British actress Helen Mirren, 62, who gained world attention by winning the 2006 best-actress Oscar for her role in The Queen, began work in Germany this week on another nobility role: as the wife of great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. ( dpa )
Blonde Mirren's career in London theatre seemed to gain momentum when she reached her 40s, an age when beautiful actresses usually find their opportunities drying up as their good looks fade.
She played vibrant women in many British television series and films and accepted nude roles, including one in the film Calendar Girls when she was over 50. The Queen, a semi-fictional account of Elizabeth II in 1997, was strictly in demure royal dress.
In her next movie, The Last Station, Mirren will be playing a woman older than herself, Tolstoy's wife Sofia. The script about the Tolstoys' marriage dispute in the last year of the count's life, before he died at 82, is based on a 1990 novel by Jay Parini.
At a Berlin news conference last week, Mirren archly pointed out that Meryl Streep had been first choice for the role when the German-produced costume drama was first announced.
Mirren joked that the US actress would be sorry later she had turned down such a great role.
Casting Mirren seems an apt choice: not only is she of Russian descent, but her ancestors were real Russian nobility.
She was born Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov in London. Her father later changed the family name to Mirren.
"When I was trying on the costumes, I felt like my Russian great-aunt," quipped Mirren to reporters as she settled in to the Mandala luxury hotel in Berlin for several tightly scheduled weeks of shooting in the German capital.
Financing for the movie came from four German film-subsidy agencies. That means much of the filming must be done inside Germany. Stately homes and other locations in provincial Saxony Anhalt state will represent the Russian setting.
The historical drama depicts novelist Tolstoy (1828-1910), to be played by Canadian actor Christopher Plummer, 78, pursuing his philosophy of poverty while his wife demands he leave his income to the family when he is gone.
Both Mirren and Plummer, who was recently seen in the 2006 crime drama Inside Man, are traditionally trained actors who cut their teeth on the classic repertoire including works of William Shakespeare.
Despite her blue blood, Mirren was quoted as being hesitant in 2003 to accept the British knighthood that conferred the title "dame" on her, saying, "The whole concept of aristocracy I loathe."
She had previously rejected a British honour in 1996. After being made a dame of the Order of the British Empire, she poked fun at Britain's Prince Charles, claiming he nearly forgot to give her part of the insignia at the ceremony.
"I think he was a bit distracted by my low-cut top," she was quoted as saying.
At the Oscars, Mirren praised the queen in flip fashion, avoiding the monarch's normal title, Elizabeth the Second, and saying, "For 50 years and more, Elizabeth Windsor has maintained her dignity, her sense of duty and her hairstyle."
The Last Station, with a reported budget of 13 million euros (20 million dollars), is being directed by Michael Hoffman and is set to be released by Warner Brothers in Germany next year. The producers did not give dates for release in other countries.