Welcome to The Helen Mirren Archives, your premiere web resource on the British actress. Best known for her performances with the Royal Shakespeare Company, "Prime Suspect" and her Oscar-winning role in "The Queen", Helen Mirren is one of the world's most eminent actors today. This unofficial fansite provides you with all latest news, photos and videos on her past and present projects. Enjoy your stay.
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In an exclusive chat, Mirren gets frank with Vanity Fair about the controversy around her casting, the experience of using heavy prosthetics for the first time, and the decision to portray a divisive historical subject.
Helen Mirren had never taken a risk like Golda. For an actor of her stature—with an Oscar, a Tony, and four Emmys to her name—it’s not easy to discover uncharted territory, let alone decide to take the plunge and explore the thing. But a big leap had long loomed. For decades, the 78-year-old Mirren avoided extreme physical transformations for the screen, those uncanny makeup jobs and mimicry approaches that define many a prestige biopic. “You’re too busy looking, going, ‘Oh, my God, that’s brilliant. How did they do that?’ rather than following the story,” says Mirren. “You’re in quite a tricky situation in film. You’ve got to be good – but not too good.”
It’s a good problem to have for an actor like Mirren, who not only knows the difference but really can be that good, should she get the call. The British star has brought a thrilling naturalism and tart wit to historical icons like Queen Elizabeth II and Catherine the Great; audiences believe her embodiments less because of their exacting impersonation than their emotional precision. It’s how she’s always stood apart. Then came director Guy Nattiv’s offer for her to portray Golda Meir, Israel’s groundbreaking and controversial prime minister whose distinctive visage, cadence, and physicality demanded a level of cinematic replication. Mirren decided to, at last, give it a try. “It was nerve-racking, because you don’t know until you try whether anything is going to work at all,” she tells me. “Is this going to be absolutely ridiculous?”
The resulting performance, a tough but vulnerable portrayal of a leader who reluctantly guides her country into the Yom Kippur War of 1973, finds Mirren operating in a stirring new key. The actor is basically unrecognizable, from the voice to the face to the walk, yet she endows Golda with a dedicated pragmatism familiar to her most beloved roles. This is very much a Helen Mirren character, even if she doesn’t look like one. I sense it’s why, as she Zooms in from London, Mirren tells me from the outset that this project is deeply, uniquely meaningful to her: “It’s a milestone in my personal career,” she says. And yet: She’s barely been able to talk about it.
About a month before Golda was released in US theaters via Bleecker Street on August 25, SAG-AFTRA went on strike, preventing Mirren from doing press for the movie, even if she technically could have. (The film was produced under an Equity union contract in the UK, rendering it ineligible for a SAG interim agreement.) Because the studio is not in the AMPTP, and with more distance from the strike’s launch, Mirren has begun campaigning for the film with her guild’s blessing as it leads a second life on digital (it’s now available on-demand and on platforms like Apple TV+ and Prime Video) and as Oscar season heats up. “I was given a written email from SAG to say…I can talk about it,” she says. “It’s a low-budget film, we don’t have a big marketing budget—so yes, it’s great to be able to talk.”
During production on Golda, Mirren spent three or so hours in the makeup chair every day, designed by a team led by prosthetics artist Karen Hartley Thomas for what the actor calls a “head-to-toe” transformation. She’d listen to Golda speaking for hours as she sat patiently, absorbing every detail. She was nervous about losing herself as a performer in the creation of Golda’s Golda: “It can be like trying to fight your way out of a suit of armor—you are trapped in this world.” But Mirren actually, weirdly felt freed inside the character’s skin. “On the contrary, it liberated me; I loved being in that,” she says. “It really, really helped me inhabit the person, the character, the history. I got so used to it that she became me.” In the evenings, when Mirren suddenly looked like herself, she’d be surprised by the way she appeared, taking a moment to remember that the person in the mirror was in fact her.
She brings up actors like Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro over the course of our conversation—actors who have done (and won Oscars for) this kind of thing before. It’s not that Mirren wondered what she was missing by not going down that route of performance; it’s that, as she reminds me, you often think of the actor before the character here. When she won her Oscar for playing Elizabeth II in The Queen, Mirren didn’t use any prosthetics at all, only a wig. (“Wigs are great!”) She’s never viewed her job as one of selling an illusion. “What we do as a job is so weird because everybody knows I’m not Elizabeth I, they know I’m not [Prime Suspect’s] Jane Tennison,” she says. To become Golda, she saw no choice but to take the portrayal that extra step: “Anybody playing Golda would’ve had to have certainly obeyed the physiognomy of the woman because she was so recognizable, so iconic.”
