The Oscar winner on playing Catherine the Great and why powerful women are always attacked
“Oh my god, BELUGA”, growls Helen Mirren, picking up an ant-sized blini stacked indecently with caviar. “Fantastic.” A few minutes earlier, she has declared Krug her “favourite” Champagne. “Really, it is. Cheers!” It is bucketing with rain outside and London has ground to a sodden halt, but Mirren is immaculate, her hair like candyfloss, her lips painted bright pink. She is wearing a monochrome, shoulderless gown with puffed white sleeves and the most enormous diamond necklace she has borrowed, with magpie-like delight, from the Mayfair jeweller’s where we are having afternoon tea. Really, if you had to imagine tea with the queen – not the real Queen, but the next best thing, no matter what the pretenders on The Crown might like to think – you couldn’t write it better. And Mirren is in her element as the gracious host, at the head of a table loaded with bonbons, delicate scones, and the smallest sandwiches I’ve ever seen. The only surprising notes in this regal set-up are her hand tattoo (two interlocking Vs signifying “love thy neighbour”) and her nails, which are sharply pointed, lilac-pink and frosted at the ends in glitter. “I’ve just been doing Fast & Furious 9,” she says, waggling them half-proud, half-unsure. “Do you like them?”
The decadent occasion is the launch of her latest drama, Catherine the Great, in which Mirren – having played three queens, Elizabeth I, Charlotte and Elizabeth II – adds a Russian empress to her repertoire. Because why not? When you’re Helen Mirren, all you have to do is breezily mention in an interview that you might quite like to play Catherine the Great one day and wheels start to turn. The producer David Thompson saw the interview in question, set about raising the money and got Sky Atlantic and HBO on board. “They said, ‘Helen, who would you like to write and direct this?’” says Mirren, off-hand. “I had that power, artistically.” She anointed two former collaborators – Nigel Williams, who wrote the screenplay for Elizabeth I, for which she won an Emmy in 2006, and Philip Martin, who directed her in Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act. Then began the complex task of condensing a life and 34-year reign into a four-part mini-series. At first, Williams thought about interleaving scenes from the young Catherine’s life, starting with her arrival from Prussia to the Russian court aged 15, where she was married to Peter of Holstein-Gottorp. He ascended the throne in 1762, when she was 32, only to be overthrown six months later, and die shortly after that in mysterious circumstances, making way for Catherine’s far more successful era. “But I hate flashbacks,” says Williams. Plus, who needs two Catherines when you have one Mirren?
“I wish I had been young enough to play the young Catherine, and then the older Catherine when I was old enough to play her,” says Mirren, who is 74. “But both ends of her life and everything in the middle were so extraordinary.” When the drama opens, Catherine is at the height of her power, in the 1770s, though increasingly she is struggling to balance her liberal ideals with the realities of holding on to the throne while under attack from everyone around her, including her own son, Paul. (“That was the one relationship that I found very hard to get my head around,” says Mirren. “They really, really hated each other.”) It is Game of Thrones meets The Crown, or, as Martin puts it, “half a Rembrandt study, half a Bruegel landscape, an intense character study in a widescreen setting about the implications of power and the choices you make.” At the heart of the drama is Catherine’s burgeoning relationship with Grigory Potemkin (played by Jason Clarke), who would go on to become her favourite adviser, and lover. “It was an extraordinary relationship that had so many different facets to it – sex, fun, political success, wars,” says Mirren. “They lived a large life on a level that we can’t possibly understand.” The production is deeply opulent, with gilded interiors, voluminous gowns, towering wigs and teeming crowd scenes shot on location in Lithuania and various Russian palaces. “The geopolitical scale and sweep of it makes the Windsors look a bit low-key and suburban,” says Martin.
