Actress In Gold

Helen Mirren Talks To JW


By Linda Marx | Photography Shahar Azran


For her brilliant portrayal of Maria Altmann in the hit movie Woman in Gold, Academy Award®-winning actress Helen Mirren took on the Austrian government to recover plundered artwork she believes rightfully belongs to her family.

London-born Helen Mirren, a quick-witted septuagenarian, prepared in several ways for her role as Maria Altmann, a Viennese-bred resident of Los Angeles, for the film Woman in Gold. She tells JW that there were different avenues she followed to immerse herself into the important role.

Academy Award® winner Helen Mirren and World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder in front of the famous ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,’ nicknamed ‘Woman in Gold.’

“I prepared for Maria by watching some film of her during a deposition,” says Mirren. “It was limited but valuable. I also watched some film on my doctor’s mother, Mrs. Karlsberg, who was from a very similar Viennese background.”

Mirren also felt that she had to put Altmann’s memories in her mind, so she read a lot of material about that period in Europe and watched “whatever documentary footage” she could find.

Academy Award® winner Helen Mirren holding the WJC Recognition Award in front of the famous Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, nicknamed Woman in Gold.

The Weinstein Company’s Woman in Gold, directed by Simon Curtis, starring Helen Mirren and actor Ryan Reynolds, is a spellbinding film telling Altmann’s story. In 1998, Altmann fought the Austrian authorities to reclaim five Gustav Klimt paintings—including the famous Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I nicknamed Woman in Gold—which were stolen from her family by the Nazis during World War II.

The WJC Recognition Award honors outstanding individuals working on behalf of the Jewish people.

In 1938, the painting was among the works forced from their rightful owner, Bloch-Bauer’s widower Ferdinand, because he was Jewish. Following its restitution to Altmann in 2006, the painting was acquired for  $135 million, the highest price ever paid for art at that time. The buyer was Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), collector, businessman and philanthropist. The painting is now on display at his Neue Galerie in New York City. He calls the work of art “our Mona Lisa.” The World Jewish Congress represents Jewish communities in 100 countries around the world and has played a pivotal role for decades advocating for Holocaust-era restitution, leading the efforts for the return of this Nazi-looted art.

Lauder presented the Academy Award®-winning Mirren with the World Jewish Congress Recognition Award which functions to honor outstanding individuals working on behalf of the Jewish people.

“The history of the Woman in Gold painting exemplifies the immense suffering, painful loss, and, for a prolonged period, the injustice many Jews were subjected to during the 20th century,” says Lauder, whose mother, Estee Lauder, founded the eponymous international cosmetic company.

“With the opening of this movie, audiences can learn about the second half of the Nazi-looted art story: the postwar art grab by governments and museums that willfully continued the Nazi theft, both by hiding the art from the rightful owners or their heirs, and by fighting the victims in court to keep the artworks.”

Ronald Lauder said it was Mirren’s stunning performance which really electrified this issue, and further educated the public on the atrocities of the war. “The international public had the chance to learn about this legacy of World War II which still hasn’t been addressed properly by many governments and museums,” says Lauder.

Helen Mirren, who played Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth I, Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen, and The Audience, Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George, Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra, and lead roles in many other plays, films and TV series, was thrilled to be honored for her role as Maria Altmann.

WJC President Ronald S. Lauder presented Academy Award® winner Helen Mirren with the WJC Recognition Award at a special ceremony
at New York’s Neue Galerie.

“Being a part of this film and preserving Maria Altmann’s legacy has been a truly exceptional experience from the start,” says Mirren. “I am utterly moved to receive this award from the World Jewish Congress, an organization that does such important work all over the globe in advocating for Jewish rights.”

In real life, the actress divides her time between Los Angeles and London, and is married to Hollywood film director Taylor Hackford. She has been busy with many projects, including Bleecker Street Media’s Trumbo, a biopic based on the life of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and IPA Asia Pacific’s Eye in the Sky, an international thriller featuring drone warfare.

In the future, Helen Mirren hopes for more thought-provoking parts with a serious bent, for stories that are compelling and educate audiences on history and life, or as she says it, “I just hope for complex characters in drama that are relevant, interesting, entertaining and revelatory.”