Anderson as Thatcher, who embraced her Soviet nickname, the “Iron Lady”
In 2018, when Peter Morgan was writing season four of The Crown, the Netflix drama that traces the reign of Queen Elizabeth ii had reached the early 1980s.
Olivia Colman, of course, had been playing her majesty since the start of season three. But who, Morgan wondered, would take on the mantle of the era's other dominant public figure, the so-called "Iron Lady"? Who even could?
"At some point," he muses, "it must have just crossed my mind: 'Hang on a minute. Couldn't Gillian, maybe, play that part?'"
The showrunner–executive producer–writer of The Crown was thinking of Gillian Anderson, the Emmy-winning star of Fox's long-running The X-Files whose credits also include the BBC series The Fall and Netflix's Sex Education. Anderson is also Morgan's partner.
"I remember looking at her and not mentioning it to her," Morgan continues, "yet scrutinizing and thinking, 'Actually in a certain light…'" He then owns up to his unspoken thought: "It's not a realization any boyfriend wants to come to."
That conclusion, however, has led to a potentially career-defining role.
"I must have said, 'Yes, I think I could do it,'" Anderson says. "Then Pete talked to [casting director] Nina Gold. He's been very vocal about the fact that if Nina had said, 'Oh, absolutely not — she's not anywhere on my list,' he probably would have come back to me and said, 'I'm sorry, I should have never brought it up to begin with.'"
Luckily, Gold had been thinking of Anderson all along. So, all that remained was for the actress to sign.
But it was no small decision: apart from the queen herself, it's hard to think of a woman who looms larger over 20th-century Britain, whose voice and silhouette and politics are better known or more polarizing, than Margaret Thatcher.
"People have very strong feelings about her," says Anderson, who was born in Chicago but spent her childhood in Britain. "So, the role was daunting — but at the same time, it felt like I had to do it. The opportunity to be on a series like The Crown and play such an iconic character was just too good to say no."
Playing a historical figure is a high-wire act, a precarious balance of impersonation and imagination. And anyone who's had an eye on global politics in the past 40 years can summon an image of Thatcher, whether it's the bouffant halo of orange hair, the low breathy voice or the blue crepe power suit with matching power handbag.
Thatcher has long been parodied in British comedy shows, in part because she was so instantly recognizable (she died in 2013), especially in comparison to her gray-suited, gray-haired, all-male cabinet.
Morgan admits he was concerned about putting his partner front and center. "You do slightly worry — there's no safety there. If she screwed it up, it'd be a horrible thing."
Anderson calls the role "the toughest I have ever played. But at the end of the day, it's not a Thatcher biopic. The drama, by necessity, is seen through the prism of the crown. That's the nature of the stories that are told in the series."
She pauses, then changes tack. "Although I did go about the research as if it was a biopic or a feature called Thatcher! I read a lot, and I watched everything and listened to interviews and recordings to get her voice."
Indeed, the challenge was both mental and physical. Anderson had to understand the woman — but first she needed to look and sound like her.
"There was a lot of discussion at the beginning about how we would do the teeth, because she had such noticeable teeth, and they weren't good for big portions of her career," Anderson says. "But any time we added something, whether it was a full-on prosthesis or just slightly discolored braces, it looked ridiculous."
Instead, she worked on holding her mouth so it would look like she really had those troublesome teeth. She also captured the tilt of the head and the husky voice to perfection.
"I worked with a couple of voice coaches who had very different techniques and eventually got there," she relates. "I've started to discover that I'm quite a shy actor. I'm more likely to underplay than to overplay. I kept being encouraged to go way over the top, even to pitch way up 'here' so that it was almost a parody. Then I could always pull it back."
Thatcher's voice and presentation were, Anderson points out, all part of a performance themselves. "She grew up in Lincolnshire [then a very rural area], but she certainly didn't sound like she grew up there. She took elocution lessons in school, though very early in her career, in her 20s and 30s, she had a very high-pitched voice. Not screechy, but if you were listening to her at a party conference, it would be quite grating."
Thatcher altered her voice to change how she was perceived. As she rose higher in government, her voice dropped and sounded more manly.
"She definitely worked on that…. Also, if you watch her interviews, you'll see she always smiled. She always kept this face" — Anderson pulls a benevolent grin — "whether it was a full smile or partial smile, it was how she delivered information. And she never got angry. She was always even-keeled, with a direct tone and very persuasive."
And, of course, this being The Crown, the prime minister's wardrobe was extensive. Anderson recalls "hundreds of costume fittings and extraordinary care given by the costume department." The aim always was to balance historical accuracy with items that worked on screen.
"It wasn't necessarily about modernizing what she wore, but we wanted it to feel like the designer was adding her personality into it," she explains. "That little twist, together with choosing historically accurate pieces, all went toward telling the right story throughout."
As for makeup, that department had to figure out "how to cover — or not to cover — my skin and freckles," she says, "because it's über HD." And the P.M.'s red power lipstick was a particular bone of contention. To find exactly the right shade, "they went through every pharmacy in town!" Anderson marvels.
And finally, there was that historic hair. In a 2013 survey by hair-care website Fabriah.com, Thatcher's oversized, sculpted coiffure was voted the fifth most influential hairstyle of the past 50 years.
"Of course it was a wig!" Anderson says of her own Crown crown. "There were two wigs, in fact. One is bigger. It took a really long time to get right. On the first camera test it was too dark, too dense and too big. Part of what they needed — other than adding lighter elements and reweaving — was actually removing some hair so that light got to come through it."
Taken all together, the transformation is astonishing — though never distracting.
"Pete was quite clear that they wanted something that felt natural, that didn't feel like a parody or an imitation. To do that, I had to maintain a certain element of self, so that you still see it's me playing her. That was okay."
To be sure, her Thatcher is a slow-burn delight. It's a quiet and unshowy performance, portraying the leader as a woman, a mother, a daughter and a workaholic who honed her beliefs through years of being underestimated. She is also seen as part of a triptych of women, alongside the queen and the emerging figure of Princess Diana, played by Emma Corrin in season four (now streaming).
As the 1970s draw to a close, Queen Elizabeth and her family are focused on safeguarding the line of succession by securing an appropriate bride for Prince Charles (Josh O'Connor), still unmarried at 30. The nation, meanwhile, is beginning to feel the impact of Thatcher's divisive policies. At the same time, tensions arise with the queen as Thatcher leads the country into the Falklands War, generating conflict within the Commonwealth.
At every turn, Thatcher is the antagonist, while the queen remains the preserver of the status quo. Anderson says she started with a blank slate. "I knew the varying opinions about her. But when I was growing up, I wasn't paying much attention to politics." ...
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This story originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 12, 2020