Life & Culture

'We need to talk about Jewface' says Dame Helen Mirren

The actor is starring in a new biopic about Golda Meir, and says she 'absolutely believes' in Israel


When I meet Dame Helen Mirren, looking splendidly regal in a purple dress, she’s sitting alongside Guy Nattiv, her Israeli director on her new movie Golda.

Of course, she’s playing Golda Meir, the “Iron Lady” of Israeli politics, a casting that’s attracted quite a bit of controversy. In the JC last year, actress Maureen Lipman criticised the decision to hand Mirren, who is not Jewish, the part. “I’m sure [Mirren] will be marvellous, but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela,” she told the JC’s John Nathan “You just couldn’t even go there.”

She added: “The Jewishness of the character is so integral.”

Mirren understands why there has been such a furore about this supposed act of 'Jewface': “I think the discussion has to be had and there are arguments on both sides.”

She then proceeds to tell an anecdote regarding the esteemed British drama school the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada). “I was invited to be on the board. And I said, ‘All right, fine.’ I hadn’t gone to drama school myself. And there was this older guy who was the chairman of the board. We were talking about the need to bring more black actors into Rada, that there weren’t enough black actors. And he literally sat there and said, ‘We can’t do that. It would be cruel, because there aren’t the roles for them.’ I resigned that day.”

She pauses. “The whole idea [of casting] is changing all the time. And it still is.”

The irony is that 78-year-old Mirren has played Jewish characters before, such as a Mossad agent in The Debt, and there was no such outcry. As Nattiv points out, he wasn’t the first person who thought of casting Mirren. It was Meir’s grandson Gideon Meir who suggested her, and he was so moved by Mirren’s portrayal he was “crying and bawling” at the premiere.

Nattiv, who won an Oscar for his short film Skin, adds: “I met with her in my home in Los Angeles, and I thought I’m meeting a family member. She felt like my aunt. She had all the layers of a Jewish person.”

We’re speaking in a plush hotel in Berlin, shortly after the film received its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and before the ongoing SAG-AFTRA union called its actors out on strike. Unsurprisingly, Nattiv is vehemently against this casting controversy. “OK, let’s say that only Jews can portray Jews. That means that Jews cannot portray non-Jews. It’s a very dangerous conversation now.

"Right? So I felt that because I’m Israeli, because I’m of a third generation of Holocaust survivors, I have the authenticity to tell the story the way I want to tell it.” Pointing out that so many of the cast and crew are Israeli, he adds: “We are so proud that Helen is representing Golda. As Israelis, we don’t understand why it’s so important.”

Certainly, Mirren’s turn as the former Israeli prime minister adds another formidable woman to a long list she has played, whether historical (her Oscar-winning Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen, her Catherine the Great in the 2019 HBO mini-series) or fictional (her battle-hardened police detective Jane Tennison in the long-running TV drama Prime Suspect). The actress was also very aware of the impact made by Meir, who led Israel between 1969 and 1974. “I do remember Golda becoming Prime Minister… she was one of the first women to lead a country. And I was absolutely excited, blown away. It was like a miracle. It was fantastic.”

Two years before Meir came to power, Mirren had visited Israel, hitchhiking around the country with her then-boyfriend and spending time volunteering on a kibbutz in the north of Israel. “I worked in the vineyards,” she says. “I was literally combing the vines with a big plastic comb.” Her memories are still vivid, amounting to more than just her labours in the sunshine. It was the time of the Six-Day War and shells were dropping close by, over the Jordanian border. Alongside her, one young Israeli co-worker left a strong impression.

“All he wanted to do was join the army. So he was very bellicose. And he was on the walkie-talkie to the base. And I heard all of them speaking in Hebrew. I didn’t understand obviously. Because the shells were landing in the field that we were working in, it transpired that they were telling him to come back to the shelter where my boyfriend at the time was — he was in the shelter. But he was saying, ‘No, I’m a brave Israeli soldier, I refuse to come back in! I will not be beaten! But bring the blonde bitch back!’”

