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Friday, November 5, 1999 Published at 18:07 GMT

Mirren's unlikely comeback

Mirren with Katie Holmes, Marisa Coughlan and Barry Watson

By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

Helen Mirren, best known for portraying Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the ITV series Prime Suspect, is the unlikely star of a comedy called Teaching Mrs Tingle which has just opened at the American box office.

In Hollywood it is seen as a bold career move for this classically trained actress venturing into the cinematic genre of the teen movie.

[ image: Tension: Mirren and Dawson's Creek star Holmes]
Tension: Mirren and Dawson's Creek star Holmes
But the 54-year-old told me: "I remember how happy I was to be asked to be in a movie that wasn't about a police detective."

She added that getting a part like spiteful Mrs Tingle is "what makes the whole thing fun".

"It is absolutely what you hope for, seek for and pray for - the possibility to constantly break the mould."

Teaching Mrs Tingle is a teenage revenge fantasy, in which an evil and sadistic high school teacher, played by Mirren, ends up being held hostage in her own home by three aggrieved pupils.

Creek connection

In America the film has definitely piqued curiosity, not just because Mirren is its unlikely star, but because it marks the directorial debut of Kevin Williamson, one of the hottest talents in Hollywood.

Williamson, who also wrote the Tingle screenplay, is best known for penning the hugely successful Scream teen slasher pictures.

He is also the creative genius behind the Dawson's Creek TV series and a highly anticipated TV drama called Wasteland that will premiere in the US this autumn.

Williamson is an avid Mirren fan and was determined to get her cast in the role.

[ image: Anthony and Cleopatra: Mirren and Alan Rickman on stage in 1998]
Anthony and Cleopatra: Mirren and Alan Rickman on stage in 1998
He recalls thinking: "She will never do this, there is nothing in her resum_hat would suggest she would do this movie, and then we met and she was into it. She loved the idea of doing something different."

Williamson asked Miramax to change the name of his film. It had been called Killing Mrs Tingle, but in the wake of April's Colorado school shootings Hollywood has become extremely jittery when it comes to teens and violence.

Williamson wanted to ensure audiences understood from the title that Tingle was a dark light-hearted comedy, and not like his past violent slasher pictures.

He understands the current climate of nervousness, but he objects to some of the anti-Hollywood rhetoric. He says the idea "that someone is going to watch a film and go out and do something because of the movie" is just "a silly notion".

Lessons in evil

Even though Tingle is far from gruesome, the mean-spirited teacher depicted in the film is cruel and vindictive, and has no difficulty inflicting extreme psychic violence.

"In all professions there are people who are frustrated, angry, arrogant, and egotistical and insecure and in power, and that's a terrible, terrible combination," says Mirren.

She believes audiences will identify with her character, who is of a dangerous type that "can only really feel good by putting other people down, and I think a lot of people will recognise that kind of personality".

[ image: Favourite: Prime Suspect was a hit in the US]
Favourite: Prime Suspect was a hit in the US
Early word on the film is lukewarm. Critics have found the screenplay dull, which is a surprise because Williamson is the most celebrated Hollywood scribe of his generation.

In the days leading up to the picture's American release Mirren did admit to some nervousness in taking on the role. "You're always nervous of failure," says the actress who believes failure is "something you have to look at in the face regularly and deal with, and put your chin up and say, 'OK, I'll have another bash'".

But any negative reaction to the film need not concern Helen Mirren. In America she's "teflon-protected," partly because she's British, classically trained and beloved for her role in Prime Suspect.

Indeed, Mirren deserves praise for her portrayal of Eve Tingle, without which this film would have been extremely uninteresting. Whatever the final verdict is on Teaching Mrs Tingle, I'm confident she will emerge unscathed.

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Internet Links

Teaching Mrs Tingle - Dimension Films site

Helen Mirren Appreciation Society

Kevin Williamson fan site

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