Helen Mirren has forged an illustrious career playing regal women. Whether it’s her Oscar-winning portrayal of Elizabeth II in 2006’s The Queen, and again on stage in The Audience, that of Elizabeth I in the eponymous TV miniseries, or even the fiercely proud Maria Altmann in 2015’s Woman in Gold, there is something about Helen’s persona that conveys an air of majesty and dignified elegance.
Having descended from Russian aristocracy – she was born Ilyena Mironov, her grandfather, Pyotr Vasilievich Mironov, was a colonel in Russia’s Tsarist army and a diplomat, and Tolstoy refers to the Mironov family in War and Peace – she exudes a bold yet serene aura in her work. Yet her natural, real-life self is far more unrestrained and exuberant. In person, Helen is voluble, witty, acerbic and playfully provocative. In her latest project, the miniseries Catherine the Great, Helen stars in the title role that marks a return to both her royal screen self as well as her Russian roots. Helen had long been fascinated with the Russian empress, and she set the project in motion when she proposed the idea for the series to producer David M. Thompson while they were working on Woman in Gold. “I’ve been interested in playing Catherine for many years,” Helen says. “She was an extraordinary figure … and [although] I’m not saying she didn’t have her faults – she made mistakes and finished up quite tyrannical – she was originally a reformer and a Westerniser, if you like, of this vast, vast country.” Directed by Philip Martin – who helmed the final series of TV police drama Prime Suspect, in which Helen portrayed Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison to great acclaim – the four-part historical drama portrays Catherine towards the end of her 34-year, 18th-century reign. This was a time when she developed a passionate relationship with Grigory Potemkin, played by Australian actor Jason Clarke [The Aftermath, Zero Dark Thirty], who recently played opposite Helen in the period drama Winchester.
In response to the notorious legend that Catherine the Great once had sex with a horse, Helen is imperially dismissive: “That was calumny thrown at her by history because history doesn’t like very successful, very powerful women. They have to drag them down and history tried to drag Catherine down. I hope we are going to reinstate her reputation as the incredible leader that she was.” Helen, 74, has spent the past three decades with Hollywood director Taylor Hackford (Ray, An Officer and a Gentleman). They married in 1997 and divide their time between homes in Los Angeles and the Italian village of Tiggiano in Puglia, where they own a villa and a farmhouse they
are currently renovating.
Here, Helen Mirren chats about her latest project.
What is it about Catherine the Great that has fascinated you for many years, to the point where you have now brought her story to life?
She was a woman from history who grabbed and then wielded great power, [who] rewrote the rules of governance by a woman, and who succeeded to the extent of having the word “Great” attached to her name.
Given that you were the one responsible for planting the idea for this miniseries in the mind of David M. Thompson, what was your reaction when he finally brought the project to life and wanted you to play Catherine?
I was nervous. I was frightened. I don’t know why, but I was. I thought, “Oh no, that’s a terrible mistake.” You set yourself up to fall flat on your face. I’ve always been very wary of saying, “I’d like to do this”, because it is a recipe for disaster. It’s better to allow things to come randomly and brilliantly. But then I was committed. I couldn’t wriggle out of it – and here we are!
You’re of Russian aristocratic descent and you’re famous for playing queens. Does that make playing Catherine the Great a matter of destiny?
I enjoy playing queens, generally speaking. It’s good to be queen. Catherine the Great of Russia was an amazing monarch. I mean, the reason certain queens are great to play is because they’re powerful. The funny thing is that everything started with Prime Suspect. I always arrived early because I wanted to be the first to introduce myself and get rid of any nervousness or awkwardness between me and the other actors, especially any new cast members. Then one day the producer, Andy Harries, looked at me and remarked how everyone on the set treated me like a queen, and how I even looked like one. So the idea of filming The Queen was born in his mind!
Had you ever thought of playing a queen before?
Yes, but not the current queen, which poses a very different challenge. But I had thought about playing Queen Elizabeth I, which is a role every actress has thought of playing because of her extraordinary nature. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to play her over a long period. I still think it was one of the most important performances of my life.
Do you feel any personal affiliation with royal families in light of your noble lineage?
It’s more that my Russian ancestry has a connection to acting. Researching my family history, I found a Russian ancestor of mine had created one of the first theatres in 17th-century Russia! I also discovered that Mironov is the name of one of the greatest Russian actors, Yevgeny Mironov, although unfortunately we are not related. But there might be something about my Russian heritage that fated me to become an actress.
Your image is that of an independent-minded and assertive woman who is a trailblazer and role model for other women. Did that come naturally?
My parents had taught me that it was important to make my own way in the world and never dependon a man for money. So economic independence was a value that was ingrained in me from the beginning. But it was hard at first, when I was beginning my career in a film industry that was totally dominated by men. It took me time to learn how to defend myself in that world and I figured out that you had to become more aggressive if you wanted to make your way and not get pushed around. Women need to be able to speak up for themselves.
You’ve also been a vocal supporter of the #MeToo movement in Hollywood and society in general. How satisfying is it for you to be part of the current movement to stop sexual harassment and bring about equality for women?
I have spent most of my life dealing with sexism and fighting against it. I’m very glad that we’re now seeing extraordinary changes taking place and women are taking up positions of power in all walks of life. My belief is that the movie business is a reflection of the real world, at least with regard to the status of women. Once we see women gain more power and equality in everyday life, then we’re going to see women play a much more substantial role in the arts in general. Then we’ll see more films and TV series that are much more representative of women’s lives and their importance in society.
Do you see yourself as a trailblazer in this regard?
I try encouraging younger generations to retain their idealism and keep fighting to make the world a better place. You can’t give in to cynicism. I’m a rebel, so I have no fear in speaking my mind and asserting my point of view. Women need to keep speaking out until the politicians and Hollywood power brokers give women greater quality and our fair share. In the past, women had almost no voice. But the spirit of change has been bubbling under the surface for many generations, and now we’re in the middle of a volcanic eruption where women are able to speak out about these issues. There’s no turning back.
Catherine the Great commences on Foxtel tonight at 7.30pm.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale November 3.