Golda’s oversight in Israel’s early struggles in the Yom Kippur War, as well as her dismissive comments about Palestinian people (she once said, “There was no such thing as Palestinians”), rendered her a divisive figure for the biopic treatment. Mirren felt no hesitation at all in taking on the part, however. The film depicts a committed, strong-willed PM unafraid of making difficult and defining decisions; Mirren embraced that nuanced character study. “I didn’t see Golda as a controversial character,” Mirren says. “She took responsibility for what happened in the war as a good politician should. She was a woman that I admired—let’s put it that way.”
Mirren at the Golda world premiere press conference in Berlin.
One stickier aspect of total transformation for the camera: You’re stepping into an identity outside of your own. While Golda’s family had initially recommended Mirren for the part, backlash still took shape over the notion of a non-Jewish actor taking on not merely any Jewish figure, but an icon of Israel. In the past, Mirren has called debate around her casting “utterly legitimate,” but wasn’t able to speak on it further once the film was released, due to the strike. As I ask her about the topic now, it’s clear she’s spent a great deal of time since trying to understand the varying reactions to her playing Golda—especially as conversations around representation, and who should play what, have evolved so rapidly over the past few years.
“When I was coming into my career, I was incredibly grateful that I was a white woman, because there were a lot more roles for me available,” Mirren says candidly. “When I was in my 20s, you never saw a Black or an Asian face on television, ever. I’m not saying one accepted it—one didn’t accept it, but one didn’t profoundly question it either. You realize your own blindness and your own idiocy as time progresses.” Mirren calls broader cultural reckonings, in that regard, “exciting and fantastic,” and sympathizes with the feelings of actors in underrepresented groups: “The terrible frustration and anger and resentment, I can imagine, absolutely.”
Mirren does wonder exactly who would be permitted to play Golda, in an ideal world, given her background. “Well yes, maybe a Jewish person should have played Golda, but a Sephardic Jewish person or an Ashkenazi Jewish person?” she says. “There’s a big racial difference between those, so now we’re getting down into this sort of nitty-gritty of the whole issue. But I do believe it’s a discussion.” One part of the discussion she’s thought deeply about is the emotional experience of portraying Golda, who like most Jewish people of her generation lost loved ones during the Holocaust. “The trauma of the Holocaust is in the DNA of Jewish people—Ashkenazi, Sephardic, no matter what,” Mirren says. “Losing your whole family, your mother, father, brother, sisters, uncles, aunts, and being left as the only one—I can’t imagine. How can anyone who didn’t live that imagine that?”
In 1971, in the dawn of her career, Mirren starred in Miss Julie for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In one of the play’s grislier scenes, a bird is pulled out of a cage and senselessly killed. This production took place in a small theater and prized avant-garde authenticity; every night, there was a real bird fluttering around in a real cage that the audience could see. The way the killing was staged felt visceral; even though a trapdoor at the bottom of the cage freed the bird, a classic sort of theatrical trick, the action fooled even the most discerning viewers into thinking it was real. Some people fainted in the audience, says Mirren. Others screamed in rage and horror. A critic argued in a review that Mirren remembers quite well that the bird scene was so convincing it took him completely out of the play otherwise, to its detriment.
As Mirren recalls, “It was like, ‘How the fuck did they do it?’”
This took place more than 50 years ago, but Mirren’s memory of it remains crystal clear. She recounts the story for me, in fact, because it haunted her right into Golda, as the ultimate example of what happens when you take the magic of make-believe uncomfortably into the realm of the believable. “It speaks back to the whole thing of prosthetics,” she says. “If it’s too real, it just takes you away!” This went for her actual performance too. Mirren wanted to get Golda just right—she studied the way she held her cigarette, why she’d pause while deep in thought—but consistently minded how far she could take that effort. Above all else, she had a story to tell.
There’s a metaphor, perhaps, for Mirren’s career. As she got deeper into her research for Golda, the actor realized this 20th-century Israeli leader had far more in common with both Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II—two of her most remarkable roles—than she expected. “Golda’s emotional and political and intellectual commitment to her country was absolute,” Mirren says. She moves onto Elizabeth I: “Once the mantle fell upon her, the acceptance of the responsibility was absolute, was total—there was absolutely no turning away from that.” That space is where you find, in Golda, the Mirren who’s made indelible impressions on screen and stage for decades—the witty, capable, legendary professional determined to get the job done. Only now, finally transformed.