The Crown’s fourth season is almost too eventful. The latest entry in Peter Morgan’s house of Windsor anthology unpacks everything from the fairytale courtship and tumultuous marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales to England’s economic inequalities as it glides through the late 1970s to early 80s as viewed through the lens of the monarchy. A deep dive into the royal family’s uneasy relationship with its public and itself, the historical drama hits its sweet spot as it charts some of the Windsors’ most challenging moments. The plot may center on those within the succession line, but its exploration of Margaret Thatcher is no less compelling. The first female Prime Minister serves as a foil to Queen Elizabeth II’s laissez-faire leadership style. Thatcher, with her workaholic tendencies and willingness to create enemies as she pushes through her free-market-focused, pro-privatization brand of conservatism, is the polar opposite of the Queen. The clash between the two women serves as the highlight of the new episodes (sorry, Charles and Diana) thanks to the well-documented tension within their relationship and the tour de force performances of Olivia Colman and Gillian Anderson.
The transformation undertaken by Anderson is particularly striking; you won’t see shades of X-Files favorite Dana Scully or Sex Education’s wry sex therapist, Dr. Jean Milburn, within her interpretation of Thatcher. Equal parts steely and maternal, the duality of her persona is explored throughout the season. Despite the complexities, Thatcher’s story could feel rote in lesser hands. She is after all one of the most-discussed, and divisive political figures of the 20th century. But Anderson brought new layers to the Iron Lady. To do that meant approaching the role without biases. “I realized as I started to work on her that I didn’t have many of my own opinions; my opinions were adopted from other people,” she shared on the phone from London. “Especially living in the UK where people have powerful feelings about her one way or another. In my experience, it’s helpful to put aside opinions and preconceptions of a character before you begin diving into their beliefs and motivations, especially when you’re playing a historical character.” To fill in the blanks, she began an extensive research process that involved reading biographies, watching countless documentaries, and getting into the politician’s psyche. “As you can imagine, there is a plethora of information out there,” says Anderson. “Over time, one starts to absorb that stuff, and then when you eventually get the script, it’s seeped into you in a way where it informs the decisions you’re making while playing the character.”
The creations of The Crown’s costume designer, Amy Roberts, also informed Anderson’s transformation. Known for her Aquascutum suits, sensible Asprey handbags, and an immovable bouffant hairstyle, Thatcher’s version of power dressing was a crucial part of her image. Getting the look right involved trial and error on everything from the tailoring to finding accurate makeup for the era. “I was sitting in the hair and makeup chair while they were trying to work out their contributions, and when I would get closer to looking like her, I would take pictures of the mirror because it was like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God. Look, there she is.’” says Anderson. “That was quite a long process. [Finding] the particular blue eyeshadow that felt like it was from the ’70s and ’80s, but it wasn’t quite so opaque, and the particular base that wasn’t too heavy for 4K HD. All of those choices very carefully thought out. So when they would try different versions of things, some looked more like her than others and it was always exciting when we got closer.”
In recent years, actors have disappeared into their roles as famous figures through the use of undetectable prosthetics or CGI magic—think Charlize Theron’s uncanny Meghan Kelly in Bombshell or computerized anti-aging allowed Robert DeNiro to play three decades in the life of gangster, Frank Sheeran in The Irishman. Technology’s helping hand can enhance performance, but Anderson opted to go the old fashioned route. She embodies Thatcher through subtle changes in posture, voice, and movement, a decision she felt appropriate. “We were a similar age, so it didn’t feel like I would need to make myself look older,” says Anderson. “We have a similar nose; we have somewhat similar eyes as we’ve both got hooded eyelids.” Initially, the idea of wearing a dental prosthesis was floated, but it proved distracting. “She had very distinctive teeth. They weren’t great, and she had them capped a couple of times while she was in office,” says Anderson. “Someone built a prosthesis that matched, but it was too much and didn’t look natural at all. We tried different ways of coloring and staining, making a gap, but in the end, we decided against it. [Instead] I figured out a way to hold my mouth so that I had more of an overbite. The mixture of that, the tilted head, and her movements wound up being enough.”
Once the aesthetic was perfected, the real fun began: going to toe with Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth. “That was one of the highlights,” says Anderson. “Knowing I would have so much time to work across from Olivia, understanding why, energetically, me across from her in those scenes made sense, and having those two engaging in these very pointed yet subtle sparring matches.” Key moments like the apartheid clash and disagreements over austerity measures play out in tense tête-à-têtes where each performer is at their best. Thrilling as it is to watch, Anderson felt a degree of apprehension before filming. “Those were the scenes I was most looking forward to and most dreading at the same time,” she says. “Those were long consecutive days of doing scenes and figuring out how to make them feel different enough, while also making it feel like we’re moving through time and marking the trajectory of Thatcher’s past.”
Despite taking a lead role in arguably the best known show about the monarchy, Anderson does not consider herself an expert on royalty or even particularly captivated by the Windsors’ ongoing media coverage. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s splashy wedding in 2011 was a source of interest for Anderson, as was the polarizing tabloid coverage that characterized the response to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s marriage and subsequent relocation to Los Angeles. She maintains what she calls an “anthropological interest” in the goings-on within the royal family. “It felt like the choices that [William and Kate] made were classy and they lifted the spirit of the UK, but I haven’t paid that much attention to the dramas over the years,” she says. “I am curious about Meghan’s experience and the degree to which she felt included or not included. How different an experience it was for her with regards to treatment in the press.”
Anderson may not be riveted by the ongoing story of the Windsors, but her partner Morgan very much is. With his informal trilogy of Tony Blair-centric films (The Deal, The Special Relationship, and The Queen), as well as The Crown, which he created, he has become the de facto chronicler of all things related to modern royals and British politics. Anderson’s role marked the first time the pair has worked together, but mixing business with pleasure was easier than anticipated. “It has been special,” she says. “[Once] he got the confirmation from the casting director that they were interested in me doing it, we realized that this was something we were going to go forward on. We had quite a few discussions about whether we were mad. Would this be the end of our relationship? At various times we were nervous about it, so we set some pretty strong boundaries.” Instead of hashing out any differences of opinion one on one, Morgan and Anderson kept things professional, working with their directors about each issue to ensure any disagreements stayed on set. “Having someone to discuss things with who was outside of the relationship worked for us,” she says. “Once we realized that we could have fun and enjoy the process and because we set those boundaries, we had a great time. So much so that we started to think about what else we could do together.
Already receiving rave reviews for her performance in the days since the series’s streaming release, Anderson adds one more daring portrayal of a powerful woman to her expansive filmography. Currently working to champion Black playwrights’ work on London’s West End and prepping for Sex Education’s third season, Anderson is keeping busy by supporting the next generation of talent. Still, after playing a prime minister, FBI agent, socially-mobile socialite, and just about everything in between, her next challenge may simply be finding a way to turn expectations on their head. “I often get asked if there’s a reason I keep playing such strong—and I hate using that word—female characters,” she says. “There’s a part of me that thinks it would be good to do something completely different and play a character who genuinely struggles to get in touch with their sense of strength, self-esteem, and a sense of purpose, someone who isn’t living up to their potential. Those are things I’ve experienced within my own life and would be interesting to explore. Besides, I think it’s about time I played a criminal!”