Gillian Anderson Says “No Wigs Were Harmed” in Her Portrayal of Margaret Thatcher

Erica Gonzales
·11-min read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

From Harper's BAZAAR

When Gillian Anderson first appears as Margaret Thatcher in The Crown, the first thing you notice is the hair. She pats her pouf, picks at it with a comb, looks at it with steady focus in her vanity mirror. Preparing to face the press as the United Kingdom’s new prime minister, Thatcher, dressed in a beige suit and pearl earrings, rehearses her lines in between spritzes of perfume.

For the Iron Lady, as Thatcher was called, “presentation was very, very important,” Anderson tells BAZAAR.com. “But it was important for her for most of her life,” she adds of the conservative politician who came from a working-class upbringing.

Appearances were important for Anderson, too, with her transformation into Thatcher, a recognizable historical figure with an incredibly distinct look. Part of the process was in the cosmetics and wardrobe: the ’80s office attire, the blue eye shadow, a body suit, apparently, and, of course, the hair. (“No wigs were harmed,” Anderson jokes.) But another part was how she adopted the mannerisms of the divisive world leader. The slight tilt of her head, the slow drag in her voice, the way she walked, the way her mouth moved when she talked—they were all intentional decisions that made Anderson’s portrayal chilling.

While the actress has garnered praise, the role has also revived criticism and vitriol surrounding Thatcher’s thorny legacy. She was a staunch Conservative whose bellicose stance against social reform, unions, and regulation deeply shaped the nation’s future. Though her supporters credit her for improving the economy in the ’80s, she’s also blamed for ignoring the plight of the poor and exacerbating the housing crisis.

And, yes, she was the first woman prime minister of Britain, and a tenacious leader who once fired three cabinet members at once, but she was no celebrated “girl boss” and she certainly was not a feminist. Often the only woman in a roomful of men, the on-screen Thatcher internalizes misogyny as seen in her idolizing her father, doting on her son, and calling her mother and daughter “weak.” Anderson points out that in Thatcher’s 11 years in office, “she only ever allowed one other woman into the cabinet.”

The X-Files and Sex Education star understood that she was taking on a controversial role, but has said that she decided to “put all preconceptions and opinions to the side” to give the part her all. And it seems like that worked.

While Zooming from London, Anderson explains preparing for The Crown, her favorite scene with Olivia Colman (who plays the queen), and portraying Thatcher from the time she’s elected to her ultimate resignation.

I'd love to start by asking how your performance came to be, everything from what you watched and read, and how you got the mannerisms down. What did it take to put the character together?

Fortunately, I had a good period of time running up to playing her and the research team on The Crown pretty much works year-round, so I was able to access them and what they could provide quite early on. Initially, they gave me a fantastic pack of things to watch and to read. And then, I just started reading as much as I could and watching as many videos of her, of which there are many online, both interviews and behind the scenes—her out in public meeting constituents initially, and then when she was prime minister and run-up to elections and everything. There's a lot of material out there, which give a good snapshot of how she reacted and behaved in different situations.

So part of the process is choosing what elements of her voice to keep so that it feels consistent and it feels somewhat grounded in an aspect of my voice while at the same time feeling like Thatcher. Then, starting with all the fittings for the wig, of which there were many, and costume fittings and makeup and … she wore a kind of a blue eye shadow, and initially, they wanted to find a blue that felt very much like it was from the '70s, '80s. And actually during the camera test, we found that it was too dense. The one that they found that was actually from that was a vintage eye shadow that didn't work at all.

And we had to find something that was much more contemporary that felt like it would sit in the HD format better, and same with the lipstick and the particular shade of copper that she wore. And when we first did the camera tests, everything was too heavy and the wig was too dense. And so they had to make some pretty major adjustments. And I watched some of the playback as I was kind of trying out how to hold her head and how to walk and all that kind of stuff, and it was all just a big mess. And so I had to kind of reel it back and start to work on other aspects of that. It didn't fit, so it was a long process that involved a great many people, but fun to be a part of that collaboration.

Photo credit: Des Willie - Netflix
Photo credit: Des Willie - Netflix

How many wigs did you have to go through?

I think in the end, there were two wigs, one that represented the first half of her episodes and one that represented the second half, and then there were doubles and triples of those. I don't think there were any situations where one of the wigs got ruined. Although, with some of the stalking in that scene in Scotland, it's possible that that one was affected, but you know, Thatcher is not doing somersaults. So, you know, I don't think many were destroyed in the process. No wigs were harmed [in the process of being Margaret Thatcher].

