an iron lady

How Golda Transformed Helen Mirren Into Golda Meir

A multipiece bodysuit and—yes—a few nose prosthetics were key.
How ‘Golda Transformed Helen Mirren Into Golda Meir
Courtesy of Bleecker Street.

In the new biopic Golda, the prime minister dubbed Israel’s “Iron Lady,” isn’t entirely the steely stateswoman she was purported to be. The film, which dramatizes about a dozen tumultuous days in 1973, stars Helen Mirren—with a prosthetically enhanced face and a multipiece bodysuit—as Golda Meir, the 75-year-old chain-smoking politician with no military experience who, due to inconclusive intelligence, finds herself leading a country ill-prepared for coordinated attacks by both Soviet-backed Egypt and Syria during what became known as the Yom Kippur War.

With the young country’s survival on the line, and unbeknownst to Meir’s squabbling cadre of male military advisers—or US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber), from whom Israel needs fighter jets—the head of state is also waging a private battle that only her loyal aide, Lou Kaddar (Camille Cottin), knows about. As casualties mount, and hundreds of outnumbered soldiers are surrounded and taken prisoner in captured territories, a despairing Meir—who keeps count of the death toll in a little red book—is also secretly undergoing cobalt radiation treatments for lymphoma.

Mirren’s casting as the woman born in Kyiv and bred in Milwaukee, who moved to what was then British Palestine at 23 and served as Israel’s fourth and only female prime minister from 1969 to 1974, has been criticized because the British actor isn’t Jewish. Mirren herself told the Daily Mail last February that she knew her casting might be controversial: When approached for the film, she told Israeli director Guy Nattiv, “Look…I’m not Jewish, and if you want to think about that, and decide to go in a different direction, no hard feelings. I will absolutely understand.” But, Mirren said, “He very much wanted me to play the role, and off we went.”

Indeed, Nattiv tells VF that the barrier-breaker’s own grandson, Gideon Meir, saw something of his grandmother in Mirren. Gideon suggested she play his sometimes badass *bubbe—*a woman who, in the film at least, engages in diplomatic brinkmanship with Kissinger over a bowl of borscht in her Tel Aviv kitchen. “Remember, I am first an American, second I am Secretary of State, and third I am a Jew,” he bluntly tells her in the film. “You forget in Israel we read from right to left,” she replies.

Courtesy of Bleecker Street.

Special effects makeup designer Karen Hartley Thomas—who previously worked with Mirren on The Duke, and has tended to famous faces, including Hugh Jackman, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Red, White & Royal Blue hunks Taylor Zakhar Perez and Nicholas Galitzine—took a less-is-more approach to Mirren’s transformation. “You’re looking to give the silhouette and essence of the person…and not a caricature,” she tells VF, while acknowledging that Mirren’s makeover was the most extensive she’s ever done. It was a particularly daunting undertaking because the film inserts images of Mirren-as-Meir into actual archival news footage of Meir.

Mirren wore only makeup to play Elizabeth II in her Oscar-winning turn in The Queen. But to become Meir’s doppelgänger, the actor spent two and a half hours in the makeup chair daily. Contact lenses turned her blue eyes brown, and silicone bags were placed beneath them. Fake bridge and tip pieces were added to her nose, along with cheeks extending down and around it. Mirren’s mouth remained free, to accommodate Meir’s incessant smoking. Old-age stippling was applied to her face, as was a jowly neckpiece; her fingers were faux-nicotine-stained.

“It was all made specifically to be very light, so she [could] move her face,” Hartley Thomas says. Mirren also wears a custom-made wig and eyebrows. A pair of false teeth Thomas thought she might wear were tossed.

Costume designer Sinéad Kidao oversaw the making of Mirren’s polyester-filled spandex bodysuit, and individual padded legs that she put on like stockings. One of Meir’s legs had been damaged in a car accident—the reason for the clunky orthopedic shoes for which she became known—and her ankles were swollen from lymphoma and spilled over her shoes.

Kidao says it was important to get the shape of the padded legs right while also making them as light as possible. “We tried so many different methods,” she explains via email, to make the legs “comfortable and not inhibit Helen from moving freely, or take any time to take on and off, as Helen already had a very long hair-and-makeup call.” Ultimately, about 15 pairs were made before they settled on one that ticked every box. Though the intention was to keep everything light, Kidao concedes that in the end, Mirren was wearing “many, many layers”—including dress suits recreated in the same heavy vintage polyester fabrics Meir wore.

Focusing solely on signature aspects of Kissinger’s mien meant Schreiber, by contrast, could go prosthetics-free. Already equipped with a naturally gravelly voice, the Tony Award–winning actor wears only a wig of cropped wavy hair and vintage tortoiseshell-framed glasses that Kidao found. She had them outfitted with lenses that distorted Schreiber’s eyes, as Kissinger’s glasses did.

Thanks to Golda producer Celine Rattray, Nattiv says, Schreiber was able to meet a then 98-year-old Kissinger two days before filming. The actor arrived on set “full with ideas”—including the addition of the kitchen-scene line about where Kissinger’s loyalties lie—a version of which was personally relayed to him by the former presidential adviser. Cottin’s transition into Meir’s best friend and confidante, Lou Kaddar—whom Nattiv says lived two houses away from her boss—was also achieved sans silicone, since she isn’t as recognizable a figure as Meir.

Golda arrives in theaters as audiences are buzzing about another upcoming prosthetically enhanced biopic performance: Bradley Cooper’s in Maestro. Some critics have objected to Cooper, who is not Jewish, donning a fake nose to play Leonard Bernstein, who was. (Bernstein’s children, for the record, are not among them.) Hartley Thomas says that Golda’s filmmakers were sensitive to this issue, and that their goal was simply “making Helen look like Golda, and not Helen look Jewish.”

Courtesy of Bleecker Street.

For his part, Nattiv ticks off a list of recent award-winning films featuring appearance-altering approaches—The Whale, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye—and says that the practice isn’t a problem for him. “As long as it doesn’t take away the emotions, the thing that brings me to the character…I don’t think there’s any problem with it…. [But] I welcome the discussion.” The Anti-Defamation League, it seems, would agree.

So perhaps the prosthetics debate should be reconsidered—much like Meir herself. Her complicated legacy is being reevaluated not only in this film—which details cease-fire negotiations between Israel and Egypt after the Israeli army suffers incredible losses to arrive on Egypt’s doorstep—but also with historian Deborah E. Lipstadt’s new biography. And while minutes of a 1970 Israeli cabinet meeting recently released by the Israel State Archives reveal Meir was open to the idea of a Palestinian state, other newly released documents show that while she was in office, Palestinian land was poisoned so that West Bank settlements could be built.

Whatever you end up thinking of the flawed female leader—who, as the film shows, was investigated about her prosecution of the war—Nattiv’s goal was to acknowledge the trailblazer who he says, “paved the way for Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel…. In the 1970s, when men were misogynists—especially those commanders—a woman came and led the country. This is unheard of. I think it’s something to remember and to celebrate.”