Queen & Slim star Jodie Turner-Smith takes on the role of one of England's most iconic monarchs in new three-part drama Anne Boleyn. The series is set during the final five months of Anne's life, and charts the journey from being one of the most powerful women in England to her brutal execution on charges of treason, all from Anne's own perspective.
"For the most part, Anne's story has been told through the lenses of men," says Jodie. "We were trying to do something different with this story. There's a psychological thriller element, we wanted it to be about what makes her tick, what she was going through emotionally and psychologically at the time. I don't think she's ever really been explored in that way — it's usually more an exploration of the circumstances surrounding what got her to where she ended up. We all know she was beheaded, but in our story what we're also saying is: she was murdered. That's what makes it a psychological thriller, because it's a story leading up to a woman's murder."
The drama opens in 1536, when Anne is pregnant with her second child, having already become a mother to Princess Elizabeth. She and King Henry (played by White House Farm's Mark Stanley) both hope that this next child will be a boy so that Henry's lineage on the throne can be secured — but when the child is stillborn, Anne is devastated and Henry becomes cold and distant towards her. Anne starts to suspect she has fallen out of favour with him, and the constant presence of Jane Seymour around Henry does little to calm Anne's fears that Henry is thinking of replacing her.
"It's a deeply painful and grief-filled experience for a person to lose a child," says Jodie. "I really sought to sit with the energy of that and try to be as truthful as possible, being a person who's never actually experienced a stillbirth but has experienced a miscarriage. What was important about that scene for all of us doing it was not so much the triggering reality of seeing somebody do that, but more the internal experience this woman is having. Having done it before, it obviously seems that everything around her is not going the way that it should, and how heartbreaking that is, still having to push through a labour."
The series was filmed on location in Yorkshire at the end of 2020, and while the historical sites added a sense of authenticity to the piece, the downside was that the actors felt quite chilly on set! However, Jodie reveals that she had a secret way to keep the shivers at bay.
"Underneath those gowns? Layers, honey!" she laughs. "Layers, and patches! If you put heat patches in your armpits, it's a lifesaver. Put heat patches on all the major arteries!"
The series attracted a lot of attention when the cast was announced due to its use of identity-conscious casting, which allows the actor's personal identity to inform the way they play the role, and encourages casting directors to draw from as wide a pool of talent as possible. As actors of colour have, historically, been excluded from playing major roles in period dramas, Jodie was excited to have an opportunity to play Anne Boleyn.
"I think we've been seeing a certain type of art for a really long time," says Jodie. "Historically, people of colour haven't had the opportunities to play these important characters, and I'm so proud to have been given the opportunity to do it, and I hope to see more of it. As I said before, this is about distilling it down to a feeling, and the humanity of the experience — no matter what our background is, or what colour our skin is, we are all having a human experience. We all understand love and loss and success and failure. We're trying to tell a story about ambition, about fighting for your seat at the table. Really, for me, this is a woman's story, and I think I can relate to that — especially as a black woman in this modern time. So that's what I brought to it."
Anne Boleyn begins on Tuesday June 1 at 9pm on Channel 5.
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