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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To play Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, Helen Mirren had to ditch the glamour – but how does she feel about the reaction to her casting?
Last February at the annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, Kate Winslet presented Dame Helen Mirren with a Lifetime Achievement Award. A montage of clips showed just a tiny selection of her hefty screen CV, including The Queen and Calendar Girls, before Winslet pronounced that “women just get better with age”. She’s not wrong. A few years ago, Mirren, now 78, could be seen running barefoot on the catwalk in Paris for L’Oréal. She told a journalist she was worried she’d fall over – but it turned out she has the joie de vivre of a woman for whom age is not a limitation.
Today, Mirren is in central London, explaining what she sees as a growing trend to embrace older women, both in Hollywood (remember Jennifer Coolidge kicking ass in The White Lotus?) and on British TV (Brenda Blethyn, Fiona Shaw, Lesley Manville… the list of female stars is wonderfully long).
“There has been a cultural change,” she says. “I’ve been saying this since I was young: change the roles for women in life and the roles for women in drama will follow.”
Mirren likes to mix things up. She fought patriarchal attitudes as DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, won an Oscar for getting beneath the skin of Elizabeth II in the aforementioned The Queen (she’s played so many royal figures that she once joked she didn’t mind not getting any lines “as long as I get to wear a crown”) and, more recently, drove Vin Diesel in a car chase in Fast and Furious 9. She even wryly narrates the box office smash Barbie. She has a fabulous regal on-screen hauteur that lends itself to playing distinguished women – but she also lacks vanity.
Just look at her latest role. In Golda, Mirren transforms herself into Golda Meir, Israel’s controversial “Iron Lady” Prime Minister during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War in which Israel was surprised by a two-front attack from Egypt and Syria. The film’s debut in February at the Berlin International Film Festival sparked a debate about “Jewface” casting because Mirren isn’t Jewish. Similarly, Bradley Cooper had come under fire as a non-Jewish man playing the Jewish composer Leonard Bernstein with a large prosthetic nose.
Meir was born in Kyiv, brought up in Milwaukee and moved to what was then British Palestine when she was 23; Mirren was born in London to a Russian immigrant father and an English mother. Fellow actor Maureen Lipman said publicly that she disagreed with Mirren’s casting “because the Jewishness of the character is so integral”. (Mirren wrote to Lipman in response; the latter later declared the former a mensch – a person of integrity).
The casting of Helen Mirren as Golda is both complicated and straightforward. Golda’s grandson, Gideon (see panel, page 15), wanted Mirren to play his grandmother. British writer Nicholas Martin, who had a hit with Florence ▷
‘My physicality did get in the way of me being taken seriously’
‘Golda was smart, driven. She had a very specific kind of feminine power’
◁ Foster Jenkins, read about Golda Meir after he decided to educate himself about “the complex, tragic subject” that is Israel and thought she was “the ultimate girl boss”. Martin is also not Jewish, but he did his own extensive research into the Israeli prime minister and worked with several experts. He knew Mirren had attended the Jerusalem Film Festival and, in the 60s, been on a kibbutz. He sent her the script. “She said yes immediately. Once she was on board, we stood a really good chance of getting the project going.”
But did he have any concerns about a non-Jewish person playing a famous Jewish leader? “I don’t feel like all this discussion about Gentiles playing Jews is helpful,” he fires back. “Helen’s job was to portray Golda authentically, which Golda’s family would say she has. A leading Israeli historian said that Helen is “more Golda than Golda”. I find it very worrying that there is a creeping authoritarianism in entertainment saying you cannot do this or that. Am I just supposed to write about middle-aged men living in south London?”
Guy Nattiv, the Israeli Jewish director whose short film Skin won an Oscar, says that Mirren was already cast when he came on board. “When I met Helen, she told me how she volunteered, aged 29, on the kibbutz,” he says. “She toured the country for five months and fell in love with it. She was basically Israeli, you know? So I never felt that I compromised the authenticity [of the film] by using Helen, who can move from being funny and soft, like a grandmother, to being fierce and ruthless like a politician.”
