“The Russians were way out there,” quips Jason Clarke.
He’s talking about his experiences bringing 18th-century Russia to life on the forthcoming Catherine the Great, which premieres Monday night on HBO. Clarke portrays Grigory Potemkin, the military leader, statesmen and romantic favorite of the titular Russian empress.
The Australian actor, known for his work as gritty antagonists, promises an epic on an old-school scale. “It’s a monstrously, big, epic picture,” he tells EW. “It’s something you don’t see much anymore, like Gladiator or Lawrence of Arabia, like a big classic. Instead of swords and sandals, it’s Cossacks and Czars.”
But it’s one with startling parallels to today’s world. Catherine, played by Helen Mirren in the series, was a woman constantly struggling to prove herself in a man’s world, a female leader more capable and competent than most, but forced to prove her power over and over. Under her rule, as depicted in the HBO series, Russia annexed Crimea, bringing modern-day Ukraine into the Russian Empire, all the while facing off against the Ottoman Empire (aka Turkey) in an attempt to wrest control of Istanbul. Sound maybe a little familiar to our contemporary landscape?
The resonance isn’t lost on Clarke. “Every single female leader [gets] treated awfully,” he says. “Angela Merkel is an extraordinary example of what a female politician who knows what she’s doing can be. But my god, she’s had to struggle. It still goes on. You’ve got a woman like Catherine, who was a real beacon. If anything these big historical epics teach us that we’re still breaking the same ground that our forefathers and mothers broke. The struggle to make the world a better place and be better humans never ends.”
For Clarke, his performance really came down to enacting the same patterns as actor and character. “You’re there to entertain the czar, the king, the queen, the ruler,” he reflects of Potemkin’s position at court. “I was there to entertain Helen, to keep her healthy, to keep her strong, to keep her laughing. It’s the same thing for Catherine – you’re there to support her. She’s the center of the universe and you love her for that.”
That’s not to say, he wasn’t aided in his pursuit of Potemkin’s essence by the incredible production value of the series, filmed on location in many of Catherine the Great’s royal palaces and related residences. However, the ornate costumes and settings aren’t the only trappings of a traditional period piece — there’s also the hallmark British accents, which perpetually seem to be a stand-in for prestige or vaguely European royalty in the world of TV drama.
Clarke, who is Australian, doesn’t mind — he imagines what the series would sound like if everyone had an Australian or New Zealand accent, laughing as he improvises some dialogue that admittedly sounds absurd. Yet, he still found his own nationality essential to tapping into Potemkin’s identity. “He was more Russian. He was a Cossack. He was a rider. He wasn’t just your gentrified courtier from St. Petersburg or Moscow. So, it played to my advantage that I’m from a colony of England, so my standardized RP [received pronunciation] is a little bit bastardized,” he quips.
History has not been kind to Catherine the Great, turning the powerful (perhaps even despotic) ruler into somewhat of a joke. Catherine has been slut-shamed for taking lovers, and there persists a notorious rumor that she once had sexual relations with a horse. You won’t find any of that in Catherine the Great. In fact, Clarke says that the most malicious historical untruth was never even discussed on set. “I don’t think anybody would dare say that to Helen, you know what I mean?” he laughs. “Anybody that has done any research just knows it’s just not true. I can’t really remember us ever addressing it. Some writers laugh it off or talk about it but no, you’re not going to walk up to Helen Mirren and say ‘Helen, what are we going to do about that?'”
Instead, the series aims to provide a more balanced and powerful image of the legendary monarch. “There’s so much silliness written about her,” adds Clarke. “She was one of the dominant, if not the dominant ruler in Europe at this time. Not just as a woman, but also as a German woman ruling Russia. It was incredibly confronting and challenging to what was the norm and what people expected. To stay on top you’ve got to do it well, and she did it well.”
But that doesn’t mean the series shies away from Catherine’s sexual appetite, though as Clarke astutely points out, she didn’t take nearly as many lovers as one might expect for the level of derision heaped her way because of it. Her embrace of her own desires is instead taken up as a natural extension of her character in being a woman completely in possession of her own power and sexuality. Clarke can’t imagine anyone but Mirren taking on the role, partly because of this. “Helen is such a wonderful actor in terms of her relationship to women and her sexuality and being free and strong,” he reflects. “She’s led the way so many times throughout her life and her career.”
For him, that’s the heart of the piece — the story of Catherine’s ability to rule fiercely, while also trying to carve out space for her to pursue the companionship and partnership we all crave as human beings. “[The series shows us] women have had to fight to still be a woman within this world, to find their love,” he notes. “Even though she ruled with an iron fist and was not afraid to put nations to the sword or do what was required to keep her spot on the throne, she also searched desperately for love and partnership. When you read Catherine and Potemkin’s letters to each other, a lot of which still exist, you realize that their relationship and their commitment to each other was extraordinary almost in a modern way of them working and achieving together.”
“The whole thing becomes quite a profound love story,” he concludes. “The four episodes rest for me as one big, giant epic — it morphs into something quite profound and extraordinary about love and life. And the very human nature of trying to pursue those things – in finding love you’re finding meaning in true work and partnership. You’ve just got some swords and sandals and horses and battles and eye patches and wigs and mustaches in between.”
Catherine the Great premieres at 10 p.m. on Oct. 21 on HBO.
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