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As Dame Helen Mirren stars as former Israeli PM Golda Meir, she expresses her love for this brave woman who was happiest raising chickens…
Dame Helen Mirren, 78, is almost unrecognisable as Golda Meir – a.k.a. the Iron Lady of Israel – in a new film that focuses on the intensely dramatic and high-stakes decisions that she faced during the Yom Kippur War. The conflict lasted 19 days in 1973, when a coalition of Arab states launched a surprise attack on her country. The film chronicles how the possibility of Israel’s destruction shaped a complicated legacy. Liev Schreiber plays US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who navigated a complex relationship with Meir during this time. It’s not the first time Dame Helen has played a leader (she’s played Queens Elizabeth I and II). In real life, the actress divides her time between the UK and the US, and has been married to American director Taylor Hackford since 1997. Here, she tells us about her latest role…
Helen, what drew you to playing Golda Meir?
She was an incredible person to experience from within, if you like, which is what we actors have to do. I came away from it with the deepest of admiration for her and indeed a kind of love. She was extraordinarily brave and with a commitment to Israel that was total. And in a weird way, it was a bit like playing Elizabeth I of England in the sense of her utter commitment to her country and to her nation. And she achieved it without being a sort of power mad, dictator-y type character. She was very maternal and that is something I have in common with her – she absolutely loved kitchen equipment. You know, the latest mixer. I’m always buying the latest kitchen equipment. So, she had that wonderful domestic side to her. At her happiest she was on the kibbutz looking after chickens. But life took her in a different direction.
Did you watch any other on-screen portrayals of her?
I watched Anne Bancroft and Ingrid Bergman, who is quite wonderful. But then from that point on, you know, you make it your own. it’s not a biopic, it’s not her whole life, it’s just this little section of her life when she was most challenged. And I thought that was a marvellous idea. I read a lot of books, obviously watched a lot of video. But I always find playing these characters, I like to look at their life up to the age of 20. It’s really how they were as children and how they were created as children. And it’s very interesting.
You smoke an awful lot in this film!
Well, yes, she was a heavy smoker. She had a cigarette in her hand all day and all night.
You look so incredibly different as Golda..
Yes, I did have make-up obviously, a lot of make-up! And it was an incredible make-up team, incidentally, two young girls who were just wonderful. And also costume – that’s incredibly important. So those elements, whatever character you’re playing, are a part of the creation of the story. And it always sort of rather surprised me at the end of the day when I took it all off and I was me again because I got so used to looking in the mirror and being that person.
You’ve also famously played Queen Elizabeth II on screen. Were there any similarities?
I think Golda was a more emotionally expressive person maybe than Elizabeth II. She had the ability, which all leaders have got to have, of being contained within a public sphere. You know, you can’t be emotional all over the place. I think she was a very passionate person but very practical as well. Enormously practical and compassionate.
How was it working with Liev Schreiber, who plays Henry Kissinger?
We were very excited when he signed up for the film because for a long time we had no Henry Kissinger. Golda and Henry Kissinger had… I wouldn’t say a close friendship, but clearly there was some sort of chemistry between them, that they just understood each other on some level. I am sure that Henry Kissinger respected Golda enormously and certainly vice versa. And obviously America was so important to Israel. One of Golda’s great achievements in the early days of Israel was going to America, long before she was president, to collect money for Israel, to try and get the country going. And she was enormously successful as a fundraiser.
Some still believe Golda Meir was responsible for the deaths of 2,569 soldiers during the Yom Kippur War. Do you?
What I didn’t realise until we made the film, was the impact of the loss of this generation of young men on Israel. Because there were so few, it was the loss of a generation. Golda took the weight of that on her shoulders – unfairly, as it turned out. And she never complained or put the blame on anyone else. She was vilified in Israel after the war. And she squarely faced it, which was another element of her courage and character.
Golda is in cinemas across the UK now