experience. “I was fascinated by the process of learning to shoot a gun,” Mirren says. “It was something I always thought I’d be good at for some reason and I was. I love that moment of focusing on the target and then just letting go. It’s a great metaphor for acting.”

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