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Jodie Turner-Smith Channeled Her New Motherhood to Play Anne Boleyn

Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Playing one of the most notorious royals in history is a feat for even the most veteran actors, and although her role in the AMC+ miniseries Anne Boleyn is only Jodie Turner-Smith’s second lead part after 2019’s Queen & Slim, from the moment she read the script, she was down to play the divisive and complicated British queen.

“As an artist, I saw an opportunity to tell a story in a different way, and I fucking jumped at it,” she told Vulture.

The first Black woman to play Boleyn onscreen, Turner-Smith steps with confidence into the shoes of Henry VIII’s second and most controversial wife, whether she’s slapping Henry’s bubbly mistress, breaking down after giving birth to a stillborn son, or slowly losing her mind as she succumbs to the cruel gossip about her inability to “produce sons.” Anne Boleyn follows the title character’s story in harrowing detail, the psychological drama illuminating how a misogynistic system can strip a woman of her dignity, her sanity, and eventually, her life.

Vulture chatted with Turner-Smith on Zoom about channeling her own experiences with motherhood into the role and why she made sure her Anne Boleyn wrapped her natural hair at night.

What drew you to this project?
I knew our director Lynsey Miller, and when they came to me with this offer, I was like, Wow, that sounds really freaking exciting! Then I read the scripts and really loved them. As an actress, there are so many variables in filmmaking, but what’s exciting to me is when it starts with the page. I just hope I get the chance to do something like this again, but with lots more money. [Laughs.]

What did it mean to you to be the first Black actress to portray this white historical figure onscreen? Were you worried given the initial backlash?
I try my best to insulate myself from the comments because they’re not helpful in the grand scheme of things. That, and social media tends to amplify negativity. I had to turn off people’s ability to send me messages because, girl, I get inundated. But I got to a place where I realized I had to keep going because people will always find something to be mad about. They were mad because of the way Queen & Slim ended, mad that my husband is white after I did this great Black love story. Now they’re mad that I played this white queen.

But I also know that people will be upset because they feel protective of things, protective of the characters Queen and Slim and of Anne. People have very strong feelings toward this woman, of course, because she’s amazing. But we’ve been seeing things given to us in a certain way for a very long time, and people are uncomfortable seeing things exist outside of what they feel it should look like — and that is their right and prerogative. But as an artist, I saw an opportunity to tell a story in a different way, and I fucking jumped at it, because why not?

Given that this is a true story — or as the creators say, “inspired by the truth” — how did you prepare?
The first thing you do is touch on the history, so we worked with an amazing historian and created an Anne Bible: what we do know about her, how she was raised, where she went to school, and the time she spent at the French court rubbing elbows with artists. Knowing that, I asked, What kind of person would that create? This is a woman who was around all these powerful women growing up. She would come back to England and have a little spice. She was not doing it like everybody else, and that made her attractive to Henry. It also made her threatening to the traditional British monarchy. Clearly, she was even more threatening in the fact that Henry left the Catholic Church because of her. Religion is one of the most divisive subjects in humankind, and she disrupted England’s religion.

I also learned there is so much mystery around her. We don’t have any record of Anne in her own words. No diary entries or journals. Now, we have many letters from Henry to her, but not a single letter from her to Henry. There’s not even an official portrait of her — whether Henry destroyed them all when he had her killed, all of her pictures and portraits we see now were done years after her death with people guessing her look. That mystery is the very thing that makes her such an interesting character to jump into. We had a lot of license to imagine who she is.

Watching Anne Boleyn, it became clear this is also about misogyny, reducing a woman to her reproductive abilities, and how that cruelty can break a woman down. It’s pretty heartbreaking.
I approached this story with much care and compassion, understanding that it was about a woman struggling under the crushing weight of the patriarchy and finding herself sucked into a black hole. Imagine living with that kind of cruelty: What kind of person would you become? Better yet, imagine living through that and already being a polarizing figure? It began to crack her relationship with Henry and then herself.

It’s so interesting what women throughout history have to go through. Yes, we have made some great changes, but we are still struggling. Right now, we are standing on the precipice of Roe v. Wade being rolled back. That’s wild.

Did you take your experiences as a new mother into the role?
Playing Anne and nursing my daughter at the time, I definitely channeled that energy. I could put my feet in the shoes of a woman walking this fraught path of a desire to mother your children, but they’re pulled away from you because that’s what they did at that time. And the deep passion you feel for wanting your child to be successful and safe in society and also wanting your child to be ambitious — Anne was so openly ambitious and people hated that about her. I could relate to that as a woman, a Black woman, and a Black mother in this day and age.

Do you believe having a primarily female creative team helped capture all of these nuances?
Absolutely. Being a woman allows you the authority to tell this story from a different perspective. But that can also be as simple and grand as how much compassion was extended to me as a working, nursing mother. I was given the space to pump and nurse every three hours — that is so big! There are women around the world who are pumping in a supply closet or toilet stalls on their lunch break because they’re not given time within their workday. Or women who can’t breastfeed at all because they’re not given the space to pump. This experience on set was a blessing.

What’s also interesting about Anne is that in the face of all this oppression, she found ways to express her autonomy. She wasn’t afraid to put someone in their place, slap a girl for sitting on a man’s lap. That must have been fun for you. 
I love that about her. She was ambitious and fucking bitchy. She got to be cruel and all the things she felt she needed to do in order to make herself unquestionable by others. How many times have we been in that position ourselves? Do you know how many times we have shown people our teeth because it was the best way to ensure our survival? Here are traits that men do not like and possess unabashedly. And Henry fucking loved it, and honestly, Anne was essentially topping Henry from the bottom.

Jodie! Not topping from the bottom?!
I’m just saying.

As a Black woman with natural hair, I loved that Anne had kinky curly hair instead of 2B, blown-out, stick-straight hair. And most importantly, she wore a satin scarf at night. Did you have a say in that?
It was important that my Anne had Afro-textured hair and that she’d been growing it her whole life. Julie Kendrick, who was the head of our hair and makeup department, was already on board, so we created all these looks with the help of my personal hairstylist and the team. My Anne will wrap her hair because she is a Black woman. Honestly, hair is the thing that takes me out when I watch things. If the hair is raggedy, I’m like, “What’s going on? Curl her wig please.”

With shows like Bridgeton and now Anne Boleyn, we’re seeing more reimaginings of race in period pieces. Is this is a trend you hope to see more of in the future? 
Absolutely. We’ve been doing it for generations in the theater, so yes, let’s keep disrupting people’s worlds. We have been excluded for a long time from being able to tell even our own stories, but certainly their stories. And now we’re not making it their story but our story. Or a human story. And humanity is colorful.

Jodie Turner-Smith Brought Her New Motherhood to Anne Boleyn