'The Crown': Gillian Anderson on Margaret Thatcher and Acting Opposite Olivia Colman (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
While so much attention has been paid to Princess Diana’s arrival on season 4 of The Crown, the most notable newcomer is Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who is portrayed by Gillian Anderson. The Fall and Sex Education actress appears opposite Olivia Colman, who reprises her role as Queen Elizabeth II, in some of the Netflix series’ most spark-filled and enthralling scenes yet.
With season 4 spanning from 1979 to 1990, The Crown picks up immediately after Thatcher’s election, making her the first female Prime Minister of England -- and marking the first time in history the country was run by two women.
For creator Peter Morgan, it was particularly fun to explore the differences and similarities between Elizabeth and Thatcher, who were born months apart. While they came from completely different backgrounds, they were both guided by a sense of frugality, hard work, and commitment while facing similar adversities from a male-dominated society.
“It was a commonly held piece of wisdom that the Queen and Thatcher didn’t get on. I think there was probably a lot of respect,” Morgan says, adding that exploring their lives as mothers to several older children was an angle yielding “Favourites,” “one of my favorite episodes in the season.” (Meanwhile, “The Balmoral Test” shows just how differently each woman approached their duties and tested each other.)
“At the end of the day, she was a self-made woman, she came from very meager beginnings and very frugal beginnings,” Anderson says of the politician, who faced high employment and an ongoing recession when she took office and later became known as the “Iron Lady” for her uncompromising politics and intense leadership style.
Because Thatcher was such an “incredibly divisive character, it is hard to get a neutral opinion from somebody,” the actress says of the intense pressure to get her portrayal right. “You don’t want to end up making a fool of yourself.”
In order to bring the politician to life on The Crown, Anderson did lots of research and studying -- especially of her speaking style and cadences -- by watching as many documentaries about her and her interviews. “That is one of the things that is so quintessentially Thatcher,” the actress says of “the particular way that she approaches sentences and when she takes a breath” and having to put a lot of work into her rhythmic development of her vocal performance.
Anderson also spent nearly two hours getting her hair and makeup done to mimic Thatcher's distinct style. Most of that time, the actress says, was spent gluing as much hair on her as possible. According to hair and makeup designer Cate Hall, most of the work went into getting the right color and texture with Thatcher’s wigs requiring classic rollers to achieve the final look.
Meanwhile, costume designer Amy Roberts and assistant costume designer Sidonie Roberts were tasked with recreating Thatcher's variant on “power dressing,” from her preferences for pussy bow blouses to her famous pleated skirt suit to her signature wide shoulder, strongly tailored dress suits.
The end result is a spot-on portrayal by Anderson that will perhaps challenge Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning take in the 2011 biopic Iron Lady.
But what makes Anderson’s version of Thatcher truly memorable is her scenes shared with Colman, during the Queen’s weekly audiences with the prime minister. While previous seasons showed how Elizabeth grew into her own and learned how to handle her fellow heads of state, her interactions with Thatcher were fueled by so many other emotions and influences.
And watching the two actresses re-enact these scenes is like watching a masterclass in acting. “She does it in, like, two or three takes and, you know, she has done it perfectly, everything is perfect,” Anderson says of Colman, whom she commends for being a fantastic and patient screen partner. “It was very entertaining for us as well as anybody who might have been watching.”
While Anderson ultimately only appears in the one season -- Thatcher’s term as prime minister ended in 1990 -- the actress is grateful to be part of The Crown legacy and to have been part of the ensemble cast. “It’s such a great group of incredibly talented actors,” Anderson says, revealing they’ve been keeping in touch via a group thread on WhatsApp. “At some point when we don’t have to isolate, we’ll come together again.”
She concludes, “I feel very blessed to have been a part of it.”