Helen Mirren’s ardent feminism came to the fore on Thursday night when the Oscar-winning actress was asked during a keynote conversation in Toronto what she looked forward to beyond the “horrible situation” of the current Israel-Hamas war.
“Gosh, that’s an incredibly difficult question, because you don’t want to be naïve and silly. Of course one hopes for peace,” Mirren told the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center during an appearance at its 2023 Spirit of Hope Benefit.
Then she added: “Honestly, ultimately, I’m going to say I look forward to women taking a stronger place in life. Because I think that may be our hope for the future.”
Praised as a steadfast ally in the fight against antisemitism by the human rights organization after she received their 2023 Humanitarian Award, Mirren’s informal conversation was overshadowed by events in the Middle East after Israel declared war on the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza after its Oct. 7 surprise attack on southern Israel.
Asked at point during the keynote what frightens her today, Mirren answered without pause: “Oh, October the seventh. That scares me the most, and whatever it is in humanity that makes people able to do that, whatever it is that pushes them to commit those acts, whatever brainwashing, whatever it is that can turn peoples’ minds to those actions.”
Pointing to other grave human atrocities in history, she referenced the Holocaust during the Second World War and America’s traumatic history of lynching African-American men to terrorize their communities.
“Lynchings were very prevalent. And I just saw recently postcards of an audience at a lynching, that they’d send to each other, as sort of ‘what fun we had the other night at the lynching.’ What it is in us, human beings? Is it fundamental to us? It is so much a part of our nature as all the goodness we have,” Mirren additionally asked during the Toronto gala.
While steering clear of current-day Israeli politics in the wake of the war with Hamas, Mirren did take a deep dive into the country’s history after her star turn in Guy Nattiv’s Golda, in which she plays Golda Meir, the prime minister of Israel during the tense Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Asked what made her play the Israeli leader at a time when the country was faced with possible destruction, Mirren recalled in her youth, first seeing in Golda Meir a rare woman leading a country.
“When Golda came to power in Israel, for me, personally, it was such a monumental moment. Because I’d never seen a female prime minister before, let alone a prime minister of a country as complex and important and with such challenges that Israel has always had. So that, just from a purely feminist point of view, that was very important to me,” she recalled.
Mirren also addressed the controversy over a non-Jew like herself being cast to play the Israeli leader. “It’s a legitimate discussion. The whole idea of casting has really been blown out of the water recently, and I applaud that. It’s completely right,” she said.
At the same time, Mirren said she would not have taken the part of Golda Meir if the biopic itself was not directed by an Israeli in Nattiv. She added, “Without that authentic voice, I just wouldn’t have done (the role) with someone else.”