Oscar-winning actor Helen Mirren refused to address the controversy around her casting as Israel’s iconic Prime Minister Golda Meir in Guy Nattiv’s biopic during the movie’s press conference at the Berlinale.
When asked to comment on the backlash and the issue of authentic casting, Mirren left it to Nattiv and her co-star Lior Ashkenazi (“Footnote”) to stand up for her while she smiled shyly.
Mirren is neither Israeli nor Jewish, and critics have argued that she shouldn’t have been cast as Israel’s most important female figure.
Nattiv said that when he met Mirren, he instantly felt like he was in the presence of a “family member” — an “aunt” who had the “Jewish chops to portray Golda.”
“We spoke about that for hours. She totally got everything, every nook and cranny, everything in this character,” he continued. Surrounding Mirren with an Israeli cast was a crucial step, he said, to making him feel like he was “making an Israeli film.”
“Helen said something very smart. She said, ‘Okay, so let’s say only Jews can portray Jews, but what about non-Jews?’ So it’s like limiting us in such a way. I think that Israeli and Jewish actors have no limitations and they have no problems to portray (characters) around the world (…) in the international shows,” the director argued.
Ashkenazi made the best joke of the presser, when he asked the crowd of journalists, “Let’s say that we’re making a movie about Jesus Christ. Who’s going to play him?
Mirren, who is known for her razor-sharp wit, said, “It won’t be me!” prompting some laughs in the room.
The actor, meanwhile, drew a parallel between Tudor queen Elizabeth I and Meir, who was dubbed the Iron grandmother of Israel.
“In a weird way, it was a bit like playing Elizabeth I in the sense of (…) her utter commitment to her country,” said Mirren. “The absolute total dedication of her life to that, and what she achieved without being the sort of mad dictator-type character at all. She was very maternal.”
Mirren said she “came away” from playing Meir with the deepest of admiration for her and indeed a kind of love for her.” “She was incredible person to enter into and to experience from within.”
Meir has been played before by Elizabeth Bancroft and Ingrid Bergman — two performances that Mirren said she looked at before “making it (her) own.
Earlier this year, Mirren had compared the casting backlash she faced with “Golda” to casting gay characters. “What happens then if you’re a gay actor? Shouldn’t you be able to play straight parts? Is this really a path you want to go down?” Mirren told the Daily Mail.
Mirren also said the controversy was part of a wider debate over authentic casting that’s created a “lot of terrible unfairness in (her) profession.”
“If there’s an actor who’s disabled, who’s brilliant but has had very few opportunities, and now a wonderful role comes along that’s for a disabled actor, everything being righteous, he or she should have that role.”
Based on a screenplay by Nicholas Martin (“Florence Foster Jenkins”), the movie is set against the backdrop of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Nattiv said he was prepared to prompt a debate in Israel after the movie comes out. “As an Israeli, I grew up with this knowledge that Golda is complicated character and this is the Vietnam of Israel,” continued the helmer.
“Golda” is produced by BAFTA winner Michael Kuhn. Embankment handles international sales. Bleecker Street and ShivHans Pictures pre-acquired U.S. rights in 2021 in a deal negotiated by ICM Partners and CAA Media Finance.