Mirren is more fuzzy on the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the conflict between Israel and Egypt and Syria that forms the heart of Nattiv’s movie. “The specifics of the Yom Kippur war, I guess… I was busy being an actress… it was probably… am I going to get the next big role or not? Much more important questions!” She chuckles. Already a rising star of the stage, having joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966, her film career was just taking off; the very year of Yom Kippur, she featured in Lindsay Anderson’s brilliant state-of-the-nation cry O Lucky Man!.

Nattiv, who was born in May 1973, was more than able to point her in the right direction. “The Yom Kippur war was the Vietnam of Israel in a way,” he says. “But it was a big, big failure for us. So her [Meir’s] name will always be attached to that. But today, there are other voices that say, ‘Hey, she’s not the only one. There’s other people that f***ed up. Other commanders that contribute to that.’ She relied on these people to tell her the truth, and they lied to her. So the one thing that everybody knows — she was a straight woman, she was not corrupt. And she resigned and she took responsibility. Well, I don’t think any Israeli leader would do that right now.”

It’s clear that Mirren holds Meir in great esteem. “By the time the film picks up the story… she’s a hugely respected character in Israel, because she had been there, she was an early pioneer… the State of Israel owed an enormous amount to her raising of funds in America. The very existence of Israel owed her a great debt.” Meir was 75 when the Yom Kippur War took place and largely immune to the baked-in sexism of the era, the actress estimates. “When women come out of being sexually available, and now they become mothers, grandmothers… they’re put up on a pedestal. So maybe she was up on that pedestal.”

While Golda is largely focused around the war room as she strategises the Yom Kippur conflict, it’s very much a character study of Meir. Of course, much attention will focus on Mirren’s transformation — the grey wig, prosthetic nose, the stoop and the endless cigarettes that she smokes. “I tried not to take any liberties with her, quite honestly. I thought that was incredibly important,” she says. “It has to be as true as it possibly can be.”

Nattiv prefers to focus on the inner life that Mirren created. “Helen brought humanity, depth, a humour,” he says, before Mirren adds: “Golda had all of that.”  “She was controversial,” adds Nattiv of Meir. “And she’d probably today be on the right side of the map and not in the Labour Party, because she was old-fashioned.

“And also the way she treated the Sephardic Jews is unimaginable. She was a little racist, wasn’t she? But she was the only woman in the room and she paved her female way to other leaders. And she was in an almost impossible mission, because for me, she was the wrong person in the wrong time in the wrong place. She was a great state woman, and not a great soldier. So she’s complicated, but that’s what we want to do: movies about complicated characters.”

What does he think Meir would make of the current political situation in Israel? “She would want to go back to her grave. Because what’s going on right now in Israel, it’s terrible. We are losing our democracy. We are fighting the good fight. We’re going to the street and we are demonstrating but it’s something that our leaders from the Seventies and Eighties would never have dreamed. Golda completely trusted the judicial system. And we are losing our democracy. It’s just a dreadful situation in Israel. It’s very scary.”

Mirren is more cautious, perhaps wisely, when it comes to getting involved in another country’s affairs. “I don’t want to start talking politics here,” she says. “But being a child… not of the Second World War, but post Second World War, what was done to the Jewish people in the Second World War, and indeed, centuries before as well …  I feel very profoundly about. So I feel profoundly that the State of Israel must be … it’s a miracle, and it must be. And Israel has been extraordinarily successful, extraordinarily, the creation of that country. But I also believe that the Palestinians have a history and existence and have to be as well.”

It’s a typically astute answer from Mirren, who was born in 1945 to an English working-class mother and a Russian father, who hailed from an exiled family of Russian nobility.

“So there has to be ultimately… I hope, there’s a solution,” she continues.  “I know from being British, and the whole issue in Northern Ireland… I know that these terrible territorial battles go on for centuries. And the twin idiocies of racism and nationalism, which can that take human beings down terrible roads, has always been with us. But I do absolutely believe in the State of Israel. Totally.”

Golda is in UK cinemas from October 6.

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