Dame Helen Mirren on Portraying Characters from Different Heritage, and Golda interview

Dame Helen Mirren, a seasoned actress with a prolific career, has recently delved into the complex realm of playing characters with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. In particular, her role as former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in the biopic ‘Golda’ stirred controversy due to her non-Jewish heritage. This article explores Dame Helen Mirren’s perspective on the challenges and nuances of such casting choices, the broader implications of this issue in the entertainment industry, and her own journey in navigating these sensitive waters.

The Delicate Balance of Cultural Representation

Dame Helen Mirren, at 78 years old, is no stranger to the world of acting, having portrayed a wide array of characters throughout her career. However, her portrayal of Golda Meir sparked a significant debate surrounding cultural representation in film and the ethical considerations of actors embodying characters from different heritages.

Addressing the backlash, Mirren acknowledged the sensitivity of the situation, stating, “I think I can see, but sometimes I can’t see, because, I can’t see who in this room is Jewish. We are all such an amazing mix, and certainly I don’t have an issue with Kirk Douglas playing a Viking. Kirk Douglas was Jewish.” This statement underscores the multifaceted nature of the issue, highlighting the diversity and complexity of human identity and heritage.

Mirren’s remarks also touch on the controversy surrounding Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of conductor Leonard Bernstein in ‘Maestro,’ wherein he used makeup to alter his physical appearance. Mirren recognizes the potential pitfalls of such transformations, emphasizing the fine line between authenticity and offensiveness. She stated, “I think the whole question of assuming a certain physiognomy because you’re playing a particular race, there is something offensive about that. On the other hand, if you’re playing Leonard Bernstein and this is really what Leonard Bernstein looked like, you know, maybe it’s a good idea. As I say, it’s a very delicate balance.”

Exploring ‘Golda’ and Controversial Historical Figures

‘Golda,’ the biographical film in question, delves into the life of Israel’s first female Prime Minister, Golda Meir, with a particular focus on her leadership during the Yom Kippur War. Mirren acknowledges the controversy surrounding Golda Meir’s treatment of Palestinians during her tenure but clarifies her role in the film. She explains, “All I’m doing is playing Golda during the period of the Yom Kippur War. I’m not explaining her or rationalizing her or reappraising her. I’m just playing a woman of that age dealing with that situation.”

Mirren further reflects on the importance of Golda Meir’s leadership during a tumultuous time, noting, “Just the fact she didn’t put on power suits and walk around like, ‘I’m running a country.’ On the contrary, she just stayed exactly who she was before she became prime minister. It was an incredibly important moment in female history, for me personally, to see that happen.” This perspective highlights the complexities of historical figures and their legacies, even as they provoke controversy.

Casting Controversy and Authenticity

Mirren’s casting as Golda Meir was initiated by the Prime Minister’s grandson, Gideon Meir, who expressed a desire for her to portray his grandmother. The film’s writer, Nicholas Martin, believes that Mirren’s involvement significantly contributed to the project’s success. He asserted, “Once Mirren was on board, the team stood a really good chance of getting the project going.”

However, the controversy surrounding Mirren’s casting cannot be ignored. It has drawn criticism from individuals like Maureen Lipman and David Baddiel, who question the appropriateness of non-Jewish actors playing Jewish characters. Mirren herself acknowledges the evolving nature of this discussion, stating, “the whole issue of casting has exploded out of the water fairly recently.”

Addressing her concerns, she shared an exchange with Guy Nattiv, the film’s director, where she offered to step away from the role if her non-Jewish background posed an issue. However, Nattiv’s response was clear: “No, it’s not an issue. I want you to play Golda.”

The Nuances of Historical Roles and Identity

Casting controversies like this raise significant questions about the portrayal of historical figures and the authenticity of actors in these roles. Martin, the film’s writer, challenges the notion of restricting actors based on their cultural background. He argues that Mirren’s job was to portray Golda authentically, and according to him, she succeeded admirably. In support of his argument, Martin cites a leading Israeli historian who claimed that Mirren was “more Golda than Golda.”

Moreover, Nattiv, the film’s director, emphasized Mirren’s connection to Israel, highlighting her past volunteer work on a kibbutz and her deep affection for the country. He contends that Mirren’s versatility as an actress allowed her to authentically embody Golda Meir’s multifaceted character.

The Evolution of Perspectives

Dame Helen Mirren’s journey in the entertainment industry, particularly her reflections on the infamous interview with Sir Michael Parkinson in 1975, also provides valuable insights into the shifting dynamics of gender and representation.

In that historic interview, Sir Michael Parkinson made remarks that many viewed as sexist, focusing on Mirren’s physical attributes and suggesting that they may distract audiences from her acting prowess. Mirren’s initial response was to label him a ‘sexist old fart,’ a stance that she later softened.

Dame Helen Mirren admitted to feeling some sympathy for Sir Michael Parkinson, saying, “I didn’t feel sorry for Parky, but then in a way I did because in lots of ways he was right. My physicality did get in the way of me being taken seriously as a classical actress.”

She also acknowledged the changing times, recognizing the need to challenge patriarchal norms and values. Mirren pointed to Sir Michael’s later gesture of inviting Sir Elton John to discuss his own issues on his show as an example of growth and evolution.

Sir Michael himself, during a 2019 appearance on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, admitted the interview was ’embarrassing’ and acknowledged that it may have been sexist. However, he also downplayed its significance, saying, “But nobody got hurt, nobody died.”


Dame Helen Mirren’s experiences, both in her recent casting controversies and her reflections on her career, shed light on the complexities of cultural representation and gender dynamics in the entertainment industry. The debate over whether actors should strictly adhere to the cultural backgrounds of the characters they portray continues to evolve, and Mirren’s willingness to engage in this conversation highlights the importance of ongoing dialogue and reflection.

As society progresses and conversations around representation and authenticity persist, it is evident that there are no easy answers. The fine line between respecting cultural identity and allowing for artistic expression remains a subject of debate. However, Dame Helen Mirren’s journey reminds us that these discussions are vital for the continued growth and transformation of the entertainment industry.

Golda is in UK cinemas from Friday 6th October.

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Lee Clarke
Lee Clarke
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