Likely suspects for a prime job

Who will play DCI Jane Tennison in a US adaptation of the hit British police drama? Gerard Gilbert examines the evidence
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The Independent Culture

So they're finally going to make an American version of one of Britain's greatest cop shows, Prime Suspect.

This story has been around for aeons, usually with a sub-textual indignation that Hollywood would never re-cast Helen Mirren in the role she made her own, DCI (later DS) Jane Tennison, and that it would go to some younger and undeserving A-lister of the moment – Kirsten Dunst (actually not a bad choice) or Julia Roberts (a terrible one). Except it's not now going to be Prime Suspect: the Movie, but an NBC television series adapted by the executive-producer of Without a Trace – a US cop show with a terrific USP. And what's the USP of Prime Suspect? Helen Mirren. We're going round in circles here.

Dame Helen wouldn't want the role anyway. These TV shows take six months out of an actor's year, and after the international success of The Queen she's probably more interested in less arduous and more financially rewarding movie roles. And besides, Mirren really is too old for the part. Most of our favourite detectives – Morse, Frost, DCI Barnaby – in reality probably would have retired in their mid-forties, perhaps on some generously interpreted disability pension. Policing is a young woman's game.

But this is TV and my first casting thoughts turn to Laura Linney, a hugely versatile American who has been quietly amassing Emmy awards and Oscar nominations since the turn of the century. At 45, she is bang on the money age-wise. Mind you, the lead actress wouldn't necessarily have to be American. In fact, being a local seems to be a distinct disadvantage these days, to judge by the volume of British, Australian and Canadian actresses taking the plum roles on US TV. But assuming (and it's an unsafe assumption given that this is NBC remaking the show, not HBO) they stick to the original and keep Tennison as a heavy smoker, the producers are going to have to find someone who doesn't mind clasping a death-stick between her lips.

Mary-Louise Parker has been rolling big fat ones for the past five years as the dope-dealing soccer mom in Weeds, but when it comes to inhaling tobacco, I'm thinking Mad Men... I'm thinking January Jones (sorry, couldn't help myself). Actually, the actress playing Don Draper's trophy wife Betty would look too thoroughbred for the role – it would be like Grace Kelly appearing in I Love Lucy. Sure, Helen Mirren scrubbed down nicely, but I don't think January Jones can be scrubbed down. She's like the proverbial stick of Blackpool rock, except with Elizabeth Arden written all the way through her.

No, my Mad Men actress of choice would be Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy Olson, the ambitious Sterling Cooper copywriter who knows all about sexism in the workplace. But why give up a once-in-a-lifetime show like Mad Men for a two-hour pilot of a show that might never see the light of the day? Well, for a peach of a starring role, of course.

And this is what might tempt the aforementioned A-listers. After all, it's no longer career-destroying to step down from the big screen to the small one. More and more Hollywood actresses are doing it, especially after their 30th birthdays. So we want someone with bags of experience, someone who can really act, someone who we can all applaud for being brave enough to play down their natural glamour, and someone who doesn't mind risking their image by binning the make-up and playing a hard-bitten, alcoholic smoker. Oh go on, Dame Helen, phone your agent.