'She had utter dedication to her country'

In Jerusalem, Helen Mirren says Golda Meir ‘one of the greatest’ roles she’s played

Ahead of ‘Golda’ premiere at Jerusalem Film Festival, UK actress says she is ‘moved and excited’ to see mass pro-democracy rallies in Israel, recalls her time on a kibbutz in 1967

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Actress Helen Mirren and co-star Lior Ashkenazi attend a press conference for the upcoming film 'Golda,' about prime minister Golda Meir, in Jerusalem, July 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Actress Helen Mirren and co-star Lior Ashkenazi attend a press conference for the upcoming film 'Golda,' about prime minister Golda Meir, in Jerusalem, July 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

British actress Dame Helen Mirren said Thursday in Jerusalem that Israeli prime minister Golda Meir is “one of the most extraordinary characters I’ve ever played.”

Mirren, who is in town for the premiere of “Golda” at the Jerusalem Film Festival Thursday evening, told reporters at a press conference in the Inbal Hotel that the late premier was an admirable figure.

“Golda is one of the most extraordinary characters I’ve ever played,” said Mirren. “Her history, her commitment to her country, her character in general…  she had utter dedication to her country. Her commitment to her country was over everything — over family, over personal contentment, over personal ambition.”

Mirren portrays the iconic politician — Israel’s only female prime minister — alongside Liev Schreiber as US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Lior Ashkenazi as IDF chief of staff David Elazar and Ohad Knoller as then IDF Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon. The film, directed by Israeli Oscar-winner Guy Nattiv, focuses on Meir’s actions during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the aftermath of the devastating conflict.

Mirren said she was very enthusiastic about the role, because “all I want to do is play great women — and Golda was one of the greatest.”

Meir’s position as a woman in the very male-dominated realms of Israeli politics and security in 1973 was fascinating, said Mirren.

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

“She had immense power, but as you know it was called ‘Golda’s Kitchen Cabinet,’ and she was perfectly happy to toddle around in the kitchen making everyone coffee and playing the grandmotherly role,” she said. “It’s a very different attitude to power… but it’s still immense power.”

While Meir left a decidedly complex and contested legacy in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, Mirren defended the woman, the politician and the leader.

“I think she had a profound nobility in her character, understood as the leader of the country, she had to take responsibility — and she did, unlike many other leaders,” said Mirren. “She bore the brunt on her shoulders. And I think it must have been incredibly painful for her.”

At the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, Mirren opined that Meir “would have been utterly horrified” by the Israeli government’s move to overhaul the judiciary, but in Jerusalem she deflected questions about the current political climate.

“I don’t want to speak to [it] because I’m not Israeli and I haven’t lived in Israel,” she said. “I’ve watched it from afar, obviously, in these past weeks. I’m personally very moved and excited when I see those huge demonstrations. I think maybe it’s a pivotal moment in Israeli history.”

Actress Helen Mirren and co-star Lior Ashkenazi (left) and director Guy Nattiv (right) attend a press conference for the upcoming film ‘Golda,’ about prime minister Golda Meir, in Jerusalem, July 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Mirren instead directed the question to Nattiv, who noted that he himself has been taking part in the ongoing anti-government demonstrations “in order to stop this crazy situation that we are facing right now… we are fighting to shape the future of our country.”

The actress, now 77, recounted how she first came to Israel in 1967 as a young woman with her Jewish boyfriend and spent some time on a kibbutz.

“I’ve seen Israel how it used to be, and now I’m amazed every time I come with the way Israel has changed,” she said.

Actress Helen Mirren attends a press conference for the upcoming film ‘Golda,’ about prime minister Golda Meir, in Jerusalem, July 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

At the press conference, Mirren was asked yet again about the controversy that emerged when she was cast to play Meir despite not having any Jewish or Israeli background.

“I adhere to both camps — at the same time as believing anyone can play anything, I also believe that sometimes the absolute right person for a role is the very person who can understand, profoundly understand, the issues involved in that,” said Mirren. “I’m incredibly grateful that I was given the opportunity to inhabit Golda.”

Nattiv noted that Meir’s grandchildren, several of whom were in attendance at the press conference, had given their blessing to the casting.

Gidi Meir “was the first one who said ‘I see my grandmother in Helen Mirren,'” recalled Nattiv. When the director first met Mirren, he recounted, “I saw the Jewish soul immediately, and it was a no-brainer for me. We feel that it was the right move.”

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