Dame Helen Mirren, the Oscar-winning actress playing Golda Meir in Guy Nattiv’s upcoming biopic, Golda, spoke out about the controversy over the casting of non-Jews in Jewish roles to the Daily Mail, saying it was legitimate to discuss the issue.
“It was certainly a question that I had, before I accepted the role,” she said. Meir “is a very important person in Israeli history” and she said she had expressed her doubts over her suitability for the role to Nattiv before she signed on.
“I said, ‘Look Guy, I’m not Jewish, and if you want to think about that, and decide to go in a different direction, no hard feelings. I will absolutely understand.’ But he very much wanted me to play the role, and off we went.”
She had no rancor over the fact that British-Jewish actress Maureen Lipman, who also holds the title “dame,” raised the issue of whether Mirren should play Golda. Lipman told The Jewish Chronicle: “With that [casting] I disagree, because the Jewishness of the character is so integral.”
Said Mirren, “I do believe it is a discussion that has to be had – it’s utterly legitimate,’” she said, while acknowledging that it brought up many other questions. “You know, if someone who’s not Jewish can’t play Jewish, does someone who’s Jewish play someone who’s not Jewish?”
She also wondered about whether this attitude might lead to actors being cast according to their sexual orientation. “I know actors like Ian McKellen would, I think, take big issue with that, because what happens then if you’re a gay actor? Shouldn’t you be able to play straight parts? Is this really a path you want to go down?”
She celebrated the openness in casting now, saying that she was happy that Glenda Jackson, “can now play King Lear” and that the black actor Adrian Lester, “can play Henry V, and reveal new understandings about the play.”
Back in the 1970s, she recalled, “‘I so wanted to play Hamlet... When I was of that age, no girls did play Hamlet – and then things changed, and I think it’s fantastic. Women can play Hamlet! It’s a question of opportunity.”
Mirren said that she had not been in touch with Lipman. “I very much respect Maureen. And I love her as an actress, absolutely. I’d love to bump into her and sit and have a cup of tea and talk about it... My only real fear is if I’m really bad as Golda... in which case, I’ll be toast.”