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First-time director Justin Chadwick’s courtly romantic drama The Other Boleyn Girl (based on the best-selling novel by Philippa Gregory) hits theaters this weekend, with Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman as the winsome, feuding Boleyn sisters. When Vulture found out that nymag.com’s senior news editor Jessica Coen was a closet Gregory fan, we jumped at the chance to have them chat.
So how involved were you with the screenplay for The Other Boleyn Girl?
Officially, I was a consultant on the film, but I got along very, very well with [screenwriter] Peter Morgan. We talked all the way through, particularly about the language — what people would say and wouldn’t say — and about what would have been possible and likely in the Tudor society. And when I went on-set the book was already there: Scarlett had read it absolutely cover-to-cover, and her book was marked up on almost every page. The book was her source material, partly also there’s nowhere else to go: My fiction is the closest thing to a biography Mary Boleyn currently has.
You have a very devoted following among women — myself included — who might not usually read romance novels or historical fiction. Do you think it’s the nature of women’s fiction that these novels get labeled as “bodice rippers” in a way?
Well, I think that’s exactly it — because they’re clearly not romantic fictions. When I wrote my first novel, Wideacre, my then-editor said, “You know, you’ve taken a traditional literary form, the historical novel, and you’ve turned it into something else altogether.” Nobody’s really ever called any of my work a “bodice ripper.” I think if you look at the jacket, maybe you’re not that sure. But no one’s ever read any of my books and not realized that they were doing something absolutely fresh.
And that’s why they sell so well. The Other Boleyn Girl, which was first published ten years ago, has now been on the New York Times best-seller list for something like a month. It’s now, again. I think it speaks to modern women because it’s an absolute reinvention of an old form. I have a Ph.D. I’m a professional historian. I like to get it right. The fiction is there to breathe life into historical facts.
A lot of the book’s negative online reviews have to do with accuracy, and the debate over whether Mary was older or younger … Why do you think people are so hung up on that?
Okay, Mary was younger. There was a time when people thought she was probably older, but that was about 50 years ago. Since then we’ve found some documents. For instance, Anne went to France first and Mary followed her, so that probably means Anne’s the older. And then there’s a Boleyn family will which has just been discovered, which mentions Anne and does not mention Mary, and people think that’s probably because Anne was born then and Mary wasn’t. So I looked at all the evidence, and I made the decision along with, I think, David Starkey and certainly Alison Weir, the two best Tudor historians we have working today. And we all think that Mary is the younger.
There was a bit of controversy recently about casting three American actors in these very prominent British historical roles. Did you feel any conflict about that?
Not at all. I think that the idea that people should be made to play by race is utterly insane. You know, they’re actors! Their job is to step into someone else’s shoes. I’m English, and the accents seemed to me to be perfect. I don’t really mind where the actors come from — they could come from Mars.
Jessica’s ideaPhoto Illustration: Everett Bogue; Photos: WireImage, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
I have to tell you, I picture you writing in your library in front of a large fireplace wearing…
Like Proust… [laughs] I’m a modern woman. I write, I work when I can and when I have to. So I’ll take a laptop and wait for my kids in the car and write in the car if I have to. I’m very flexible.
That is so disappointing. I really had an image of you in some sort of velvet smoking jacket.
You can stay with that if you like. Your fictions are your own concern. —Jessica Coen