Dame Helen Mirren goes from glamorous silver fox-ette to Golda-girl

A regular poster girl for on-screen silver fox-ette glamour, Dame Helen Mirren is currently to be seen in a very different light – dowdily dressed and overweight, with heavy jowls and frizzy grey hair, dark circles surrounding her eyes, a lit cigarette never far from her fingers.

But then the character she is playing – former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir – has little time to ponder her under-eye cream. Dame Helen’s new historical film Golda shows in brutal detail the challenges encountered by the iconic “Iron Lady” of Israeli politics, as she faced the trials and responsibilities of leading her nation through the 1973 Yom Kippur War against a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria.

“She was an incredible person to enter into and experience from within,” Dame Helen says of Meir, speaking just before the premiere of the film at the Berlin Film Festival. “I came away from it with the deepest admiration for her, and indeed, a love for her. She was extraordinarily brave and with a commitment to Israel that was total.

“To me, that was her driving, driving energy and force and spirit – the understanding that Israel must exist. That there must be somewhere for the Jewish people to be safe. In a weird way, it was a bit like playing Queen Elizabeth I of England – not because she had the regality or anything, but in the sense of her utter commitment to her country and to her nation.”

Over the last couple of decades, Dame Helen, 77, has made something of a speciality of portraying powerful women. In 2005, she played Queen Elizabeth I on the small screen in the TV series of that name; a year later she was her descendant Queen Elizabeth II on the big screen in the movie The Queen, a role she followed up on stage with the 2013 stage play The Audience.

She’s also played an assassin in Red (2010) and Red 2 (2013), an army colonel in Eye In The Sky in 2015, and most recently, in 2019, embodied one of the most powerful women of all time, the legendary Catherine the Great of Russia in the TV series.

But if you ask her whether the idea of power attracts her in real life, the answer has always been a most emphatic “No thanks”.

“I would give it away,” she once said. “I don’t want power because it is the most incredibly dangerous thing you can have.

“And you’d have to be ruthless and I’m absolutely hopeless at ruthless, I can’t do it.

“Maybe if there were a situation where a friend or relative had a problem and this person was in the way, I can imagine that I might be ruthless then because there would be someone I’d have to save. But on the whole, I’m hopeless. I wish I were better at it. I changed my agent once, and oh my God, I was in fits about it for years.”

Nevertheless, the roles of powerful women seem to come to her – and she admits that, having played so many over so many years, the question of what makes a woman powerful is something she has pondered long and hard.

“I think powerful women are different from powerful men because they’re always conscious of the fact that they’re… coming from behind if you like. They have the feeling that this is not going to be given to them on a plate; they’re going to have to fight and work for it. There’s a masculine thing that if someone’s pushing you, you go against it and push back. Whereas a woman will go, ‘OK, fine, I’ll go around the corner and do it this way instead’.

“So maybe women have more of an ability to negotiate with what gets thrown at them, rather than pushing like a bull through it.”

One of the things she loved best about playing Golda Meir, who died in December 1978 aged 80, was her complexity, she says. “She had this total dedication of her life to her country, and yet she achieved it without being a power-mad, dictatory character at all.

“She was very maternal and had that wonderful domestic side to her. She always said that, at her happiest, she was on the kibbutz looking after the chickens, but life took her in a different direction.

“And she absolutely loved kitchen equipment, which is something I have in common with her, because I’m always buying new kitchen equipment myself.”

Although the film has been well-received, there have been some questions raised about the fact that Dame Helen – Southend-raised daughter of a Russian immigrant father and an English mother – is not Jewish.

She is keeping diplomatically quiet about this but, just before the Berlin premiere, the film’s director, native Israeli Guy Nattiv, said: “When I met Helen at my house, I felt like I’m meeting a family member. Like an aunt. I felt like I’m meeting a Jewish person. Because for me, she’s got the Jewish chops to play Golda.”

For the actress, the physical transformation required to play Golda was intense. A non-smoker in real life, she taught herself to chain-smoke fake cigarettes. “Meir literally had a cigarette in her hand all day and all night,” she says, wincing slightly.

Dame Helen also required a fat suit and a gruelling four hours every day in the make-up chair having Meir’s face overlayed on top of her own. “There was obviously a lot of make-up there,” she agrees. “We had an incredible make-up team, two young girls who are just wonderful. For me, make-up and costume are very, very important parts of the creation of the character and a great tool to enter into it.

“It always rather surprised me at the end of the day when I took it all off and was me again because I got so used to looking into the mirror and being that person.”

Having played prominent women both living and dead, Dame Helen says there is a particular challenge to playing one whose image has been familiar to many.

“You’ve got to look right,” she once said of playing Queen Elizabeth II.

“You’ve got to sound right. You’ve got to move right. We don’t know what Elizabeth I looked like or sounded like, but with Elizabeth II, there are certain requirements because there is a tape you can watch.”

She has had a huge admiration for the late monarch all along. At the recent Bafta awards, her moving tribute to the woman she described as “the nation’s leading star” left the Queen’s grandson Prince William visibly moved. But as long ago as 2006, she was already singing Her Majesty’s praises.

“I have met her at a polo match,” she said at the time. “She wouldn’t remember because I was one of many, many people, but she was immediately engaging because she was charming, she was twinkly, and she was funny. She wasn’t the Queen we think of as this serious person – that’s her being the monarch. But there is another person in there. The Queen does laugh!”

Another woman to have won her admiration was, a little unexpectedly perhaps, Britain’s own Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher.

“I absolutely didn’t agree with her politics,” she said recently. “But there she was. So when a little four-year-old girl watching television says, ‘Mummy, who’s that?’ her mother can say, ‘That’s the Prime Minister’. And in that four-year-old mind is now an absolutely clear understanding that, as a woman, you can be Prime Minister, which when I was growing up was not the case.

“And I think that when you talk about empowerment for women, that little girl watching Mrs Thatcher on television is an example of empowerment as much as anything.” It’s likely Golda Meir would agree.

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