Article taken from Vanity Fair.
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.
“One of the great women of history has been sort of maligned until we rescue her reputation,” Mirren told Vanity Fair. “Catherine’s son really wanted to erase her from history. He was the one who put a rule in that after his mother, no women could rule Russia—which is extraordinary when you think that his mother was actually one of the most successful rulers Russia has ever had. She had been incredibly successful at managing all the powerful different forces around her—political, military, religious. He then made a complete mess of it, and they killed him within five years of him taking the throne because he was just so hopeless. But also, Frederick the Great was an absolute misogynist. He was her arch enemy and he hated her because she was successful, and in many ways more successful than he was. He didn’t believe that women should be in power, and I think he was the one who perpetuated the fake news, the false stories of her sexual proclivities, which are completely untrue.”
Playing Catherine has long been a fantasy of Mirren’s, given the multifaceted historical figure’s C.V. She advocated for women’s education and equality; maintained entertaining correspondences with Voltaire; and took lovers like Potemkin in her bath house. “From the early days of me beginning to understand Russian history, the story of Catherine and Potemkin has always been a very attractive and extraordinary story to me,” Mirren said. “I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would ever get to play her.”
Mirren teamed up again with her Emmy-winning Elizabeth I collaborator Nigel Williams for the series, which was directed by Philip Martin (The Crown), another British, Emmy-winning contemporary. The premiere, which airs in the U.S. Monday, wastes no time in showing Catherine as the badass she was. (She famously overthrew her husband to take the throne—a power move that presumably inspired Claire Underwood’s entire playbook.) After this coup, in the first episode, Mirren’s Catherine goes against her advisers’ wishes and shares a controversial hot take with her people: that they abolish serfdom. She tells off the men attempting to manipulate her. She wears head-to-toe fur. She speaks frankly about her unattractive ex and son. And delivers delicious bon mots while eyeing the men in her court. “War, war, war,” Catherine says, bored. “All I want to do is talk about sex. Or gardening.”
Like most of the world, Mirren is a fan of Fleabag—Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Emmy-winning comedy in which the protagonist explores sex and romantic misfires with the kind of hilarious candor and witty intelligence Mirren’s Catherine shares. In a fit of fantasy fiction, Mirren agreed that if Catherine the Great were around today, she, too, “would definitely watch Fleabag. Absolutely. I think she’d watch it.” But with decades more experience and acquired intelligence than Waller-Bridge’s protagonist, Catherine would also say, per Mirren, ‘Oh, you silly girl. Come on. Be smarter. Have more nous.’”
Mirren is excited for audiences to get to know the woman she finds so fascinating. “She was amazing, funny, and sweet. You look at her rules of behavior in her court, and she was very down to earth. She said, ‘No getting up when I come into the room.’ She didn’t want any of that bowing and scraping. She was this extraordinary, hardworking person. But at the same time, she had a great sense of humor. She loved to laugh above all,” Mirren said, discussing why Catherine was so attracted to Potemkin—the start of a steamy affair that unfolds over the series’ four episodes. “I think most women know that men who make us laugh genuinely, it’s the sexiest, most attractive thing.” Speaking from her own experiences, Mirren said, “I hate those kind of guys who just tell you jokes, expecting you to laugh. They tell these endless, terrible jokes they think are terribly funny, and they’re not. They want you to be an audience. I just find it so boring. But men who are genuinely witty and do make you laugh…I think that was the thing with Potemkin. I think Potemkin absolutely made her laugh and she loved him so much.”