Jodie Turner-Smith on playing doomed queen Anne Boleyn: This was a story about mothers

Jodie Turner-Smith, Mark Stanley and Lola Petticrew tell why Channel 5’s new mini-series Anne Boleyn, starting Tuesday, June 1, is so relevant now.

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“Divorced, Beheaded, Died: Divorced, Beheaded, Survived” – we all know the rhyme to remember the fates of Henry VIII’s wives.

But what was it really like for those women; in particular, his second wife, Anne Boleyn who is often depicted as a temptress and a witch?

It’s her infamous downfall and execution which is at the centre of a new mini-series coming to Channel 5 – which has really been upping its original drama game lately – with Queen & Slim star Jodie Turner-Smith 34, playing the Tudor Queen.

Written by newcomer Eve Hedderwick Turner, and directed by Lynsey Miller, Anne Boleyn is a psychological thriller with female voices at the heart of it.

“The biggest thing that jumped out to me was how this was a story about mothers,” notes Peterborough native Turner-Smith, who shares a daughter with Dawson’s Creek actor, Joshua Jackson.

“[It’s about] Anne as a mother and how she was trying to manipulate her circumstances in order to protect her children, how her ability to provide an heir affected her own life and viability as a Queen, and how she manipulated her rivals’ children in order to get what she needed.”

“As a mother, there was just so much about this that resonated with me.”

Here, we find out more from the lead plus two of her co-stars, Mark Stanley and Lola Petticrew.

UNIQUE STORY

The gripping show – which sees Stanley, 33, playing Henry VIII – covers Anne’s final months from her point of view.We see how the Queen bravely challenges the powerful patriarchy surrounding her, but also the key moments that cause her to topple.

Another major character is Jane Seymour – portrayed by rising Northern Irish star Petticrew – who went on to marry the King just 11 days after Anne’s death.

“When we first see Jane, it’s five months before Anne’s murder, and there’s a sense that maybe things aren’t what they seem in that relationship, and that Henry’s getting a bit fed up,” suggests Petticrew, who has recently appeared in BBC series Bloodlands and Three Families.

“Jane Seymour sees an opportunity and starts gearing up to take it.”

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Compared to previous portrayals, this is a much more human story about Anne who, as Turner-Smith points out, was “a woman before her time” in many ways.

“Anne was trying to push culture forward – she was interested in art and science and she felt like religion should be a much more personal and private experience for people, which was different to what the Catholic Church was doing at the time.

“Our telling of the story really focuses on Anne’s desires in that context as a modern woman, and how who she was, how she thought and what she was trying to do was really quite feminist.”

POWERFUL PARTS

The production team and cast worked closely with historian Dan Jones throughout the process. But when delving into such iconic historical figures, what sort of pressure did they feel?

“I’d imagine some people might start watching The Tudors or Wolf Hall, and [think] ‘How can I emulate that?’” notes Stanley, who grew up in Leeds.

“Although I was aware of those projects, and had seen them, I stayed quite disciplined about staying away from them.”

Expanding on how he approached playing Henry, Stanley continues: “You’ve got to think that he’s you and, in that respect, the pressure dissipates the more empathy you build for him.”

The most challenging part for the actor – who has had roles in dramas such as Game Of Thrones and White House Farm – was getting his head around Henry’s perspective towards Anne, in order to play the part truthfully.

“It’s quite hard bending your mind to think of someone as totally replaceable, someone who is a second-class citizen, someone who is basically put there as a pawn, from their family, to bridge the relationship of their family and the crown,” he elaborates.

MODERN ATTITUDE

There is an approach in the entertainment world that has been used more in recent years – adopted by the team behind Anne Boleyn – to give actors the space to bring their whole identities, or even parts of their identities, to a character.

This means the producers aren’t bound by constraints historically adopted within period dramas, and actors from minority backgrounds aren’t limited in the parts they can audition for. It’s called identity-conscious casting and is certainly one way to encourage better representation on screen.

Turner-Smith thought “it was brilliant that it was a multi-racial cast” in Anne Boleyn.

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“If you stay away from period dramas because they feel kind of stuffy, then this is the historical drama for you,” she continues.

“[As an actor], when you take on a role you bring the wealth of your experience, your individuality and you really infuse something different, and I think that’s really what gave us the best opportunity to tell a different story.

“There is something spiritually that feels more approachable for people and that is going to be more broadly appealing to a contemporary audience.”

Asked about the poignancy of the identity-conscious casting, Stanley says: “It’s the way forward. It’s the way of making sure that the right actors get the right job.

“Take Jodie, for instance. If you’ve got a checklist; totally capable – check. Intelligent – check. Someone who is independent and strong and quite remarkable, really – check.”

EXCITING WATCH

The tone of Anne Boleyn might surprise you – yes, it’s a period drama, but more than that, it’s a psychological thriller.

“When we open the show, you ultimately know that Anne is going to die, so there’s a ticking clock, and it builds up a lot of tension,” reflects Petticrew.

Another interesting element of the project is how relevant its themes feel today, which Petticrew wholeheartedly agrees with.

“It’s about women’s agency, and the agency of anybody that isn’t a man in society; agency over your body, what women’s positions are and what they’re meant to do.

“Reading it, and then seeing the entire team behind it so fired up to be able to explore those things, it was definitely something that felt really lovely to be a part of.”

Anne Boleyn will air over three consecutive nights on Channel 5 from Tuesday, June 1

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