Before starting work on The Last Station, which recounts the final year in the life of Leo Tolstoy, Helen Mirren decided to revisit her Russian roots.
The Oscar-winning actress, who was born Ilynea Mironov, paid a nostalgic trip to her aristocratic ancestors’ former estate at Kuryanovo, near Smolensk. But when she and her sister arrived they were startled to be confronted by assault rifle-wielding bodyguards. “It was an incredible experience to walk on the land that my father was born on and where my grandfather lived and which was obviously so dear to his heart,” she recalled. “But it had recently been bought by a young Russian oligarch—a sort of gangster character who turned up with two bodyguards with guns, Kalashnikovs. He said, ‘Welcome of my land.’ I said ‘Welcome to MY land,’” She laughed at the memory. “I think he thought we were going to cause a second revolution and take our land back. Eventually, maybe that will happen.” In The Last Station the Oscar-winning actress portrays the impassioned Sofya, Tolstoy’s wife of 48 years and the mother of his 13 children, who becomes involved in a ferocious tug of war with the zealous Chertkov over Tolstoy’s estate and legacy which Chertkov believed should be bestowed upon the Russian people while Sofya was determined it should pass to his family.
While they battle, Tolstoy, played by Christopher Plummer, makes a dramatic flight from his home to the tiny rail station at Astapovo, where, too ill to continue, he believes he is dying alone, while more than one hundred newspapermen camp outside awaiting hourly reports on his condition. Mirren, 64, whose family was thrown off their country estate by the Bolsheviks in 1917, felt an immediate affinity with Sofya. “It’s in my blood,” she said. “My great great grandmother was a Russian countess and one side of my family was Russian aristocracy; the other was English working-class, so I’m a good contradiction. “This is one of the great women’s roles in film. Sofya is a wonderfully tempestuous and passionate person.” Adapted from Jay Parini’s historical novel, the movie version of The Last Station has been in the works for almost two decades. When the book was published in 1990 Anthony Quinn originally wanted to play Tolstoy but the project became bogged down in script rewrites and false starts. Then when Quinn died in 2001 Anthony Hopkins was interested in the role, with Meryl Streep as Sofya. That didn’t work out so Glenn Close was penciled as the novelist’s spouse. Finally, with a script by Michael Hoffman, who also directed, and Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, The Last Station began filming last year in the German regions of Sazony-Anhalt, Brandenburg, Thuringia and Leipzig with a ten million pounds budget raised from half a dozen German and Russian sources. It was the hit of the Telluride Film Festival this year, where it received a standing ovation. “It’s not documentary, but it’s very, very firmly based on the real story,” said Mirren, who three years ago starred in a BBC radio play based on letters written by her Russian great-aunts and her exiled grandfather’s unpublished memoirs, which she found in his wooden trunk.
“I read about Sofya and read her diaries to a certain extent but in the end I was making the film that Michael wrote and based on the book by Jay Parini. Those were really my inspirations rather than the real person; I felt I had to interpret their work rather than try to recreate Sofya perfectly. The film is all about love—young love and old love. It shows the practicalities and disasters that love can involve. The characters were so wonderful, it was an absolute gift.” Helen Mirren, looking elegant in a midnight blue dress with mini-boots, was talking in Los Angeles where she and her husband, director Taylor Hackford, have a home as well as one in London. She had just arrived back in California after spending most of the year in London, where she returned to her theatrical roots at the National Theatre in Racine’s 17th-century French tragedy Phaedra. Her return to the stage, which was already one of the most eagerly awaited cultural events of the year, was also one of the most ground-breaking because on June 25 the performance was beamed live to cinemas around the world. “We got an amazing reaction absolutely incredible, and it really surprised us because we didn’t know how it would be received,” she said. “If you see little clips of theatre on television it never looks very good, but they filmed it very well. We thought real theater buffs would either love it or say, ‘It’s all right but it would be better in the theater.’ “But we got a spectacular response from all over, with people saying it was like being in the theatre. It was incredible. “The magical thing about it is that you can bring live theatre—well, it’s not live but it’s kind of a live theatre experience—to people all over the world who can’t possibly have an opportunity to fly to London to see it in the theatre, so it was a great, great success.” As for the future of cinema-theatre, she said:
“I know the National Theatre want to keep on doing it but I don’t think it’s the future of theatre generally because the whole point of theatre is that it’s live. It will never replace film and it will never replace live theatre—it’s something in between. “But I think it’s a fascinating new technology that will obviously get explored further as time goes on.” From the age of 13, when she played Caliban in a production of The Tempest at St. Bernard’s Convent School in Westcliff-on-Sea, Helen Mirren knew she wanted to be an actress. In defiance of her parents’ wishes that she become a teacher, she joined the National Youth Theatre and at the age of 18 she was playing Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra at the Old Vic. Within two years she had joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. She has played virtually every major woman’s role in the theatre, at the same time establishing herself as an international television and movie star. She has accumulated three BAFTA awards for her role as Prime Suspect’s Inspector Jane Tennison, two best supporting actress Oscar nominations, for The Madness of George 111 and Gosford Park, winning the best actress Oscar in 2007 for The Queen. Like all theatrical Dames, she has also done her stints on Broadway, in a revival of Turgenev’s A Month In The Country and in 2001 with Ian McKellen in August Strindberg’s Dance of Death.
“About every three or four years I go back to the theatre and do a play and I’ve done that all my life,” she said. “It’s a constant in my life and the reason I go back is because I’m terrified that if I don’t, I’ll lose my nerve, because theatre takes a lot of nerve and you can lose it.
“So I try and test myself again every so often.”