I find it so interesting seeing that so much of her persona, at least on the show, is based on image. In the first few scenes, when you are introduced to her, a lot of the way that the show is edited is you see that before she steps out, it's her fixing her hair, putting on the jewelry, and putting herself together physically before she shows herself to the world. I was wondering if you thought, at least when you were researching her, if presentation was important to her.

Oh, yeah. Presentation was very, very important. But it was important for her for most of her life. If you read many of the letters that she wrote when she'd gone off to college and she wrote home to her sister—it was mostly her sister that she communicated with—almost every single letter is about clothes. It's about ribbons and things that she found in a thrift shop, or that she saved money, or she got a bargain on something and she was going to turn it into a piece that she would put on that nice felt hat that she got for Christmas, or whatever. It was all about clothes. And she grew up as the shopkeeper's daughter and she worked very, very hard and they lived a very frugal, well-budgeted life in her youth.

And she really, really carried that into her premiership. I think as she became a member of the Conservative Party and she was surrounded by pretty much only men and men of a certain class, she really had to present herself as being something other than how she was brought up. And I think she was very, very aware of that from early on. She did work with a PR person at one point when she was going to run for office, who kind of shifted her away from the look that we had known her in, with the big pussy bows and lots of prints on her shirts, et cetera, into a look that was much more monotone and more conservative, I guess. Image was a big part of her experience as a woman in that world, in that class.

You mentioned her being surrounded by men almost all the time, especially at work. There are times when you see her affected by it on-screen, whether it's her talking to her husband saying, “The way those men patronize me,” and seeing the way that she's treated in the workplace. What did you make of that? How do you think she was internalizing that environment?

I think she knew very well on the one hand that was something that she was walking into. She was very good at operating in that world. That was the only world that she knew when she would have been in Oxford getting a chemistry degree. I think she was one of two women in the whole science department; she was so used to that. And I think part of the way that she dealt with it was to just kind of, she knew what her potential was, she knew what she was capable of and what she wanted from her future. And she was determined that she was going to make a path for herself in that realm, regardless of the fact that it was predominantly filled with men—and a lot of much older men, and very patronizing men.

But I mean, the more interesting aspect of her is the fact that in the 11 years that she was actually the first female prime minister in the U.K., she only ever allowed one other woman into the cabinet in those 11 years. I think she didn't appreciate weakness in men or women. I think she certainly could have done a lot more for women while she was in power. But she was quite ambivalent about other people in general. She knew how to get what she wanted, and she knew how to operate amongst the men that she surrounded herself with.

And then, once she finally meets another woman in power, the queen, what did you think she made of that relationship? And what was Olivia Colman like as a scene partner?

I think neither of them had been confronted by another woman at the stature that either of them were at, ever in their lives. [They] certainly hadn't experienced negotiating with, or having to ask opinions of, or get advice from women at all in that seat of power. And so that must have been foreign and unsettling. But a lot has been written about their relationship. And some people say that they didn't like each other from the start. We also know that Thatcher came in as a monarchist and revered royalty. But I think she was also very self-conscious about her beginnings, and so all of those things must've been playing into that relationship and how she related to the queen. But how she dealt with problems, how Thatcher dealt with issues facing them head-on and kind of barreling through them is exactly the opposite of how the queen deals with issues by the very nature of her role. She sits back and observes.

Olivia is delightful and a fantastic scene partner. She is funny and generous and a lot of fun and a fantastic actress. There were very long days that were broken up with a great deal of laughter and silliness.

Photo credit: Des Willie - Netflix
Photo credit: Des Willie - Netflix

Is there a certain scene with her that stood out to you?

The scene that takes place in Episode 10, when Thatcher is kicked out of Parliament and the queen gives her an Order of Merit. So she goes to the queen after she's no longer prime minister. It's a very intimate scene between the two of them, where they're in very close proximity. And the fact that that exists as kind of the end scene where we see Thatcher and the queen is really special. And it was fun to film, because we'd been in various scenarios together, Olivia and I, whether in Balmoral or hiking in Scotland or in the audience scenes, you know, ultimately a lot of very serious acting.

And all of a sudden, we are, you know, inches away from each other's faces as these two iconic heads of state, and just the experience of imagining what that must be like for Thatcher, to be there after all the history and at this particular moment when she experienced such betrayal from her own party, it was a really lovely opportunity and beautifully written, very moving scene. Even though I didn't have a single line, I don't think [laughs], it was fun to play.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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