Israeli director Guy Nattiv has defended his casting of non-Jewish actress Helen Mirren as iconic Israeli Prime minister Golda Meir in his biopic Golda, which world premieres at the Berlin Film Festival on Monday.
UK actress Maureen Lipman kicked off a debate around the issue in early 2022 when she publicly criticized the casting of Mirren in the role of Meir.
She said the stateswoman’s Jewishness was “integral” to her character and commented that Ben Kingsley would never have been cast to play Nelson Mandela. Mirren later said that Lipman had a point.
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Talking at the film’s Berlin press conference, Nattiv said he had instinctively felt Mirren was right for the role from their very first meeting.
“I can tell it from my point of view as a director. When I met Helen in my house, I felt like I was meeting a family member, like an aunt. I felt that I’m meeting someone like a Jewish person because for me she’s got the Jewish chops to portray Golda,” he said. “We spoke for four hours. She totally got everything, every nook and cranny, everything in this character.”
“There’s no doubt for me and that’s why I was so surprised to see this reaction. Helen said something very smart. She said, ‘Okay, so let’s say only Jews can play Jews. What about Jews not portraying Jews? Is this not allowed anymore?’ So it’s like limiting us in such a way and Israeli and Jewish actors have no limitations. You can see Israeli actors in international shows. And so for me as a Jewish Israeli director, I had no problem.”
Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi, who plays Israeli Defense Forces chief David “Dado” Elazar in the film, also joined the debate with a comment that drew laughs.
“Let’s say tomorrow there is a movie about Jesus Christ. Who’s gonna play him a Jew, or another Jew?
“Well, it won’t me,” Mirren shot back to more laughter.
Based on a screenplay by Nicholas Martin (Florence Foster Jenkins), the film focuses on Meir’s life as leads the country during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Deadline unveiled a first teaser last week. Watch here
Meir, who is often referred to as Israel’s “Iron lady” is a controversial figure generating admiration and anger on both sides of the Middle East conflict.
In the Arab world, she is criticized for her attitude towards Palestinians and her denial that they constituted a nation prior to the creation of Israel in 1948.
In Israel, there continues to be debate over her handling of the Yom Kippur war, which resulted in the death of more than 2,600 Israeli soldiers and another 11,000 being injured,
Mirren said she had developed a “deep admiration” and “kind of love” for Meir through the role.
“She was extraordinarily brave and with a commitment to Israel that was total,” she said. “In a weird way, it was a bit like playing Elizabeth the First of England… not because she had regality or anything but for her commitment to her country and to her nation.”
“You know she was very maternal… She was happiest on the kibbutz looking after the chickens… but life took her in a different direction because of her love of Israel and her dedication to Israel.”
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