HE­LEN the GREAT

This time play­ing a monarch meant re­vis­it­ing her own, writes Michele Manelis

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - INSIDER -

“I think Cather­ine loved sex, she loved men, and she loved hav­ing a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship

She’s played count­less royal and po­lit­i­cal fig­ures, but for Dame He­len Mir­ren — long viewed as the quin­tes­sen­tial Bri­tish ac­tor — play­ing Rus­sian em­press Cather­ine the Great was deeply per­sonal.

“It was re­vis­it­ing part of my life that was re­pressed for a long time. My fa­ther was born in Rus­sia and so I’m half-Rus­sian. My grand­fa­ther had been in the Tsar’s army, so we were White Rus­sians and my fa­ther very much wanted to as­sim­i­late. So he changed our fam­ily name from Mironiv to Mir­ren,” she ex­plains.

“He had to ac­cept that world was gone and we just had to as­sim­i­late and be Bri­tish.”

She rem­i­nisces about the first time she vis­ited her an­ces­tral home.

“It was in the late 1960s and Rus­sia was very deep into heavy Bol­she­vik com­mu­nism. To find my­self stand­ing on the ter­rain that had given birth to my grand­fa­ther was a very emo­tional mo­ment for me.”

She pauses, com­pos­ing her­self for a mo­ment. “It’s a com­plex re­la­tion­ship I have with Rus­sia, as it was with Cather­ine the Great, who wasn’t Rus­sian at all, but in fact she was a Ger­man princess!” she laughs.

“Though of course, she ab­so­lutely loved Rus­sia and she gave it her all.”

This four-part se­ries fea­tures her leg­endary love af­fairs, in­clud­ing the most no­table, with Count Grig­ory

Orlov (Richard Roxburgh), and an­other re­la­tion­ship with Grig­ory Potemkin (Ja­son Clarke). Se­ri­ously ahead of her time, Cather­ine was also quite the ad­vo­cate for women’s is­sues, and re­mains the longestrun­ning fe­male Rus­sian leader, rul­ing from 1762 to 1796. She came to power through her mar­riage to the Tsar of Rus­sia, Peter III, her sec­ond cousin. A coup, partly or­gan­ised by her lover, Count Orlov from the Guard Reg­i­ment, placed her in the po­si­tion of em­press.

“Cather­ine was his­tor­i­cally ma­ligned start­ing with her son, with whom she so ob­vi­ously had a very dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship,” Mir­ren ex­plains, “and he ma­ligned her after her death. I think that calumny has stuck with her through­out his­tory. It’s the way pow­er­ful, suc­cess­ful women, are pun­ished very of­ten — for be­ing just that, pow­er­ful and suc­cess­ful.

“As for her sex­u­al­ity,” Mir­ren pauses and rolls her eyes, “the in­ti­ma­tion that she was some sort of de­bauched, mad sex­ual creature ab­so­lutely wasn’t true. She was a se­rial monogamist, as so many of us are.” Her gaze is di­rect, and she of­fers, after a beat, “Me in­cluded.”

Now 74, she has been mar­ried to direc­tor Tay­lor Hack­ford since 1997. And while many women, re­gard­less of age, find sex scenes par­tic­u­larly daunt­ing, this has fa­mously never been the case for Mir­ren.

“It was lovely. I en­joyed ev­ery minute!” she laughs. “I think Cather­ine loved sex, she loved men, and she loved hav­ing a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship. She loved to have a guy around but knew it was dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory be­cause if she was to marry, she would re­lin­quish power. But she was al­ways very nice to them. She gave them palaces, she even made one of them King of Poland when she wanted to get rid of him.” She laughs. “So, she loved men. She wanted to be flat­tered and to have some­one to have din­ner with.”

An­other as­pect Mir­ren thor­oughly en­joyed was work­ing with Aussie ac­tors Ja­son Clarke and Richard Roxburgh.

“Noth­ing can be more fun than get­ting a cou­ple of Aus­tralian ac­tors to­gether. I have more scenes with Ja­son, ob­vi­ously, and he’s just the most won­der­ful guy. He’s funny and gen­er­ous and very butch, but at the same time very emo­tion­ally open, and just so much fun. I think he re­ally, re­ally got Potemkin,” she smiles. “That’s a big char­ac­ter to have to em­brace. He just went at it as Potemkin would him­self, full blast, like a bull in a china shop. It was a great thing to see. And Richard and Ja­son are old mates, so they were very happy to see each other and work to­gether and they ob­vi­ously knew each other very well.”

Hav­ing played many queens and women in power, how would Mir­ren her­self han­dle ab­so­lute power?

“I would give it away. I wouldn’t want it,” she shakes her head.

“It must be the most in­cred­i­bly dan­ger­ous thing. And of course, no one re­ally has it. Even the Em­press of Rus­sia didn’t have it be­cause we are all cogs in a wheel, part of a jig­saw puzzle. Cather­ine was de­pen­dent upon the good­will of the landown­ers. And even in other worlds, of­ten young men and women want to be di­rec­tors be­cause they think they’ll have power, and to an ex­tent they do, but they are very in­flu­enced by their fi­nanciers and pro­duc­ers. So I don’t ac­tu­ally think ab­so­lute power ex­ists, re­ally.” She leans for­ward. “And re­mem­ber, I’ve also played house­keep­ers, too, re­mem­ber?” She is ref­er­enc­ing in par­tic­u­lar her turn in 2001’s Gos­ford Park as a maid, which earned her an Acad­emy Award nom­i­na­tion.

Mir­ren, who was awarded a DBE (Dame of the Bri­tish Em­pire) in 2003, has of course gar­nered count­less awards over the course of her ca­reer, which be­gan in 1967 with the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany.

Per­haps the most pres­ti­gious was for her role as Queen El­iz­a­beth in The Queen, for which she won the Best Ac­tress Os­car in 2007 and many other lead­ing awards.

With such an em­bar­rass­ment of riches, where does she keep her tro­phies?

“I have a house in Lon­don and a house in Amer­ica, so I love hav­ing the Amer­i­can awards in Lon­don be­cause they’re more ex­otic there. I’ve made a joke be­fore that I was think­ing of build­ing an ex­ten­sion to my house to put them in, in the same way as pres­i­dents have their libraries.”

She roars with laugh­ter.

“I could have a re­cur­ring tape of all my ac­cep­tance speeches and ev­ery­one would have to lis­ten to them when they were look­ing at the awards.”

CATHER­INE THE GREAT SCREENS ON FOX­TEL’S FOX SHOW­CASE FROM NOVEM­BER 3

He­len Mir­ren re­turns to regal mode in the lav­ish cos­tume drama Cather­ine The Great.

He­len Mir­ren with Aus­tralian co-star Ja­son Clarke on the red car­pet, and (left) the pair in a scene from Cather­ine The Great.

Pic­ture: Jon Kopaloff/Getty

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