Catherine the Great’s Gina McKee hits back at the salacious rumours that dogged the Russian ruler’s reign

"It's about people trying to control women and shaming women, it doesn't happen to powerful men"

Catherine the Great may have been one of the longest reigning rulers of Russia - infiltrating the empire as a German princess by overthrowing her own husband - but her success and legacy is often undermined by salacious rumours about her sex life.

Dame Helen Mirren leads HBO's lavish four-part adaptation of Catherine's 34-year-long reign alongside Gina McKee as her faithful counsel Countess Bruce.

Both were tarnished by lewd - and unfounded - suggestions concerning their private lives - Bruce was said to have 'tested' men for Catherine, and there's the enduring urban myth linking sex and a horse to Catherine's demise (she actually suffered a stroke and died the next day).

While McKee explained that Bruce acknowledged that sex was used as currency at that time, powerful men would never have been written off in the same way.

"It's about people trying to control women and shaming women by making up stupid stories," McKee told Red magazine. "It doesn't happen to powerful men, that's all it's about. So we didn't go with that, there was no point."

Gina McKee, Catherine the Great
HBO

On Bruce using sex as a bargaining tool to benefit Catherine's rule and happiness (and satiate her own desires), the Bodyguard star continued: "The way we think abut sexuality, sexual appetite, sexual desire, the norms of relationships, and the confines of those norms, were not the same then. So you have to embrace that and not judge it from our point of view. It shows you how sex is a tool, it's a currency within that world.

"It's power, it can also be plain pleasure and then I think what becomes apparent for Bruce potentially there's this man [Grigory Potemkin - played by Jason Clarke] who Catherine is interested in, who could be a part of something bigger and greater. And for a monarch in this situation to have love is quite difficult, but if it can achieved what an incredible thing to facilitate and that's what Bruce is interested in."

Helen Mirren, Gina McKee
HBO

McKee said that while there was very little accurate historical information about Bruce, she surmised that Bruce was completely devoted to Catherine.

"I knew she survived in court for many years and for a woman to be a confidante at court for decades during this era - what does that say? What can we do with that? Whoever Bruce was, she clearly was quote a strong and wily individual, and I played her as totally devoted to Catherine. She wasn't always well behaved, but she was totally devoted to her."

And Bruce was as enamoured with Catherine as McKee was with "phenomenal" co-star Helen Mirren.

"I loved working with Helen, I have admired her for yeas and she has so much experience and talent and that is a phenomenal thing to be around," the Notting Hill star continued.

"What is brilliant is she has the curiosity and the appetite and the courage and fear that you have at any point in your career. In other words it's not like she's on a pedestal or putting herself on a pedestal. She's raw to learning and developing her career, her craft herself as much anybody else and that makes her fantastic to be around."

Jason Clarke, Gina McKee 
HBO

McKee appears in some of the raunchier scenes in the opening episode with co-star Jason Clarke, which she affirmed were a necessary part of the narrative, and certainly not gratuitous or without reason.

"Although they're called sex scenes, that's sort misleading really because what you should be doing still is telling a story, and that for me is the important thing. What do we need to achieve to tell the story in this scene? And I think if you can approach it from that point of view, it always seems to help those scenes.

"We all made each other we made it clear that we needed to be safe and happy so we had enough conversations to understand how we could achieve those scenes honouring the narrative of the scenes."

And while the actress says Catherine the Great has arrived at a time where women's stories and experiences are finally being explored and relished, we still have a long way to go.

"We haven't been heard enough as woman in all walks a life and hopefully this move that seems to be gathering some momentum to explore women's experiences and stories more is going to continue to gain even more momentum," McKee ruminated. "I suspect [why it Catherine the Great hasn't been more prominent in popular culture] is because of just that.

"It's just frustrating but we can make the moves to stop treating women like that and stop using that I'm trying to chose my words carefully but hopefully that kind of... I'm not going to go any further with that.

"Well yeah [misogyny], that dismissive pattern which seems to happens. Hopefully we're going to have a refreshing approach to that. We still have a long way to go but we'll get there. We have to."

Catherine the Great airs tonight on Sky Atlantic at 9pm.



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