Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren takes on another towering historical figure in The Last Station, playing Sofya Tolstoy, the fiery wife of the great Russian author at odds with his philosophies and disciples.
How do you make a character as melodramatic as Sofya sympathetic?
Because she’s a drama queen, you could alienate the audience really fast. You don’t want the audience to necessarily like or or love her, but to go along with her. You had to feel that this is just how she felt, this was real for her. When I watch the film, there’s one moment when I blow it. I look at that, those awful moments when you see yourself and you go, "Oh, you shouldn’t do that. That’s wrong, wrong, wrong.” And there it is, and you can’t take it back.
What was it about Sofya that made you want to take on the role?
Oh, my God. What do you think? That kind of volcanic creature ... Also, I was sent it very soon after I’d done The Queen, and as a actor your dream is to get something that’s the opposite of what you’ve just done. Obviously, the Queen is such a repressed, interior character who doesn’t show anything. Sofya is the absolute opposite.
Is playing a countess a demotion after playing so many queens?
You know, every actress who gets to be the kind of age I am always gets to play a queen or two, because very often they are interesting roles that we want to write plays or films about. So it’s not just me who gets to play queens. Most actresses have gotten to play a queen or two.
Once again, you’ve been courting some Oscar buzz. Are you looking forward to awards season?
Last time, I just was constantly sitting through these long, endless evenings. I was always the last one up. It was brutal. “Just let me get home, please. Let me drink.” I could never drink. Everyone else was having a ball and I’m just sitting there. But it’s so important for this kind of film for things like that to happen. It’s a small film, it doesn’t have a big marketing budget. And with these little independent films, it’s getting so hard to get them out there at all. And in the next few years it might become even more difficult. I love the big movies. Avatar is fabulous. But the library of film has got to be broader than that.
And up next you star in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, only with a gender reversal.
It was to give me a great Shakespearean role to play, because Shakespeare, damn him, gave crap female roles. They’re all crap. Even Rosalind is crap. I mean, she talks a lot, but it’s not a great role. And as you get older, they really drop away. So the only way for me to get to play a good Shakespearean role is to change the gender. With Prospero, you can change it into a woman without changing very much of the text. In fact, one of Prospero’s speeches is lifted lock, stock and barrel from Madea. Shakespeare just took it. It’s incredible. Like, three words are changed.