Mirren is not remotely defensive when the subject of controversial casting is brought up. “The whole issue of casting has exploded out of the water fairly recently,” she says. “I’ve had other Jewish roles [in Woman in Gold and The Debt], but not an uber-Jewish role like Golda Meir. I did tell Guy that I’m not Jewish, in case he thought I was. I said, ‘If that’s an issue, I’ll step away, no problem.’ But he said, ‘No, it’s not an issue. I want you to play Golda.’ And off we went.”
Does she agree with Martin’s fear of “creeping authoritarianism” in the arts? “I think, in a way, that it’s more frightening for a writer to be told they are not allowed to write about subjects with which they don’t have an immediate DNA connection,” she says. “I imagine it must be very alarming. And ridiculous.” Mirren confesses that she has considered doing a DNA test to see if she has any Jewish antecedents, “especially on my London side”. She certainly feels an affinity with Jewish people, not only because she worked in Israel shortly after the Six Day War and “shells were falling on our kibbutz”, but also because she was born in July 1945, months before the Second World War ended. “The realities of the Holocaust were being revealed as I was gaining consciousness of the world. I do think that the profound, earth- shattering trauma of the Holocaust does enter the DNA. Maybe it’s hocus pocus, but I think only a Jewish person really carries that profoundly with them. The other issue is that within the Jewish race there are other races – Ashkenazi and Sephardic – who are racially very different.” She pauses. “It’s all a sort of swirling fog at the moment that I can’t quite unpick.” Mirren remembers how she felt
when Golda Meir became Prime Minister of Israel in 1969, which was shortly after she had worked on the kibbutz. “It was one of those moments when you saw a crack in the stone and realised that things can change. Women can lead a country. Although… I was watching some kind of political get-together in North Korea the other day and, out of 300 people, maybe three were women.”
Does she always scan rooms like that for women? She laughs. “Oh, I do! Absolutely. They’re usually right at the back or on the side, taking notes. So, Golda becoming the first and only female prime minister of Israel was, to me, important. She was very smart, very driven, but she never tried to become a man in the way Margaret Thatcher did. She had a very specific kind of feminine power. It was unfair that she took the fall for the Yom Kippur War. As the film shows, the mistakes that were made were the mistakes of the military.”
When she played Elizabeth II in The Queen Mirren wore normal cosmetics, but for Golda she spent two-and-a-half hours in the make-up chair each day. Contact lenses turned her blue eyes brown; silicone bags sat beneath her eyes; her hands were stained with nicotine (Golda chain-smoked) and a fake bridge and tip pieces were added to her nose. The costume designer then put Mirren in a spandex bodysuit and padded her legs – Golda’s ankles were swollen from the lymphoma for which she was secretly being treated. There was only one compromise – Mirren had to abandon using false teeth as she found it hard to move her face.
It was worth the effort – unless you know it’s Helen Mirren playing Golda, you’d think it was Golda herself. There is no hint of the L’Oréal model barefoot on the catwalk. For Mirren, this is strangely liberating as, in some ways, her looks have been a distraction over the years. Everyone recalls the 1975 interview she did with the late Michael Parkinson, who repeatedly referenced her distracting “physical attributes”.
When this topic comes up, I half expect her to be grumpy about it simply because it’s been mentioned so many times. Especially since, following Parkinson’s death, it went viral and shocked a generation of Gen Zers.
Instead, she smiles – that wonderful, regal smile – and offers a more nuanced response. “I didn’t feel sorry for Parky, but then in a way I did because in lots of ways he was right. My physicality did get in the way of me being taken seriously as a classical actress. Also, I was listening to Elton John’s autobiography and I didn’t realise that when Elton John was outed in a bad way by The Sun, Parky invited Elton on to his show so that they could talk about it properly. He held out a hand and helped Elton John at a very important moment. So I don’t want to diss Parky.”
Besides which, times change. “Yes, yes they really do. And fast. And we can only kick down the patriarchy one brick at a time.”
Golda is in UK cinemas from Friday 6 October