A major adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels
Claire Foy is Anne Boleyn
How did you approach the role of Anne Boleyn?
I did a lot of research but it is difficult with Anne because there is no hard evidence or first-hand account of what she was like. Obviously at her trial and her execution there are lots of people talking about her, but much of the time the information you get is that she wasn’t particularly attractive, no one understood why the king wanted anything to do with her – all those kinds of clichés, people saying she had six fingers and warts. It is quite difficult when you are approaching it to find that true material.
Hilary (Mantel)– in the books and Peter (Straughan) in the scripts – write Anne seen from Cromwell’s perspective, so he only sees things in her that he relates to, or the things that he finds interesting. So it was my job to figure out the other side of Anne that you don’t see; like when she is in a scene having a hissy fit, understanding why that might be as opposed to thinking she is this mad woman. I had to figure that out for myself, with the help of the research that I did and imagining how mad her life must have been.
I fell in love with the way Hilary writes and how you genuinely feel you are in the room with these people. So when my agent told me I had the audition I was so worried I would let them all down, let Anne Boleyn down as I had such a clear idea of what she was like in my head...to then have the words come out of my mouth, I struggled to get my head around that at first.
Did your research change your perception of Anne?
When I was reading the books, before I even knew about the script, I was so much more on Cromwell’s side; I thought he was genius, everything he said was hilarious and he was the real hero of the story. When it comes to the time of Anne’s demise and he is fabricating the whole thing, it is so clever because Cromwell is convincing himself he is in the right – as you would have to be if you’re about to chop someone’s head off. I think weirdly that gives the reader, and the viewer, a lot of sympathy with Anne as you see this poor girl, who hasn’t done anything wrong, she has just been in the wrong place at the wrong time from the beginning. I felt a lot of compassion for this woman who was obviously an incredible character with such spirit and an amazing person to be around, but she was just that bit too much of a powerful opponent for Cromwell, so she had to go.
As a kid growing up when you learn about the Tudors at school, you hear the clichéd Anne Boleyn version, and in a way she is a bit of cliché; she is this amazingly strong woman living in this man’s world and she has got to be seen as hormonal and a bit mad, she can’t possibly have got where she is by being interesting and intelligent, she must have used witchcraft! But when you look at it in a modern world and the way that history paints women, you see it’s all just fabrication. It is quite flimsy the whole thing, so when it comes to that I then feel incredible compassion towards her because she missed out on people really being able to know her. It would be amazing to read her letters, or read her diaries, and there’s only one letter she wrote to Henry to read.
What did you find most challenging about the role?
Every scene is incredibly intense and full of information, and there’s so much going on under the surface that you really have to be on your game, but in a weird way the toughest part was that you had to try not to overwhelm it with how much you’d learnt and just be in the scene. We never see her in private and I don’t think I’ve ever played a character where you don’t at least see them in a quiet moment on their own or reflecting, so you don’t get to see the internal working. Because it is all through Cromwell’s eyes, you only see her when she is putting on a bit of a display and that was the challenge - to try and litter it with some moments of introspection or what she would be like in another situation where he wasn’t there.
What did the costumes bring to your performance?
It’s the most amazing thing as an actor to have clothes made for you, because you’re so used to wearing something someone has already worn and has their name in. When you have costumes made, you are able to really make them unique, make them have a personality and stand out. Anne was incredibly interested in fashion and how she looked and she really paid attention to changing a particular detail about her outfit that would make her stand out. That’s what was such a breath of fresh air in English court – she came in saying she wanted it like this, or thinks it would look better like that. Like someone in the 80s turning up their blazer sleeve.
When we were doing the fittings, it was just incredible that the structure and the way they put the dresses together was so accurate, everything was pinned on – nothing was sewn, it was done exactly as they would have done it in Anne's time. In the first few weeks it was magical and amazing – but then it gets to July and you’re in a stately home not able the drink water, sit down, not really able to breathe and you’re regretting asking the corset to be so tight in the fitting! Then, of course, there was the baby bump, so I was grumpy on a couple of days...
Was there a particular scene that stood out for you?
There were a couple of scenes from the book that I just loved acting out, loved saying the words and being in the room with Mark (Rylance). I think the execution scene would have to be up there – purely because it felt very real, it didn’t feel staged, Peter (Kosminsky) just let me get on with it and there weren’t many takes. It felt like very documentary style filmmaking and it was just amazing to be given the opportunity to do the whole thing. I think it’s the only time that Anne’s words verbatim were said as they were recorded. A lot of the time her final speech is changed or lines are added; Hilary (Mantel) pretty much writes verbatim what the observers reported Anne said, so it felt right to say exactly what she said in that moment. It felt very real.
The Coronation was spectacular - it is always nice to become a queen. But for me, it was mainly all the dialogue scenes I had with Mark that were my favourite moments because we just really lived in those moments and I think we had a really good connection and understanding of each other and the characters. It doesn’t always feel like that, so it is quite special when that happens.
- Mark Rylance is Thomas Cromwell
- Damian Lewis is Henry VIII
- Claire Foy is Anne Boleyn
- Jonathan Pryce is Cardinal Wolsey
- Mark Gatiss is Stephen Gardiner
- Peter Kosminsky, Director
- Hilary Mantel, Author
- Peter Straughan, Screenwriter
- Pat Campbell, Production Designer
- Joanna Eatwell, Costume Designer
- National Trust locations
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