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Oscar winner Dame Helen Mirren, 74, is back to her royal reign as she takes the lead in Sky Atlantic’s new drama Catherine The Great. She tells Gemma Dunn about her time playing the tumultuous Russian Empress.
TELL US ABOUT CATHERINE THE GREAT. WHO WAS SHE?
Catherine the Great was one of the great female rulers in the history of the world. She was not Russian by birth, but German, and took up the throne from her husband Peter III at great personal risk. She was an extraordinary woman, an empire builder, and she ruled very successfully to expand the boundaries of Russia considerably during the 18th century which is the period that our story focuses on.
YOU’VE PLAYED ROYALTY IN A NUMBER OF ROLES THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER. IS IT TRUE CATHERINE THE GREAT HAS ALWAYS BEEN ON YOUR BUCKET LIST?
Catherine’s story always fascinated me, not least because of my own connection to Russia, but also the exoticism of that region in the 18th century; and the medieval quality, to a certain extent, of life in that era. There was also an attitude towards relationships and sexuality in Catherine’s world which is very alien to us nowadays which was interesting to explore. We’re still very drenched in Victorian or American puritanical values, but Catherine’s rule brought a very new and refreshing approach, which is why she was such a pioneering woman and a fascinating figure to play.
HOW DID YOU RESEARCH FOR THE PART?
I did a certain amount of research – I mean, you couldn’t go into a role like this without reading up on the history. I read some of her letters, although not all of them as she was an incredibly prolific letter writer, and I read a couple of books about her. What was great to see was that Catherine had good wit and liked to have a laugh. She wasn’t an uptight person and you can feel this through her letters where there is a wonderful immediacy. They’re funny and full of observations about life that means in some ways you can almost read them as if they were written by a contemporary woman. Catherine was certainly a figure who was ahead of her time.
AND YOU REUNITED WITH DIRECTOR PHILIP MARTIN, WHO YOU’D WORKED WITH BEFORE ON PRIME SUSPECT.
He is the most wonderfully prepared and supportive director. You really feel that you’re a team with him, and he’s incredibly and permanently encouraging which is fabulous when you’re playing someone like the Empress of Russia. He also has this extraordinary grasp of everything. I’m only one person, one character, but there is so much more he has had to deal with, whether it’s camera angles, lighting, sets and all those other things.
THERE ARE A LOT OF WELL-KNOWN URBAN MYTHS ABOUT CATHERINE, PARTICULARLY AROUND HER SEX LIFE AND HOW SHE DIED. WHY DO YOU THINK IT’S THESE STORIES THAT ARE BEST KNOWN?
After Catherine died, her legacy was left in the hands of her son Paul, who hated her. This meant that the calumnies which were laid upon her in that era lived on in his reign and still exist to this day. It’s a great shame as Catherine was truly one of the greatest rulers in European history. I think [she] should be remembered for her extraordinary abilities. To run a country as vast as Russia in an era where there were no telephones and no trains – and navigate a very unbalanced society. She came in as a foreigner, took control, and then maintained power. It was an incredible achievement.
WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT JASON CLARKE’S CHARACTER POTEMKIN?
The great thing about the story we deal with is [it focuses on] Catherine’s later years when she meets the love of her life, Grigory Potemkin, who is played fantastically by Jason Clarke. When you read about Potemkin, you find that he is one of these extraordinarily sexy, brave, heroic, but childish characters and very much opposite to Catherine in some ways. But their coming together is explosive and marks the start of the Russian Empire.
WHAT’S THE MESSAGE AT THE ROOT OF THIS STORY?
It’s about love – it’s absolutely about love. The love between Catherine and Potemkin and their shared love of Russia, but also the lack of love between Catherine and other people in her world like her son Paul. It’s a simple human story of love and jealousy, pain and pleasure, and all the things that love brings.
Catherine The Great launches on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV on Thursday.