October 25, 2019
Article taken from Foxtel.
Four-part series Catherine the Great begins in 1762, when the 33-year-old former German princess becomes Empress of Russia after pulling off a coup against her husband, Emperor Peter III, with the help of the court’s guard, led by her lover, Count Grigory Orlov (Richard Roxburgh).
Her passionate affair with another member of court, Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), was her most important relationship, but she never remarried. During their time together, she passed a series of liberalising social and political reforms unheard of at the time, including establishing the first educational institute for women.
“Honestly, I didn’t really want to do this,” Mirren surprisingly confesses. “When you do interviews, someone inevitably asks what you’d like to play next and my mind went blank and all I could think about was Catherine the Great – never imagining in a million years that anybody would finance something like that! When the producer told me he had the money, my heart sank because I dreaded the idea of gearing myself up to investigate this world and play her.”
As well as being known for her iconic TV detective role in Prime Suspect and films including Gosford Park, Hitchcock and RED, Mirren won an Oscar, Golden Globe and Emmy as the titular monarch of TV movie Queen Elizabeth (2005) and Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006).
“Catherine was extraordinarily intelligent, extraordinarily hardworking and I felt there were definitely great similarities in character between her and Elizabeth I,” Mirren explains. “It was an incredible experience for me to do this role, partly because of my own family history and partly because I grew to love her so much after getting immersed in her story.”
Born Helen Lydia Mironoff in Chiswick, London, Mirren was raised by her English mother Kathleen and Russian-born father Basil, who played viola with the London Philharmonic. Three generations before Mirren, the Mironoffs were aristocracy, her great-grandmother a countess whose family is mentioned in Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel War and Peace.
“It was really emotional, revisiting a part of my life that was repressed for a long time,” the actress confides. “I’m half Russian, but that side of my history was buried because my grandfather had been in the Tsar’s army and my father wanted to assimilate, so he changed our name to Mirren and pushed that aside in my growing up. When I finally visited Russia, standing on the terrain that had given birth to my grandfather was a very touching moment for me.”
Mirren says the long days filming mostly in Lithuania were made lighter by her two Australian co-stars, Roxburgh and Clarke, the latter of whom she had previously worked with on the 2018 thriller Winchester, which was filmed in Melbourne.
“Jason and Richard were old mates, so they were very happy to see each other and work together,” she reveals. “There’s nothing more fun than getting a couple of Australian actors together and Jason is the most wonderful guy; he’s funny and generous and very butch but, at the same time, very emotionally open and I think he really got Potemkin. He was a big character to embrace but he just went at it like a bull in a china shop and it was a great thing to see.”
While Catherine was often described as “ruthless”, Mirren admits that is one trait she does not share with her alter ego.
“She knew when to be ruthless and when not to be ruthless, but I’m absolutely hopeless at ruthless,” she says with a roll of her eyes.
“I wish I was better at it. I’ve never even changed my agent – well that’s a lie,” she adds, grinning. “I did change once and, oh my god, I was in fits about it for years!”
One highlight for Mirren was shooting at Catherine Palace in St Petersburg, rebuilt after being gutted during World War II.
“There’s still a tiny piece of wooden floor that is originally from the 18th century that has a burn mark on it from where the Nazi soldiers had a bonfire,” she says. “It was an amazing moment, because I could imagine Catherine walking over that floor. During breaks, I’d wander on my own through the palace in costume, looking out the window that Catherine looked out of centuries ago and seeing the same buildings Catherine saw.”
The feisty actress hopes the historical figure’s story can still inspire women today.
“Catherine had an incredible work ethic and got up at five in the morning, wrote for five hours and was always busy working on legislation to make the Russians’ lives better, even if she didn’t give them much of a say about it,” she explains. “I think we women are always conscious of the fact that nothing is going to be given to us on a plate, so we’re coming from behind and we’re going to have to fight and work for everything. If someone pushes you in one place, many of us have developed the ability to just ignore them and go around the corner and make it happen instead of pushing back in the same place and getting nothing achieved. Catherine was definitely someone who knew how to get around people.”