When I spoke with Michael Hirst in March 2011, he admitted that when he wrote the first season of The Tudors, he wasn’t all that interested in Anne Boleyn. “I didn’t even know if we’d be picked up for a second season at that point, and Anne was one of many people swimming in the ether. Wolsey and More—and of course Henry–were the more dominant figures.” His ultimate goal was to introduce television viewers to the tumultuous events behind the English Reformation. But he knew that history-as-entertainment was “a giant leap” for most viewers, and wasn’t afraid to make use of the sexier side of the story. He picked Natalie Dormer for the role of Anne largely because of the chemistry between her and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, slated to play Henry. His choice ultimately led him to a reconsideration of Anne, her role in history, and his hopes for the legacy of the series.
When I met with Natalie Dormer in June 2010, we talked about many things. I was extremely lucky to meet Natalie after her contract with Showtime was over, and she felt free to cease acting as a spokesperson for the show, and to speak her mind. For over an hour and half, we shared our love of Anne and her story, lamented how it had been misrepresented both in Anne’s time and our own, discussed Tudor history, and reflected on the struggle of Anne, women actors, and young women today to escape the limitations and expectations placed on them. She admitted that she often felt “compromised” by the way Anne’s character was written for the first season.
“I lost so many hours of sleep, and actually shed tears during my portrayal of her, trying to inject historical truth into the script, trying to do right by this woman that I had read so much about. It was a constant struggle, because the original script had that tendency to polarize women into saint and whore. It wasn’t deliberate, but it was there. I tried to fight that wherever I could, and because Michael Hirst and I were friends, and he had respect for my knowledge of history, I did manage to accomplish a bit. It was both inspiring and depressing when I got letters from young women, saying that it was so fascinating to watch me play a two-dimensional characterization of such a strong, powerful, clever and yet beautiful woman. The fact that it was so unusual for them to have an inspiring portrait of a spirited, strong, young woman–that’s devastating to me. But young women, it seems, picked up on my efforts, and that is a massive complement. And says a lot about the intelligence of that audience. Young girls struggling to find their identity, find their place, in this supposedly post-feminist era understood what I was doing”.
But not everyone responded in such a gratifying way. Hirst and I talked at length about the long legacy of negative stereotypes of Anne, and the tendency of fiction-writers and some historians to simply re-cycle them. Some critics, Hirst reported, dismissed The Tudors’ Anne as “your typically manipulative, scheming bitch. That surprised me because I hadn’t written it that way—I didn’t think Anne was a manipulative bitch, but a lively, complex woman–but they couldn’t get out of this system of thought we’ve talked about. Some of this criticism hurt Natalie very much.”
In my interview with her, Natalie recalled that disappointment, and spoke passionately about her desire that audiences, when the series got to Anne’s fall, would empathize with her:
“It happened very shortly after she miscarried, remember. To miscarry is traumatic for any woman, even in this day and age. And to be in that physical and mental state, having just miscarried, and be incarcerated in the Tower! If only she’d had that child! It’s horrific to confront how much transpired because of terrible timing, and how different it could have been. It’s one of the most dramatic “ifs” of history. And it’s why it’s such a compelling, sympathetic story. But I knew by the time we’d finished the first season that we hadn’t achieved it. That audiences would have no sympathy for her, because the way she’d been written, she would be regarded as the other woman, the third wheel, that femme fatale, that bitch. Who had it coming to her. “
During a dinner with Michael Hirst, who was still writing the second season, she shared her frustration and begged him “to do it right in the second half. We were good friends. He listened to me because he knew I knew my history. And you know, he’s a brilliant man. So he listened. And I remember saying to him: `Throw everything you’ve got at me. Promise me you’ll do that. I can do it. The politics, the religion, the personal stuff, throw everything you’ve got at me. I can take it.’”
Hirst took her by her word, and the result was a major change in the Anne Boleyn of the second season. Still sexy, but brainy, politically engaged and astute, a loving mother, and a committed reformist. No longer was Anne simply a character “in the ether.” Rehabilitating her image became part of his motivation in writing the script: “I wanted to show that she was a human being, a young woman placed in a really difficult and awful situation, manipulated by her father, the king, and circumstances, but that she was also feisty and interesting and had a point of view and tried to use her powers to advance what she believed in. And I wanted people to live with her, to live through her. To see her.”
The execution scene was especially important to Natalie: “By the end of the season, when I’m standing on that scaffold,” she told Michael, “I hope you write it the way it should be. And I want the effect of that scene to remain with viewers for the length of the series. I want the audience to be standing with her on that scaffold. I want those who have judged her harshly to change their allegiance so they actually love her and empathize with her.” The experience of actually filming the scene, for the actress, was “incredibly harrowing. As I was saying the lines, I got the feeling I was saying good-bye to a character. And of course, there was my tremendous sympathy for the historical figure of Anne. I was a real crucible of emotions for those few days. And when it was over I grieved for her.”
Hirst, too, recalls the heightened emotions of shooting that scene: “That was an amazing day. Extraordinary day. After, I went in to congratulate her. She was weeping and saying, `She’s with me Michael. She’s with me.’” And with thousands of fans, who still write Natalie letters, describing the impact that the scene had on them.
As you watch it now—probably not for the first time—I hope it will resonate for you, not only as the powerful, wrenching end of Anne’s life, but as the artistic culmination of a real-life relationship between another brave, challenging woman and a man who, unlike Henry, was willing to listen.