Helen Mirren: From An English Queen to A Russian Countess

Helen Mirren. Photo: Magnus Sundholm for the HFPA.

I am sitting in Beverly Hills Hotel in LA, thinking about Russia and what Tolstoy would have thought of such an opulent place – fresh flowers, marbled floors, gilt, patterned carpeting disappearing down endless wallpapered corridors; when Helen Mirren, who plays Tolstoy’s wife, Countess Sofia, in Andrew Hoffman’s latest film “The Last Station,” walks in, instantly luminous with her presence.

Helen Mirren who is well known for playing English Queens: Elizabeth II in The Queen, the title role in the Television series Elizabeth I and Queen Charlotte in George III and in The Madness of King George, refers to this most recent casting with typical English self deprecation:

“Any actress, who gets to the age I am, always gets to play a queen or two,” She laughs. “Very often they are interesting roles that people want to write plays or films about. So it’s not just me that gets to play a queen, most actresses get to play a queen or two.”

In fact Helen Mirren is not at all what you would imagine; regal, aloof, aware of her great talent. Instead she is warm, unassuming, an intelligent witty sparkle in her eye. It is no surprise then that she didn’t mind being demoted to a Countess. In fact, it seems she relished the opportunity to play such a complex dramatic character.

“Countess Sofia is a volcanic creature,” She smiles. “The Queen, had such a repressed interior, didn’t show any emotions. Sophia is the absolute opposite. So that was attractive, and it was a beautifully written script.”

In the film, Sophia (Helen Mirren) clashes with Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and Chertov (Paul Giamatti) the head of his utopian movement, over the signing away of her husbands portfolio of work; thus potentially robbing Sophia and his family of their considerable inheritance. Frustrated by Sofia’s untamed frustrations and relentless protests, Tolstoy runs away with Chertov and his Utopian Movement. Sofia, who was instrumental in building her husband’s literary career, handwriting many of his books, is overwhelmed by the sense of betrayal, and attempts suicide. However, Helen Mirren doesn’t entirely agree with the saying “Behind a great man is a great woman.”

“No, I think that a lot of men have been allowed to become great because of a partnership,” Helen Mirren smiles wryly.” Women simply weren’t allowed to express themselves in the way they wanted then. I’m sure that happened quite often.”

Helen Mirren, who has already won an academy award for The Queen, several Baftas, Golden Globes and Emmys, has been Oscar nominated again for her performance in this film. However she seems unaffected by the renewed attention, instead understanding the important impact awards have on films such as this one:

“These awards are very important for smaller projects,” she stresses. “It’s getting so hard for independent films to get out there at all. We all love the block busters, but the library of movies has got to be broader.”

The Director, Andrew Hoffman, who has a wide variety of Independent films to his credit –including the brilliant Soap Dish, was thrilled to have worked with such a sophisticated actress. “She’s so smart and she can move so easily from comedy to tragedy, she also has that Russian passion under the pressure of this British restraint which was extremely valuable – and importantly she and Christopher had a great connection, both with a great sense of humour. I heard Christopher ask Helen one day – ‘I hear you’re half Russian’ and she joked – ‘Yeah it’s the bottom half!'” Hoffman laughs.

The synergy of the two great actors produces a powerful dramatic impact on screen. Christopher Plummer counter balances Helen Mirrens’ gravitas with his superb performance as her husband, the literary giant, Leo Tolstoy; Fortuitously, the age gap between Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer happened to be exactly the same age gap between Tolstoy and Sophia, enhancing the authenticity of the piece.

“I’d seen Christopher on stage I know how funny he can be, an egoless actor, he can completely disappear” Hoffman says with real admiration. “I forget I’m watching Christopher Plummer when I’m watching him do this. He also has some iconic power to him which is very important.”

Helen Mirren and Plummer were not the only talented actors whom Andrew Hoffman succeeded in attracting to this film. Two other major stars, James McAvoy and Paul Giamatti play respectively Tolstoy’s secretary, Valentine Bulgakov, and Vladimir Chertkov the head of the Utopian movement.

“It’s the first film I’ve worked on that every actor I went to with the script said yes, ” Andrew Hoffmann enthuses. “I think the cast all wanted to do it because it’s a movie about the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without it. Everybody connects to that on some level, and the fact that the self-proclaimed prophet of love himself, Tolstoy can’t sort things out in his own bedroom, it’s an interesting, kinda funny problem you know.”

Andrew Hoffman pulled this film together against all odds. With budget promises meaning it had to be shot in Germany, edited in France with it scored in Russia, it is indeed a small miracle got made at all.

With a wonderful cast of theatre actors echoing the dilemmas set out in the film; the saying goodbye to a rare animal that they all seem so deeply passionate about, the fight between intellect and heart, money and Love, the last sentiments of the director “That love can conquer all” seems to linger in the room. I will say indeed it did; as the hotel surroundings cease to matter, we were left with a strong sense of the piece having been a heartfelt experience for everyone involved; and there having been not just a great woman behind a great man but also a great men behind an extraordinary woman…

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