Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke Absorbed Grandiose Russian History to Make HBO’s ‘Catherine the Great’

Helen Mirren evokes pure power and intrigue in HBO’s lavish new limited series “Catherine the Great.” Mirren also conjures a magnificent presence in person along with co-star Jason Clarke. The two play one of Russia’s most famous and infamous pairings in this drama which dramatizes the times of the show’s legendary namesake. Mirren is Catherine, empress of the mighty Russian empire in the 18th century. Yet her court is plagued by plots and chauvinistic snickering. Not only is a woman in charge of the vast Russian realm, but there are deep suspicions she had her husband, Peter III, murdered to ascend to the throne. As Catherine also tackles boiling issues concerning slavery and the status of serfs, Lt. Grigory Potemkin (Clarke) comes into her life. The dashing soldier captures the empress’s heart and mind with his charm, wit and down to earth honesty. 

Framed in sumptuous décor and elegant cinematography, director Philip Martin tells Catherine the Great’s story with bold strokes and a contemporary tone. The heart of the series is the relationship between Catherine and Potemkin, which is both erotic and based on real friendship. It doesn’t matter to the empress that her own, sniveling husband and his cronies attack and plot against Potemkin, she will protect him and extract terrible vengeance. When he goes off to fight the Turks she will take other lovers but still long only for him. Yet “Catherine the Great” is not some mere, costumed romance. As played by Mirren, Catherine is a cold power player, unflinching when having another heir to the throat killed in his cell or while watching the beheading of an accused traitor even when advisers suggest mercy. Her sex is a side issue, she is a born ruler of this mighty country. 

Mirren, Clarke and Martin spoke with Entertainment Voice about the challenges of bringing to life the court of Catherine the Great in our own, tumultuous century.

“You start obviously with the research,” said Mirren on preparing for the role, “you read the history books, look at the portraits. One doesn’t have the advantages I had when playing Elizabeth II in ‘The Queen,’ there we had video or film. But what we have which is better than video or film are Catherine’s letters. She was a prodigious writer, she wrote to Voltaire, she wrote to heads of states, ambassadors, doctors, she had a vociferous appetite for knowledge and philosophy. She was an incredibly, incredibly smart woman. Of course there are also the wonderful love letters to Potemkin. So it’s through her own voice that I could begin to investigate who she was.”

“When you get the role you wonder how you’ll walk these palaces or fill the colossuses of who these people were,” said Clarke, “one of the first things I did was watch ‘Cyrano de Bergerac,’ starring Gerard Depardieu, because I knew this guy [Potemkin] was big, larger than life with the tales of who he was, a lover, a fighter, a swordsman…and then of course I just read up on my Russian history. There’s at least five or six really good novels, I love it though, Russian history is fascinating.” 

“One’s always conscious always when making something about the past about the ‘why now,’” explained Martin, “I think thing about Catherine is that there’s an incredible modernity about her, about being able to look into herself. She’s a smart political operator but also an open and emotionally instinctive person. There’s a freshness and modernity about her. In fact many of the politics in Russia then feel like the politics of today, lots of power plays and how to manipulate situation to get what you want. This show doesn’t feel like it takes place in the 18th century. We wanted it to feel like you were with her in the middle of it all.”

Would Mirren consider any similarities between the royal court of Catherine the Great and life in contemporary Hollywood? After all, both are filled with personalities both vile and regal, admirable and villainous. “The only thing is that with Catherine, if she put a step wrong, she would be dead,” said Mirren with a sly laugh, “slightly different from retiring to Palm Springs. Certainly you see the ethos of hard work in Hollywood as well, which Catherine had to the max, and she probably would have done very well as a studio head. She would have been up first thing in the morning at 5 and answered all her emails by 6 or 7. She would have been Captain Berg times ten.” 

For Clarke there was a special confidence in working with the legendary Mirren. “I’ve worked with Helen before and it’s actually a calming effect. You just know someone’s going to bring it. Everything in this business is a collaboration, with the director, the other actor, etc. You have to stop trying to do it all yourself, stop trying to just do your own thing. With her it’s an interaction. I have such a good time with this woman, I can’t tell you. One of the best things a director or actor can give to another actor is confidence. She gives that all day, every day.” 

“Helen and I had worked before on the show ‘Prime Suspect,” said Martin, “she’s amazing to work with. She’s super prepared. She always has a take on things. She likes to work fast and instinctively, so you have to be prepared as well. It’s a great feeling actually because you can work very fast, and film sets respond to that kind of energy. Everyone comes to it with an energy and electricity because of her.”

Mirren also sees how Catherine the Great today represents a unique example of how women have always faced a different kind of scrutiny than men, even when in major positions of power. “She liked men, definitely, she had a sexual life as well as her public life, and as she , ‘I love love too much.’ Now some use the word ‘carnal’ when describing her, as a form of criticism, but you wouldn’t use the same word when discussing a male ruler.”

Yet it is hard for Mirren to choose a specific moment from the shoot or the series itself that she can point out as a favorite, since it’s such a thunderous, enrapturing spectacle. “It would be very difficult to choose a specific moment, but I will say I hope the relationship between Catherin and Potemkin, played so brilliantly and beautifully by Jason Clarke, I hope that sings because it was the love of her life. And to see that kind of adult, loving relationship, full of personality, I hope that reads.” 

Catherine the Great” premieres Oct. 21 and airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.