‘Golda’ director defends casting Helen Mirren: ‘She’s got the Jewish chops’

At Berlin film festival premiere, Guy Nattiv says he was ‘surprised’ by uproar over decision to pick non-Jewish actress for star role

Israeli director Guy Nattiv and English actor Helen Mirren (R) attend a photocall for the film "Golda," at the Berlin International Film Festival, February 20, 2023 in Berlin. (Ronny Hartmann/AFP)
Israeli director Guy Nattiv and English actor Helen Mirren (R) attend a photocall for the film "Golda," at the Berlin International Film Festival, February 20, 2023 in Berlin. (Ronny Hartmann/AFP)

BERLIN (AFP) — The director of “Golda” on Monday dismissed a controversy over casting Helen Mirren as Israel’s only woman prime minister Golda Meir, saying the British Oscar winner had “Jewish chops.”

Israel’s Guy Nattiv told reporters at the Berlin film festival ahead of the movie’s world premiere that it took only one conversation with Mirren to convince him she was “authentic” enough to play the iconic political leader.

“When I met Helen I felt like I’m meeting a family member,” he said, saying he had been “surprised” by the uproar.

“She’s got the Jewish chops to portray Golda. She totally got everything, every nook and cranny, everything in this character. Other than the fact that I adore Helen, I think she’s one of the best actresses in the world.”

Fellow British actor Maureen Lipman touched off the dispute when she told the Jewish Chronicle last year that she doubted the choice of Mirren, who is not Jewish, because she considered Meir’s religion to be “integral” to her character.

‘Absolutely traumatizing’

Mirren, who won an Academy Award in 2007 for her portrayal of Elizabeth II in “The Queen,” at the time called the questions about being hired for the part “utterly legitimate.”

But Nattiv said Mirren agreed that a focus on identity, a divisive issue in filmmaking, should only go so far.

“Helen said something very smart, she said ‘OK so let’s say only Jews can portray Jews but what about Jews… portraying (non-Jews) — is this not allowed anymore?'” he said.

“Around the world you can see that Israeli actors are in international shows and so for me as a Jewish Israeli director I had no problem (with Mirren playing Meir).”

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

Co-star Lior Ashkenazi said the question of authentic casting could be taken to absurd lengths, imagining a biopic about Jesus Christ. “Who’s going to play him?”

Mirren quipped: “Well it won’t be me.”

Nattiv, whose short film “Skin” about American neo-Nazis won an Oscar in 2019, said he had taken care to ensure that most of the cast and crew was Israeli to steep the film in the nation’s culture and history.

“Golda” shows Meir during the 1973 Yom Kippur War in which Egyptian and Syrian troops attacked on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Nattiv called the conflict “Israel’s Vietnam.”

Mirren, who spent three hours in hair and makeup each morning to look like Meir, said taking the role had been educational.

“I didn’t realize until we made the film what was the impact of the loss of this generation of young men on Israel because there were so few young men in Israel — it was a very young country,” she said.

It was “just absolutely traumatizing for this little country and Golda took the weight of that on her shoulders.”

“She never tried to put the blame on anyone else,” Mirren said. “She squarely faced it.”

“Golda” is screening out of competition at the Berlin film festival, which runs until Sunday.

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