In The Last Station Helen Mirren portrays Sofya, the agitated wife of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and James McAvoy plays Tolstoy’s assistant, Valentin. When the great Russian author rejects his life, renouncing his noble title, his property for poverty and celibacy, Sofya in desperation begins planning a way to change his mind.
Helen and James spoke with journalists about the movie and their roles last week at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles.
You were very sexy in this film, Helen. Why do you think people see you as a sex symbol?
Helen Mirren: I don’t know. I just carry on my own sweet way and I learnt very early in my life that you are two things, you are what other people see you as being and you are what you see yourself as being, and you will never see what other people see. All of us in this room will never see what I’m looking at, because I’m looking at you and you will never see yourself as I see you.
You are two people for the whole of your life. And I came to terms with that a long time ago, so I let people get on with it, and I’m just who I am and deal with the person that I know that I am.
What was it like working with Christopher Plummer?
Helen Mirren: It was great. The important thing for me was to make a relationship with Christopher and we didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time. Christopher to me is a legend and an icon, obviously from The Sound of Music, and he’s been a huge star for such a long time, and for me also a great theatre actor. I believe he’s one of our great living actors in every sense of the word, so it was intimidating.
I knew that I had to get over my incredible sense of respect, because Sofya doesn’t respect Tolstoy at all, so I just spent every spare minute I had on set with Chris, we’d just sit together and just chat and laugh and get to know each other.
James McAvoy: I was very jealous.
Helen Mirren: That was important, so when we came to [an amusing] scene like the one [where we have sex] we were both going, ‘Oh God, this is going to be so embarrassing, never mind we just have to do it,’ so we got on with it.
I read you are part Russian
Helen Mirren: I’m half Russian
How did that help in doing this role?
Helen Mirren: I don’t know, I grew up in England, my father grew up in England, he came to England when he was two years old, so I think of myself as English but ethnically I am a mix. I’m sure I have characteristics that are Russian, I’ve got kind of a Russian nose, but it was great, my family very much came from the world the Tolstoys came from.
They came from that kind of a class, low aristocracy; that was very much my family’s background. It was amazing for me to find myself in one of my family photographs, which was my experience when I started the film.
One of the things that blew me away about this movie is the view of the paparazzi at this time.
Helen Mirren: Yes, wasn’t that interesting? I don’t get much of that, it’s funny they pick on certain people to do that to, and other people like Britney Spears get bugged all the time, it’s weird. If you live your life normally, and go to the supermarket, they have no interest in you.
James McAvoy: Tolstoy got ‘paparazzi-ed’ not even just for his incredible art, he got the equivalent of being ‘paparazzi-ed’ for this spiritual and political teachings. I know President Obama gets ‘paparazzi-ed’ but he is a publicly elected official with millions of dollars behind him and a multi-media world blitzing campaign, Tolstoy just wrote stuff, and it commanded the attention of not just a nation, but the world.
Helen Mirren: But you have to remember the camera had just been invented so it was a very new and exciting technology when they suddenly realized, ‘Look, you can take film of people. You can take photographs. So they were experimenting and discovering that at that time.
Can you talk about what you have coming up?
James McAvoy: I’ve just done a film called The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford, which is about the assassination of Lincoln and the defense of one of the alleged conspirators called Mary Surratt, (Robin Wright Penn), the first woman to be hanged, or executed in any way by your country. I played Frederick Aiken, the guy who defended her.
Helen Mirren: I’m going to be working in Canada on a film called Red which is based on a graphic novel, which should be fun. I play an assassin. I’ve played one once before in Shadowboxer.
The Last Station is getting a lot of buzz as award season is coming around.
Helen Mirren: I love it that this film has been seen by people and loved by people, as much recognition we can get the better because we want people to see this film.