Helen Mirren as Catherine the Great
Jason Clarke as Grigory Potemkin and Mirren
Helen Mirren knows the perks and perils of power.
Across her career she has played a string of the most powerful women in history, from Shakespeare's Cleopatra (at the National Theatre in London) to England's Virgin Queen (in the 2005 miniseries Elizabeth I) to the current monarch, Elizabeth II (in the 2006 feature, The Queen, which brought her the Oscar for best actress).
In 2003 she was made a Dame of the British Empire, the female equivalent of being knighted, and though she is far too modest to say it, she wields a power of her own.
She is the sort of person who tends to get what she asks for, as proved by her latest turn as a potentate, Catherine the Great. Mirren happened to mention that playing the Russian empress was something she might like to do. Now she's starring in — and executive-producing — a spectacular four-part miniseries, debuting October 21 on HBO. That is clout.
It all started a few years ago, she explains on the set of Catherine the Great in Lithuania, during an interview. "When you do interviews," she says, "you often get asked at the end, 'What's next for you, Helen?' And I never know what to say."
So she plucked something out of thin air.
"I said, 'Well, it would be quite nice to play Catherine the Great,' thinking I was completely safe. I was too old to play her, obviously, when she was young, and they wouldn't want to do a thing about her when she was older. Blow me down if my producer, David Thompson [Billy Elliot], who was producing the film that I was doing when I did that interview, took that ball and ran with it."
Thompson went to the English writer Nigel Williams with the good news. In 2005 Williams won an Emmy for his Elizabeth I miniseries, with Mirren in the lead (from UK's Channel 4, it ran in the U.S. on HBO). More than a decade later he had been talking to Thompson about the biography of Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie that he'd been reading.
"Her story is just extraordinary," Williams says, "yet people know so little about her — myself included, before this. I'd never realized that she was German, she wasn't Russian at all. I'd always seen her as covered in bearskins and shagging lots of men. That was about as far as I got with it. I'd read a lot of history, but it was appallingly ignorant of me.
"That seems to be true for a lot of people. If they do know anything, it's this persistent myth that she had sex with a horse. She didn't. Talk about fake news! That is a smear of an amazing woman."
HBO's Catherine the Great goes some way toward setting the record straight about a woman condemned by history. It tells the story of Catherine's long love affair with Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke) throughout the 1760s and '70s, leaping headlong into the politically tumultuous and sexually charged court of the most powerful female monarch in history.
"We filmed in some of Catherine's real palaces in Russia, including the Little Hermitage in St. Petersburg," says production designer Tom Burton (The Night Manager). "Those places are so rich and so over the top — you sense the immensity of her wealth walking through them. At the time, Catherine the Great was the richest woman in the world. Historically she is the richest woman ever."
The HBO–Sky coproduction, from Origin Pictures and New Pictures, focuses on Catherine's later life. Her husband Peter the Great has died, and her detested son Paul (Joseph Quinn) is plotting in the wings (Paul took the throne after her death; he also oversaw the rewriting of history that led to many of the enduring myths about both Catherine and Potemkin).
"It's a love story," Clarke says. "Potemkin chased her for 10 or 12 years, declaring his love for her, which was a dangerous game in the Russian court at the time. She found the right mate in Potemkin, a man who was happy to serve. And not just serve her, but to serve the role and the position of empress."
For Clarke, whose movie career has been flying high with roles in First Man, Mudbound and Pet Sematary, Catherine the Great offered the chance to join another bold project. This one would involve location-hopping across Eastern Europe and working in the company of director Philip Martin, an executive producer and director of Netflix's The Crown.
(Martin also executive-produced Catherine the Great, along with Mirren, Thompson, Charles Pattinson and Christine Healy.)
"That guy knows how to do scope," Clarke says of Martin. "I did wonder, 'How can they shoot this?' The army camps, the amazing ship she takes to the Crimea… I'm amazed we're doing something this big. And then working with Helen — it's been one of the best experiences of my career. A lot of actors get a bit nervous about doing something of this size, but she just loves it."
On this day in Lithuania, the surroundings are suitably grand. The Pazaislis Monastery near Kaunas, the country's second-largest city, is a magnificent Italian Baroque structure from the late 17th century. For scenes depicting the service marking Prince Paul's coming of age, its Church of the Visitation has been dressed as Moscow's Orthodox Church.
In the adjacent courtyard, the production has created a St. Petersburg street scene in which Catherine will address a military parade. When Mirren steps on set in all her finery — the costumes were designed by Maja Meschede — everyone goes quiet. She is "HM" on the call sheet, which in England would stand for Her Majesty, and she is greeted with regal regard.
But Mirren still seems astonished that her throwaway remark led to all this.
"I thought, 'They'll never. It's too complicated. Too grand to get financed.' Of course, I reckoned without the power of HBO and Sky, and the kind of finances that they have nowadays."
The team HBO and Sky assembled was tailor-made for Mirren. Not only had Nigel Williams written Elizabeth I, but Philip Martin was one of her favorite directors from her time on Prime Suspect (which netted her two of her four Emmy Awards).
"Then the scripts started coming in, and Nigel just so brilliantly found the era. It's the stuff she did that made her into Catherine the Great — before that, she was just the Empress Catherine. Her relationship with Potemkin was so extraordinary. What you will see is a very rich part of her life — if you like, the second part of her life."
