INTERVIEW / Oh, to be over there and overpaid: Here, she's highly acclaimed; in Hollywood she's nobody. How can they snub Helen Mirren?

She was on the phone as we entered her flat, talking to some girl friend. 'Must go, I've got six men here.'

Ooh, the girl friend replied, what sort? Miss Mirren eyed us up. 'All sorts,' she said. 'One's an intellectual, one an artist, and four handymen.'

There were indeed four workmen in her Battersea flat, laying a new floor, plus the photographer and me. Never been called an intellectual before - if, of course, she was referring to me. I did have my specs on at the time. Or perhaps one of the floor layers had a PhD.

'I think the perfect man would be a combination,' she said, putting down the phone. 'Let's say one-eighth intellectual, one-quarter artistic and the rest handyman. I am a handyman myself. I love my electric drill. I love working with my hands. I built a boat once. It's just like making a shirt, you work from a pattern. I only wish I had a garden so I could have a tool shed. Oh, I'd so love my own tool shed. I did live with a handyman once, which was a bit difficult. I had to hold back and let him do little jobs. It would have been hurtful, otherwise, doing it better than him. Coffee, hmm?'

Helen Mirren is not like she was in Prime Suspect. For a start, she looks younger, more attractive, which cannot always be said about actors or actresses in the flesh. Nor does she appear dominant and tough. She's a bit of a tease, while at the same time being open and direct. There is little trace of the actress about her. She is not a luvvy.

'I keep hearing that word since I came back from America. It made me realise I've lived half my life in the States these last eight years. The other current expression is 'shagging'. Of course, I know what it means. What amazes me is hearing it on TV all the time. Most amazing of all is young girls saying 'Anyone want a shag?' Not that I'm being censorious. I'm all for it.'

Miss Mirren has returned from the United States to take the lead in Turgenev's A Month in the Country, opposite John Hurt, at the Albery Theatre. Previews start tomorrow. She plays an aristocratic married woman who falls in love with a man of 21. Had she had a similar experience in her own life?

'Oh, I much prefer younger men. It's not do with looks or physique; it's to do with social attitudes. Men over 40 are dinosaurs in their attitudes, or if they're not, they are self-conscious, trying to react to modern feminism. Younger guys take it for granted. That's why I've never gone for older men.'

Well, specs back on again. Down to business. She calls herself Miss Mirren, answering as such on the telephone later on, which is correct, as she has never been married. Up to the age of 10, however, she was Miss Helen Mironoff.

Her grandfather, a wealthy colonel in the tzar's army, came to England in 1904 during the Russo-Japanese war, working on an arms deal with the British government. Naturally, he was treated like a VIP, as he would be today. Then the revolution came. He was stuck here with his family, but no money. 'He would have been executed if he'd gone back. All his life he said Communism wouldn't last.'

Helen's father, who left Russia when he was two, was a London taxi driver for many years, till he moved to Southend and became a Ministry of Transport driving inspector. 'It was a Civil Service job, so he had to say he was born in England. He lied about that, but he did agree to change his name, so we became Mirren. Most people think it's Scottish. I feel at home when I'm in Russia, but not particularly so. I think most people in the world now look the same. Look at people in the streets of Bosnia. OK, so I'm blonde and blue-eyed, but you can see people like me in Italy or France. Let me see now, you could easily be Turkish.'

She went to a local convent school, then a teacher training college. Why not drama school? 'I couldn't get a grant, and my parents resisted it anyway. They didn't want me to be an actress as it was unreliable.' But she joined the National Youth Theatre and at 18 played Cleopatra, which had agents queuing up. 'There was pressure on me to give up the teaching course but I was a weed. I did qualify as a teacher, then got my first job as an actress. It was in Sunderland in Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs. I had to say 'Will you shaft me?'. Every night, about half the audience left.'

Very soon she was at the Royal Shakespeare Company and spent much of the next 15 years there. 'My ambition was to be a great classical actress.' She did end up with star parts such as Cleopatra, played with adults this time. She then chucked it to do experimental stuff with Peter Brook in Africa and North America. 'It was a journey of discovery for me,' she said, pretentiously. 'I saw the theatre as a temple, a philosophy, where one worshipped, oh God, you know the thing. I did take myself so seriously at the time.'

And now? 'I've lost that idea totally. I now see acting as entertainment. Your job is to give the public a good time.

OK, if you can also inform them, move them, then fine, but basically, you are entertainment.'

She has done about 20 films, not all of them hugely distinguished. 'I have been mainly in second-class films. But what do you do? There is no English film industry, so you take what you can get, if you want to learn film technique. OK, so The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover was more than second class, though I know many people thought it was the pits. The Long Good Friday, that was quite good as well.'

In many of her films, she has ended up naked. Presumably because the part called for it? 'Bollocks. The part never calls for it. And I've never ever used that excuse. The box office calls for it. We all know the public likes to see people taking their clothes off. I don't say I enjoyed it, but it was the price I was prepared to pay.

