October 19, 2019

Helen Mirren has learned much in her 74 years. But recently the Oscar-, Tony-, and Emmy-winning actor discovered something that, frankly, pissed her off.

“I was just reading about an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite paintings,” Mirren told Vanity Fair last Sunday by phone, audibly irked. “I didn’t know there were these incredible women Pre-Raphaelite painters. Why have I never heard of these painters? Their paintings are spectacular and beautiful.… Isn’t it amazing how women have been either erased out of history or else have had calumnies thrown at them?”

She pointed out Cleopatra as an example—one of the most powerful women in history whose significant accomplishments are popularly overshadowed by inaccurate descriptions of her appearance. “She was incredibly intelligent, not very beautiful, but with an amazing character,” Mirren pointed out. “But, you know, history really doesn’t want women to be successful. And if they are, they have to have gotten their success through sex, basically. That’s the male perception of history, I believe, to a certain extent.” She took a deep breath. “It pisses me off. I’m telling you.”

Beginning this Monday, Mirren will embark on a mission to correct this male perception of history with Catherine the Great—a sumptuous four-part HBO miniseries that Mirren essentially willed into existence based on her interest in the Russian ruler. According to Mirren (whose father is Russian), Catherine was an intelligent, witty, strong-willed, ahead-of-her-time woman who had a fire burning inside that wouldn’t let her succumb to societal expectations or norms. Sadly memory of Catherine’s reign was muddled by stories launched by jealous men like Frederick the Great, who ruled Prussia while Catherine was on the throne, and Paul I, Catherine’s own inept son. (Think 18th-century “fake news.”) Like the best women, Catherine was full of contradictions: A steely and solid ruler, she was also sensual, enjoying passionate affairs with lovers including Russian military leader Grigory Potemkin (played in the miniseries by Jason Clarke). Her sensuality was the springboard for certain smear campaigns against her—with one popular rumor alleging that she was a nymphomaniac.

Read the full article/interview in our press library.