‘Golda’ Director Guy Nattiv Defends Helen Mirren’s Casting Amid ‘Jewface’ Controversy, Promises New Perspective of Former Israeli Leader

Growing up in Israel, Guy Nattiv knew one narrative about Golda Meir, the country’s prime minister from 1969-1974. “She was the pariah of Israel,” says Nattiv. “Everyone treated her like she’s a monster.” Unlike other historical figures, there were no parks or schools named after Israel’s first (and only) female prime minister. The vitriol stemmed largely from her administration’s handling of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, a devastating conflict between Israel and a coalition of Arab states that resulted in thousands of deaths.

It was only about 10 years ago, when top secret government documents were declassified, that the world, and Nattiv, began to learn the truth about what really went on during those tense days. “We got a totally different story about this woman and a glimpse of all the faults and fuckups of the other men around her,” says Nattiv. “We understood she took the blame because she’s a woman, she’s older, and she’s not from here.”

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“Golda,” now playing in theaters in the U.S., is part of the director’s hope to correct the narrative surrounding the misunderstood figure, while also acknowledging her faults. Starring Oscar winner Helen Mirren as Meir and Liev Schreiber as Henry Kissinger, the movie is scripted by Nicholas Martin and depicts what went on in those secret rooms and Meir’s own home during those pivotal days. We see the leader fighting a very public battle but also a private one, as Meir is secretly in treatment for lymphoma.

When Nattiv first came across the project, it spoke to him on several levels. An Academy Award winner for his 2018 short film “Skin,” Nattiv has forged a filmmaking career telling stories with a timely message – even when set decades ago, like “Golda.” (Nattiv runs New Native Pictures with his wife and producing partner Jaime Ray Newman, whose projects include the feature film of “Skin” and the upcoming “Tatami,” which will premiere at the Venice Film Festival next month.) Nattiv is also from Israel and Jewish; his grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and he felt he had an inherent understanding of the story and its impact on his home country. “There’s no one single family in Israel that doesn’t have a correlation to this horrible war,” says the director.

Prior to Nattiv signing on, Mirren was already attached to portray Meir, a casting choice that had originally been suggested by Meir’s grandson, Gideon. “He said that when he sees Helen, he sees his grandmother,” says Nattiv. “And I guess the production heard that and offered it to her before I came on board. She said yes, but she wanted to meet the director.” Mirren came to Nattiv’s home for an initial meeting, and the two spoke for four hours. “I have to tell you, I felt like I was talking to my mom, I felt that I was talking to someone who understands Judaism, who understands Golda.” Nattiv reveals that Mirren told him how when she was 29, she fell in love with an Israeli man and visited the country for the first time. “She hiked and she went to the kibbutz, and she worked in the kitchen and she fell in love with this country,” he says. “When she told me that and we spoke, I said, ‘You’d be an amazing Golda.’ And we went with it.”

Though Mirren’s acting bona fides are without question, the production has come under some criticism for not selecting a Jewish actor in the role. Along with Bradley Cooper’s upcoming Leonard Bernstein film “Maestro,” “Golda” has also faced controversy for “Jewface,” with some in the industry voicing disagreements with Mirren’s casting and make-up.

Nattiv says he understands the conversation surrounding representation. “I welcome the discussion; I think it’s important to have. I mean, ‘CODA’ wouldn’t be ‘CODA’ 20 years ago — they probably would take Tom Hanks and Michelle Pfeiffer to play the parents,” he notes. “So it’s a great thing that happens, when people are representing their communities.We didn’t always have that before.”

“But in this case, I feel the right person is playing the right role,” he continues. He goes on to point out other recent films where he felt the right actors were utilized, including Cillian Murphy in “Oppenheimer” and cast members of “The Fabelmans.” “For instance, when I saw ‘Oppenheimer,’ I didn’t care that he’s not Jewish. I thought he did a great job. And when I saw Spielberg’s movie, I didn’t care that the actors weren’t all Jewish. I felt so emotional about them, I really believed them. And let’s say there’s a role where the character was Protestant or Catholic — I wouldn’t want to hear that a Jewish actor wouldn’t be able to play it.”

Helen Mirren in "Golda."
Helen Mirren in “Golda.”

Mirren has earned raves for her portrait of Meir, with Variety’s Owen Gleiberman praising both the physical transformation and the voice, noting, “Mirren gets it exactly right” and adding, “The way Mirren plays it, Meir’s humanity is always there.” She is aided in an astonishingly physical transformation by a team led by makeup and hair designer Karen Hartley Thomas, who had the daunting task of recreating Meir’s distinct features. “Karen and her team did a brilliant job not overdoing it,” says Nattiv, adding it was important to keep Mirren’s eyes free. “On the first shooting day, when Helen stepped out of the trailer, it was surreal. We all just stared in disbelief.” Nattiv adds that Mirren had to show up on set earlier than anyone to complete the transformation and he never saw her out of the makeup. “I didn’t see Helen for 37 days, I saw Golda.”

Mirren is matched by Schreiber’s channeling of Kissinger, a casting choice that seems both bold and obvious. Nattiv notes that even the actor was unsure if he could pull it off. “He said, ‘How do I do him? I don’t want to do it like a sketch from ‘Saturday Night Live,’ I want him to be a real character,’” Nattiv relays. Knowing someone in production had a connection to Kissinger, Nattiv suggested the two meet. “Two days before shooting, Liev went to Kissinger’s apartment in New York and sat with him for two hours. He gave him all sorts of anecdotes about himself and about Golda. And I think that help Liev, who elevated everything to a more authentic level.”

After premiering at the Berlin Film Festival and playing the Jewish Film Festival, where it screened for 6,000 people, “Golda” is playing now in both the U.S. and Israel. During our conversation, Nattiv is receiving congratulatory texts and messages from around the world. “People are very emotional about the film and very proud of Helen for portraying her,” Nattiv notes. “And they feel it’s an homage to the people who died, and it doesn’t shy away from criticism towards this regime that was wiped out after this failure.”

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