Helen Mirren ends a ‘Great’ HBO run as Russian empress Catherine

Award-winning actress concludes her latest television stint

Helen Mirren of ‘Catherine the Great’ Monday on HBO

Q: As your limited-series run in “Catherine the Great” comes to its close, what was your process in embodying the Russian empress?

A: I do my own personal research, which obviously consists of reading books … but on this, the most valuable form of research for me was her letters. Miraculously, and I don’t know how but I’d love to, those have survived to this day. They’re pretty well intact, and she was a prodigious writer. She got up at 5 every morning and wrote for five hours, and just the sheer volume of what she wrote was extraordinary.

Q: How did you go about capturing the physical aspect of Catherine, how she carried herself?

A: You look at the portraits, but portraits are difficult because they’re always very formal. They’re the brand, the logo, the advertising of the moment that says, “I’m glorious. I’m powerful. I’m wealthy.” They’re making a statement, so you have to look through all of that and see if you can find anything in there.

Q: What was the overall view of Catherine that you came away with from doing your research, then performing the part?

A: She was extremely smart. She came to Russia as a 15-year-old girl and was married off to this madman — really a profoundly disturbed person — and she maneuvered all of that, even at that age, and learned very quickly the politics of the court life and how to survive it.

Those were the days when you could be thrown into prison easily and quickly, and be forgotten about forever. I think the amazing thing about Catherine was that she knew she had it in her to rule Russia, and to do that in the 18th century was no mean feat. It was a huge land mass with all those tribal differences, in languages and religions and everything, but she had self-knowledge and great self-discipline.

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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