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Helen Mirren, Acting Out As Tolstoy's Wild Sofya
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Helen Mirren, Acting Out As Tolstoy's Wild Sofya

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Helen Mirren, Acting Out As Tolstoy's Wild Sofya

Helen Mirren, Acting Out As Tolstoy's Wild Sofya
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Helen Mirren plays Sofya Tolstoy in 'The Last Station' i

Unruly Woman: Helen Mirren plays the strong-willed Countess Sofya Tolstoy in The Last Station, a romance about the last days of the Russian author who gave us War and Peace. Stephan Rabold/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

toggle caption Stephan Rabold/Sony Pictures Classics
Helen Mirren plays Sofya Tolstoy in 'The Last Station'

Unruly Woman: Helen Mirren plays the strong-willed Countess Sofya Tolstoy in The Last Station, a romance about the last days of the Russian author who gave us War and Peace.

Stephan Rabold/Sony Pictures Classics

At the Golden Globes this past Sunday, the nominees for best movie actress in a drama included Helen Mirren, who earned her nod for a movie most Americans haven't yet had the chance to see. Currently playing only in New York and Los Angeles, The Last Station is a romantic picture about the last days of Lev Tolstoy, better known in the West as Leo Tolstoy, who is played by Christopher Plummer. Mirren plays the Russian writer's wife, Countess Sofya Andreyevna Tolstoy.

It's a meaty part: Tolstoy, in failing health, is making arrangements to donate the copyrights on his work — War and Peace, Anna Karenina and more — to the Russian people, and the countess is anything but complacent about the possibility. She coaxes, she schemes, she cajoles, she flirts, she lies, she throws crockery-smashing tantrums — all in an effort to keep her partner of 48 years from surrendering the royalties on novels she helped him revise and perfect.

"She was the drama queen of all time," Mirren tells NPR's Liane Hansen — "in a specifically Russian kind of way."

And that meant she was something of a challenge to play, even for an actress who won an Oscar not long ago for her performance as a more reserved sort of noblewoman.

From 'The Last Station'

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"The great danger in Sofya, and the one that I was always conscious of and fighting against, was ... to make her tantrums unreal," Mirren says. "Because I thought the really important thing was that they were utterly real to her on a daily basis — but every day, she'd forgotten about what she'd done the day before."

That mercurial wildness required total investment from the actress each time the countess' emotions boiled over.

"The feelings had to be absolutely real," Mirren says. "Very extreme, but very, very real. It couldn't become a kind of an arch kind of acted thing, if you know what I mean."

It's not easy, playing hysterical. It takes a certain amount of energy — and it can be exhausting for an audience, too.

"So whenever I could find a moment when I wasn't hysterical, I'd try to make it as natural and as easy and throwaway as possible," Mirren says.

'She's Not Remotely Politically Correct'

Sofya Tolstoy might be an even more off-putting character, to some, for her political views. In one scene in The Last Station — a luncheon party outdoors, with china and linens at a table under the trees, and a footman tending to the samovar — she's openly contemptuous of the poor Russians her husband wants to help: "It's not for lack of land that the muzjiks live in poverty," she says. "It's because they have no willpower. And they drink too much."

"I have to say that attitude is not not prevalent" even today, Mirren insists. "We all talk the talk, and some of us walk the walk, but what we secretly think to ourselves is another matter, you know? And Sofya is the kind of person who just comes out with it — she has no fear on that level. She's not remotely politically correct, you know."

Mirren notes that her own grandfather wasn't unlike Sofya Tolstoy. A czarist White Russian stranded in London at the outset of the Russian Revolution, "my grandfather came from that class," Mirren says. "My grandfather could easily have been sitting there at the table with Sofya, agreeing with her every inch of the way. And my grandfather was a very thoughtful and intelligent, extremely intelligent man. But he was also a czarist. ... He was a member of that culture and that society, and that was what they believed."

'Just Throw Yourself Into It Wholeheartedly'

The acting challenges in Michael Hoffman's screenplay extended from the question of what accents to use to how to play scenes without words — a bedchamber encounter, for example, in which Tolstoy and his "little chicken" cluck and crow at each other, laughing, as they reconcile after an epic squabble.

Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren i

'My Little Chicken': Mirren's Sofya deploys all the wiles at her disposal — including her husband's enduring affection for her — to keep Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) from handing over the copyrights to his work. Stephan Rabold/Sony Picture Classics hide caption

toggle caption Stephan Rabold/Sony Picture Classics
Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren

'My Little Chicken': Mirren's Sofya deploys all the wiles at her disposal — including her husband's enduring affection for her — to keep Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) from handing over the copyrights to his work.

Stephan Rabold/Sony Picture Classics

"You know, if you see a scene like that on the page, it looks a bit bare, and you think, 'Oh my God, what are we going to make of this?' " Mirren confesses. "The only way to do a scene like that is to just throw yourself into it wholeheartedly and do what's required."

The accents were an easier call. No stereotypically thick Russian growl was required.

"Well, it would be fake, wouldn't it?" Mirren asks. "Obviously, when Russians speak Russian, they don't speak with an accent, you know. They're speaking Russian. So the equivalent of Russians speaking Russian is an American speaking with an American accent, or a British person speaking with a British accent."

But even that position made for some vexing questions.

"So now we've got a Russian peasant," Mirren continues. "What accent? He's uneducated. He comes from the country. Does he speak with an English country accent? And now you're getting specific. You can't have a Yorkshire accent suddenly."

Accents, Mirren notes, are always a troublesome issue for filmmakers. "But I think it would have been absurd for us all " — and she slips into a clotted Cold War spy-movie patois — "to be tarlking tooo eedcht othdderrr lyike thyis."

A Documentary Record, But Not A Documentary Film

One remarkable thing about the Tolstoys' relationship is that in its tumultuous later years, it was filmed and photographically documented, and it was endlessly written about; in The Last Station, a scribbling disciple dogs Lev Tolstoy's steps, writing down his every utterance, much to Countess Sofya's annoyance.

Filmmaker Michael Hoffman uses vintage footage of the real Tolstoys over the film's closing credits, but his film is a decidedly fictionalized version, adapted from a widely praised novel of the same title by Jay Parini. And Mirren said she never went to the source for ideas about how to shape her character.

"I didn't see that footage until the film was finished," she says. In any case, she doesn't see how it would have helped "if I'd muddied the waters by going back and saying, 'Oh, she didn't look like this, she wouldn't have done that, she didn't do that.' "

Unlike that other noblewoman Mirren recently played, Sofya Tolstoy "was not a well enough known character, in the way she looked and the way she sounded," the actress says. "I didn't feel I had to do some kind of impersonation."

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