'When I was young, I never thought I was pretty. It was the age of Twiggy and I unfortunately had big breasts. They were out of fashion and I felt awful. It's good that breasts are back.'

Stripping off when young is one thing. What about at 60? 'Who knows if I'll be acting then. I could be a gardener.

'My hero in life is Gerard Depardieu. I like the way he takes whatever comes along, laywer, gangster, anything. He doesn't wait for chi-chi parts, so of course he's done some second-class stuff. If the part calls for him to be naked, off comes his shirt. He doesn't worry about looking gorgeous. That's what I admire. A lack of vanity. I was on a panel with him once and he was asked that really corny question - what role would you most like to play. His answer was 'woman'. I thought that was great.'

She's now 47, traditionally a difficult age for actresses. 'I don't mind the way I look now. Best of all is that there are some good parts for women, such as Prime Suspect, with women in the driving seat, acting as the narrative. That's new. You now get proper acting roles for women - not just young girls.'

Half her life is in the United States because she lives there with the American director Taylor Hackford. He did An Officer and a Gentleman. They met in 1984, when he directed her in White Nights. 'I hated him at first because he was late for our first meeting. I hate unpunctuality, especially when the person has some power. It's so rude. I was about to walk out, when he turned up. We liked each other at once.' He was married, with children, so there was some anguish.

Will she marry him? 'Maybe. I'm nearer than I have been before, but I don't know. I'm not against marriage on principle. I'm against divorce. You shouldn't get married unless you are totally certain. That's one reason I hate the Royal Family. They have these huge, glitzy weddings, with all the pomp and panoply, then five years later they get divorced. How dare they] All they have to do in life is open hostels and have a good marriage.'

She has had no children. 'I made that decision years ago. The idea never appealed. They should give me a badge, for deliberately having no kids. For ecological services. It's all vanity, having kids. Of course, I have thought I'd like to see a little me running round, but it probably wouldn't be a little me, more like one of my long lost Russians, a total stranger, whom I probably wouldn't even like.'

In the United States, while living there, she gets offered hardly any work, which clearly bugs her. Prime Suspect I has been bought by a Hollywood studio, but the plan is to have someone like Michelle Pfeiffer play her role, if it is ever made. Socially, when she goes out with her man in Los Angeles, he is known, and she is not, so she follows in his wake. 'My status in Hollywood is basically zero. It's very depressing.'

Surely you don't want to be a Hollywood star? 'I bloody do. I want to be incredibly rich and famous. It would be like nirvana starring in a big Hollywood movie. Think of the unlimited money. You do hardly any work, you are required only to be mediocre, and you have an endless supply of sycophants. It's heaven. No, I'm not kidding. I read about these huge salaries, a million dollars for four weeks' work, and I am so jealous. The only thing missing is fun. The big stars I've met do seem to be gloomy and neurotic. But I still want to do it.'

Yes, but you have your English acting life. Everyone knows your name. Think of the awards Prime Suspect won. Doesn't that cheer you? 'When I'm here, it does feel better. It's only in America I feel defunct, without an identity.' Does your partner help? 'I don't think he's aware. I keep those feelings to myself.'

She has just agreed to do a fourth Prime Suspect, and obviously enjoys it. Yet she somehow distances herself from its success. 'There's something I don't believe about it. It feels peripheral. It doesn't fit into the real centre of my life. Awards and praise and stuff are not relevant. Success and failure can both throw you off course. It's being seen to be good that matters, not being in a show which wins awards. It's somehow tacky. Perhaps I'm being stupid.

'Every part you do has two lives. There's a life when you make it, living 12 hours a day with the crew, make-up people, drivers, all together, up at six in freezing weather. That becomes a life in itself. When you look back on the show, that's what you remember. The second life is what happens to it afterwards, if people pick it up and praise it. That secondary life doesn't mean a lot to me. I haven't watched all the things I've made. The work was doing it, not seeing it.'

She will be here until May in the new play, a long time apart from her partner. 'I can live without sex if I have to, but he will be coming to visit me.' How's the play going, on its provincial run? 'I don't know.' But you're the star, you must know. 'The scenery hasn't fallen down yet, no one has booed.' Is that all? 'The last play I was in was so traumatic I can't think any more. It was Sex Please, We're Italian at the Young Vic, three years ago. We all thought it was brilliant, the try-out audiences loved it, cheering like mad at the curtain - then came the first night, and it was a slaughterhouse. The critics massacred us. The theatre emptied, just like that. Terrifying. That's why I can't say how we're doing.'

If you do go to see it, and you're sitting close enough to Miss Mirren, do look out for her tattoo. It's on her right hand, above her thumb. In TV close-ups, they usually cover it with make-up, but on stage, she tries to get away with it.

It looks like two Vs but is in fact an American Indian symbol, done in 1973 when she was touring with Peter Brook. 'Tattoos are now very fashionable, but 20 years ago, only sailors or Indians had them - or drunken actors. About six of us decided to do it, after we'd had a few drinks. It was done on an Indian reservation, with a sort of safety pin, and was bloody painful. Oh, I have suffered for my art.'

(Photograph omitted)

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