Filming in Russia had a profound effect on Mirren, whose grandfather was a veteran of the Imperial Russian Army and former diplomat who left Russia during the Revolution and ended up driving a black cab in London. Her father, Vasily, changed his name to Basil Mirren and brought up his three children as English. Mirren recalls filming one day at the Catherine Palace, just outside St Petersburg. “I just wandered off away from everyone, down a corridor, I’m dressed as Catherine – the wig, the gown, everything – and I stood looking out of a window she would have looked out of. It was completely extraordinary.” With three queens under her belt, does she slip easily into a royal mindset now? Certainly, her bearing today, not to mention her arrival at the premiere of Catherine the Great this week in a sedan chair, would suggest so. “No. I think the royalty of a person is absolutely dictated by the people around them,” she says. “If the Queen came into this room now, we wouldn’t carry on like this, would we? Whereas if my assistant Sandy came in, we’d carry on chatting. It’s all to do with how the people around them treat them. Then you can just get on with being a human.” Her main inspiration for her performance – at once steely, shrewish and saucy – came from Catherine’s letters, she says. “Her story can very easily slip into melodrama and fake romanticism – as it has in other movies. I wanted to give her the full credit that she deserves.”
In particular, there will be no mention of the myth that Catherine died during sexual intercourse with a horse. “A lot of my female friends think of themselves as feminists, but the first question when I said I was going to do Catherine the Great was, ‘Oh my god, are you going to do the horse?’ It has stuck to her throughout history, a horrible piece of calumny, an absolute lie, probably created by her nutty son. Dreadful! I was really cross with my feminist friends, reducing her to some mad perversion. “Here you have a woman of incredible achievement, unbelievable work ethic, profound intelligence, incredible commitment, an extraordinary woman, having this horseshit thrown at her through history. I felt very strongly that I wanted to redress the balance.” Using sex as a weapon against powerful women is an age-old tactic, of course. “There was a fear among men of the fact that, yes, women can be incredibly successful leaders of countries, of armies, of people, and have political acumen. And if someone is successful in that way, then we bring her down another way.” That is not to say that Mirren’s Catherine is chaste. The drama has a near Thrones-ian amount of sex, much of it involving Countess Bruce (played by Gina McKee), Catherine’s confidante, who enthusiastically “trials” Potemkin for her best friend. “So many of our period dramas are based on 19th-century morality,” says Martin. “We were trying to make it a fact of life, alive and instinctive – not tied up in knots, like period drama sex often is.”
“It was a very lonely life. Catherine liked to have sex. The Russians were very earthy – still are, actually,” says Mirren. “In my mind, I’m still of the post-Victorian era – looking down on sex. Yes, there were the 60s which, having lived through that era, was really a liberation for men, not for women at all. I think of myself as a liberated person, but I realise I’m not, really. So I had to tell myself: think like a man.” In its portrayal of a powerful woman of history from all angles, it recalls The Favourite, a film Mirren declares she loved. “The history has always been there, but women have been erased. There is an awful lot more of it to find out. That film about the black women in Nasa [Hidden Figures], did you know about them? I didn’t, and there they were, erased from history. The first shots of the Moon, you just see all of these white men.” Mirren has seen the entertainment industry change for women, but only in the past four or five years. “The great thing now is women are playing Macbeth, Coriolanus, Hamlet,” she says. “If only that had been the case when I was in my thirties. I played Ophelia and I used to stand in the wings and watch the guy playing Hamlet and think, ‘Oh I would love to have those words in my mouth and those thoughts in my head.’ We were just completely excluded at that time. Not any more.”
Has she noticed a greater change since the revelations of #MeToo? “Not for me personally. I’m in a different era, different world. But certainly what I read now and what I see people doing has changed.” She recalls working with Ruth Negga in Phedre at the National Theatre in 2009. “I remember saying to a director, ‘she would be a fantastic Juliet.’ And now here she is playing Hamlet [at Dublin’s Gate Theatre, last year] instead of Juliet, which is great.” Given that this latest role came about from an interview, who would she like to play next? “It’s hard to top Catherine, she was extraordinary.” I suppose Theresa May isn’t quite in the same league, I say. “How unfairly Theresa May has been treated. She just kept going, kept standing up, kept fighting,” says Mirren, animated. “I think Theresa May will go down in history as a very brave woman. She may not have achieved what she wanted to achieve – that’s another story. I’m not a Tory, but observing her as a woman in the public eye, relentlessly being attacked, being surrounded by wolves… And she always looked great, not that that matters.” She laughs, and finishes off her scone. Somewhere, a producer is already putting in calls.
“Catherine the Great” starts on Sky Atlantic on Thursday at 9pm