The calumny that has followed Catherine down through the ages is that of a sex maniac. She wasn't. From all his reading, Nigel Williams reckons she had five, maybe six sexual partners. But the lie and its dissemination were of interest to Mirren.
"You've got a woman who was very sexual for her whole life. She didn't fuck horses — that was a complete lie. But she did have increasingly younger men in her life. Whether she actually had sex with them toward the end, we're not sure; I think they were more companions than anything."
Catherine's enlightened view of sexuality — the series depicts a huge transvestite ball, a favorite diversion — lends her court a modern flair. But it's worth noting that her reign, from 1762 to 1796, ended almost 225 years ago.
"I've been battling to try and get my 21st-century feminist head around it," Mirren says. "It's such a different mindset. The closest I can get is that she thought like a man and had the same attitude toward her sexuality that men do.
"To this day, we think we're liberated, but we still have profoundly different attitudes as to the sexuality of women and the sexuality of men — things that are acceptable in men are not acceptable in women. Catherine jumped over that fence and landed on the other side, absolutely."
That historians made her pay for that jump angers Mirren.
"It is terrible the way history has judged her — that had a lot to do with her own son, who loathed her. The minute she was dead, he started the mythology. After that, Western culture has been more than happy to look at a powerful woman and say, 'No, she was just sex mad.' Yet when you read her letters, she's so lovely.
"She's so charming and intelligent and appealing. She's not crude and brutish, or vulgar. You read Henry VIII's letters, and he's so ghastly."
Catherine, of course, had absolute power. And as the series shows, she was not afraid to assert that power, be it over men in the bedroom or over the underclass in the Pugachev rebellion of 1773–75, the largest peasant revolt in Russian history.
"She started off very much as a liberalizer and a reformer," Mirren says, "inspired by Voltaire and the reforms that were coming out of France, the new ideas. But she was an empire builder, a dreadful empire builder. She conquered vast swaths of land and people, with the help of Potemkin and her generals. She was completely unafraid of going to war.
"There is a great quote from her that was put into one of the scenes I played yesterday: 'I like peace, but I do not dislike the great events of war.' I think she found war exhilarating."
Costume and makeup are calling, so off Mirren goes. Also going off: the jeans and massive ushanka fur hat she's been using to stay warm. On go a diamond tiara and a vast layered dress with a blue sash so heavy that it slows her walk to a crawl.
She stutters across the side of the courtyard that stands in as an army camp — with sagging canvas tents and stuffed mannequins that the troops have been using for bayonet practice. Mirren enters the monastery, where more than 100 extras in wigs and frock coats — including a full choir — have been awaiting the arrival of their empress.
The scene is the coming-of-age ceremony of Prince Paul. A religious advisor is on hand to instruct Iain Mitchell, who plays the archbishop, how many times he should cross himself, before heading over to adjudicate on the correct number of candles. The choir sings the liturgy, starting afresh every take.
But amid the pomp and circumstance, the most startling sight is Mirren herself. While Mitchell delivers a speech about the importance of maintaining the patriarchy, Martin spots something that his star is doing.
He directs the camera to her face and leaves it there. As the archbishop details the threat to Catherine's power posed by her son, now of age, her regal smile disintegrates, almost imperceptibly, into a stare straight down the lens. Martin grins at the monitor: the actress, barely moving, has complete command of the screen.
In recent weeks, Mirren and company have been filming in St. Petersburg's Tsarskoe Selo State Museum-Preserve — once a country residence of the imperial family — specifically in the Hermitage and the Agate Rooms, on the upper floor of the Cold Bath Pavilion. Cameras have never been allowed here before.
Architectural historian Howard Colvin has described the mineral-bedecked Agate Rooms as "some of the most exquisitely elegant interiors in 18th century Europe."
"The wealth they had is mind-blowing," says Mirren, still marveling about walking on "the same floor that Catherine would have walked on." Members of the court "would play cards, using diamonds as chips," she continues. "Then there was the unspeakable poverty. We show that, too."
Production designer Burton elaborates: "We were trying to contrast the world of the court with the reality of 1700s Russia. So you jump between this incredibly gilded world — Catherine's world, which is gold and glittery and ridiculously wealthy — and the grit and dirt of the serfs and the brutality of the battle scenes. It was an incredibly uneven society — and still is."
"The nearest [modern] corollary to someone with her wealth and influence, just in terms of pure power, would be [Facebook chairman] Mark Zuckerberg," Mirren muses later. "It's pretty incomprehensible — because the wealth is incomprehensible."
But as Zuckerberg might acknowledge, with absolute power comes alienation. And in every one of Mirren's roles as a queen or a ruler, some of the most startling scenes have been of her standing alone.
"I think power must be terrifyingly lonely above all," she observes. "Especially in the world that these people lived in — Elizabeth I or Catherine — where they were surrounded by plots and intrigue, danger and death at any moment. They had to be so ahead of the game just to keep their position.
"Catherine, in particular… it's a miracle when you think about how the hell she held on to power. Elizabeth I, she had being a woman against her, but at least, she was a legitimate daughter of the king who had gone before. Catherine didn't even have that. She must have been incredibly smart at playing people."
Of course, Mirren is not bad at playing people herself. Especially the powerful ones.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2019