Casting of Helen Mirren as Israeli PM Golda Meir sparks ‘Jewface’ spat

Famed British actress Maureen Lipman says Jewishness of character is integral; others say actors should be allowed to act

Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in HBO's 'Golda.' (Jasper Wolf)
Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in HBO's 'Golda.' (Jasper Wolf)

British actress and comedian Maureen Lipman has questioned the casting of non-Jewish actress Helen Mirren as Golda Meir, Israel’s only female prime minister, in an upcoming biopic set during the Yom Kippur War.

“With that I disagree, because the Jewishness of the character is so integral,” Lipman told the Jewish Chronicle in comments published Monday.

“I’m sure she will be marvelous, but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela. You just couldn’t even go there,” Lipman said.

Lipman was one of a number of leading lights in British television and theater, along with Miriam Margolyes, to sign a 2019 open letter about the casting of non-Jewish actors to play Jewish characters — a practice that some have labeled “Jewface.”

Her comments this week reignited an ongoing squabble over casting non-Jewish actors as Jewish characters.

Many are pointing out that while casting directors are becoming more and more careful not to miscast minority roles — relating not just to race but disability, sexual orientation and more — Jewish characters are still regularly, if not predominantly, played by non-Jews.

Maureen Lipman on Oct 16, 2020 (Screen grab/ITV News)

However, not all believe that to be a problem.

Prominent playwright and director Patrick Marber told the Jewish Chronicle that he believed there was too much emphasis put on “lived experience,” rather than the skill of the actor.

“I fucking hate that expression,” he said. “Because ‘lived experience’ is sort of a denial of what creativity is and denies the actor the fundamental challenge and right to become someone else to impersonate another human being from another time, from another culture from another religion and another sexuality and other gender.”

Marber told the newspaper that while Jews needed to stand up for themselves, he did not think they should be “exclusive and excluding.”

“I want us Jews to be liberal-minded and generous. I think a gentile can play a Jew and a Jew can play a gentile. I don’t like it when someone plays a Jew and gets it wrong. [But] I don’t like quotas. I don’t like laws. I think we should be better than that, we Jews,” Marber said.

Actress Helen Mirren attends the 22nd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, California, January 30, 2016. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Prominent Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain on Wednesday defended Mirren’s casting, saying that there had been a discussion of the matter at his synagogue.

“The unanimous verdict was that actors should act — that’s what is their skill. You don’t have to be Jewish to play a Jew or orphaned to be an orphan. But it’s wise to have an adviser from whatever is the context,” Romain tweeted.

Read more: Who can play a Jew? Celebs claim double standard over onscreen representation

Production on “Golda” began last year and it is currently being shot in London with a star-studded cast that includes “Call My Agent” star Camille Cotin as Meir’s longtime personal assistant and Israeli actor Lior Ashkenzi as her chief of staff.

The feature-length movie is being directed by Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, who won the 2018 Academy Award for best short for “Skin,” a film involving neo-Nazis that he later made into a feature.

Israeli Premier Golda Meir during a press conference at the Israeli Embassy in Rome January 15, 1973. (AP Photo/Giuseppe Anastasi)

The news of the biopic followed the announcement of another star-powered production on Meir, a series titled “Lioness,” led by Israeli actress Shira Haas of “Unorthodox” fame.

While “Golda” will focus on the turbulent Yom Kippur War period, “Lioness” will follow Meir from her birth in Kyiv to her American upbringing in Milwaukee, her role in the formation of Israel and her rise to become the new nation’s first and so far only female prime minister.

JTA contributed to this report.

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