Screen Queen Helen Mirren is set to play another iconic royal
When it comes to portraying royals on stage and screen, there’s nobody better than Helen Mirren. She first came to our attention onthe small screen as DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect but it wasn’t long before the actress made the move to cinema. With over 60 films under her belt, Helen won an Emmy in 2006 for her lead role in TV mini-series, Elizabeth I, and the following year, won an Oscar for her outstanding portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen. Now she is marking her return to the small screen in style, after a decade long absence, playing Catherine the Great in a new Sky period drama that promises to be jam-packed full of politics, passion and power. The story charts the dramatic rise and fallof arguably the most powerful female monarch in history.
The four-part historical drama will focus on the final stages of Catherine’s reign and her affairwith Russian military leader Grigory Potemkin -the man who ultimately helped her shape Russia’s future and expand the country’s Empire. Helen explains that she hopes she can change the perception of the Russian monarch, often remembered more for her promiscuity than her politics. “History tried to drag Catherine down because history doesn’t really like very successful, powerful women. I hope we are going to reinstate her reputation as the incredible leader that she was. I’m not saying she didn’t have her faults. She made mistakes and finished up quite tyrannical but she was originally a reformer of this vast, vast country.”
“She was German but she came to Russia at the age of 15 and married at 16 and learnt Russian. She was a prodigious writer. She’d get up at 5 every morning and write for two or three hours. If you read a book of her letters, she’s funny, interested, curious, spoke five or six languages – she was extraordinary.She was definitely on a par with Elizabeth I in intellect. Having played two British queens, how did a Russian royal compare? “Catherine’s world was just so different. Before Catherine there was Elizabeth, her mother-in-law, and before Elizabeth was Catherine I – and they all had a series of lovers. The whole attitude to sex was so different.The Russian Empresses behaved like men, they behaved like Louis XIV! They had lovers and everybody knew they had lovers and it was an accepted part of their culture – that’s so not British! She had, I think, four children by four different men but it didn’t impinge upon her power or position at all. I find it quite hard to get my head around that because l’m so used to British history and women being treated very differently from men.”
Helen may have grown up in Essex but in fact has Russian roots – her grandfather was an officer in the Imperial Russian Army and several years ago she was delighted to discover an old trunk held a fascinating insight into her grandfather’s life before emigrating to the UK. “It was his old wooden military trunk that he went on campaigns with. Inside were a lot of incomprehensible letters and photographs from his sisters in Russia. When I did Prime Suspect we had a Russian speaker onset and he translated them for me, so that was an amazing moment of discovery of a door opening onto the past of my family. The translator, who was actually a sort of investigative journalist,went on to discover our family estates and he found relatives of my sister and 1 in Russia so we went to met them.”
With over 50 years of experience under her belt,Helen has firmly achieved national treasure status – what words of wisdom would she impart to the new generation of British acting talent? “You have to have ego, you have to have a certain kind of self-confidence, but at the same time that can lead you up the garden path and lead you into being an idiot! So you know, you have to sort of calibrate that. Somehow have confidence, have courage, go where others fear to go, be bold, be brave be beautiful in your soul- and be on time!” She smiles. Wise words from our ultimate Screen Queen.