"You don't need a husband, you need a Greek chorus!" Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy thunders at his emotional wife in The Last Station.
Asked in a telephone interview recently whether that line was part of what made her take the role of Sofya Tolstoy, a laughing Helen Mirren said: "Oh my God, absolutely!"
"I mean, I love very subtle pieces," she said, "and nothing could have been more subtle than what was required of me to do (as Queen Elizabeth II) in The Queen — that utter repression and sublimation of everything. But I think because of that, it was great to find a role that would show the extreme opposite — you can't get much further from the queen than Sofya Tolstoy."
Earlier this month, Mirren received the fourth Academy Award nomination of her career, for best actress in The Last Station (she has won once, for The Queen). Her statement to the press was charmingly appropriate: "I'm very happy and honored for Christopher (Plummer, nominated for playing Tolstoy), myself and our film. I think Tolstoy himself would have been perplexed by all this, but Sofya, his wife, would have been over the moon. So in that spirit, I am, too."
Playing an aristocratic Russian was no stretch for Mirren, whose original surname was Mironov. "My father was born in Russia, onto an estate very similar to the world that the Tolstoys came from," she said. "His grandmother, my great-grandmother, was a Russian countess."
Sofya Andreyevna, the daughter of a Moscow physician, married Leo Tolstoy in 1862. She bore him 13 children, assisted in his career (she copied his vast novels in longhand, including War and Peace six times), and watched in horror as, after nearly 50 years together, he announced his intention to give away his worldly goods and flee his marriage.
Opening in Lexington on Friday, The Last Station, based on a novel by Jay Parini — itself inspired by diaries kept by Leo, Sofya and other members of their circle — focuses on those late tumultuous days in the Tolstoy marriage, as two people who have spent a lifetime together try to understand each other and make peace at the end.
"Can you imagine? Six times? War and Peace?" Mirren asked.
She said she knew "absolutely nothing" about Sofya and little about Tolstoy himself before taking on the project. After her husband's death, Sofya worked tirelessly to maintain his reputation: preserving the family's estate (now a museum), and cataloging his library and writings.
"You know, the Tolstoyan academics give Sofya rather a hard time," said Mirren. "The family — she has a huge family now; it's massive — they are very happy to see Sofya rehabilitated. What she was doing, they have benefited from. ... There's a sense of the academics dissing her and insulting her, when actually she was very much a part of the creation of his masterpieces."
Mirren said she relished playing Sofya's emotional scenes, particularly one in which the countess becomes so infuriated that she throws dishes across the room. "It comes from such a point of calm," she said. "One minute, it's 'Oh, don't be silly,' and seconds later she's smashing all the china. This volcanic thing that she's only just kept under control in her erupts again."
Because of the vagaries of filmmaking, that scene had to be reshot much later — the film, sent to the lab for processing, was inadvertently destroyed. Mirren said she was devastated by the loss but ultimately happy with the reshoot. "It actually was better the second time," she said, noting that it's difficult to re-create something.
"You never move on with a scene unless you feel you've got it, you feel inspired. Film acting is lightning in a bottle."