How One Actress Is Reshaping the Story of Anne Boleyn

LONDON — Britain’s most recent rendering of the story of Anne Boleyn, the second of Henry VIII’s six wives, begins at the end. When the new mini-series “Anne Boleyn” opens, it’s 1536, the queen is pregnant and powerful — and has five months left to live.

Anne’s story, which occupies a special place in the British collective imagination, has spawned an abundance of fictionalized depictions onscreen (“The Tudors”) and in literature (“Wolf Hall”). It is generally told as a morally dubious young woman seducing an older king into leaving his wife and his church, before she is executed for failing to give birth to a male heir.

But the new mini-series, which premiered last week on Channel 5, one of Britain’s public service broadcasters, attempts to reframe Anne’s story, instead focusing on her final months and how she tried to maintain power in a system that guaranteed her very little.

In the three episode-long series, Anne is played by Jodie Turner-Smith, best-known for her role in the film “Queen & Slim.” It is the first time a Black actress has portrayed the Tudor queen onscreen.

“We wanted to find someone who could really inhabit her but also be surprising to an audience,” Faye Ward, one of the show’s executive producers, said in an interview. Since there were already so many depictions of Anne Boleyn, the show’s creators “wanted to reset people’s expectations of her,” Ward said.

The series employs a diverse casting playbook, in a similar vein to the Regency-era Netflix drama “Bridgerton.” But whereas that show’s characters are fictional, in “Anne Boleyn” actors of color play several white historical figures: The British-Ghanian actor Paapa Essiedu plays Anne’s brother George Boleyn, and the British-Brazillian actress Thalissa Teixeira portrays Madge Shelton, Anne’s cousin and lady-in-waiting.

Although race does not figure overtly in the show’s plot, the program makers adopted an approach known as “identity-conscious casting,” which allows actors to bring “all those factors of yourself to a role,” Ward said.

For Turner-Smith, that meant connecting her experiences with the ways in which Anne, who was raised in the French court, was an outsider and suffered at Henry’s court.

“As a Black woman, I can understand being marginalized. I have a lived experience of what limitation and marginalization feel like,” Turner-Smith, 34, said in an interview. “I thought it was interesting to bring the freshness of a Black body telling that story.”

Casting Turner-Smith as one of Britain’s best-known royal consorts has caused debate in the press and particularly on social media in Britain, with “Anne Boleyn” trending on Twitter the day after the series premiere.

In the newspaper The Daily Telegraph, the writer Marianka Swain called Turner-Smith’s casting “pretty cynical” and wrote that it was designed to have “Twitter frothing rather than adding anything to our understanding of an era.”

Others, though, have welcomed the show’s perspective. Olivette Otele, a professor of the history of slavery and memory of enslavement at the University of Bristol, noted in The Independent newspaper that the series arrived at a time when Britain was “soul searching” about how to understand its colonial past. “The past is only a safe space if it becomes a learning space open to all,” she wrote in praise of the series.

During the show’s press run, Turner-Smith’s comments about the royal family’s treatment of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex — including that having her in the family was “a missed opportunity” for the monarchy — made headlines in Britain.

Meghan’s treatment by the palace — which she told Oprah Winfrey in a bombshell March interview had driven her to thoughts of suicide — is representative of “just how far we have not come with patriarchal values,” Turner-Smith said.

“It represents how far we have not come in terms of the monarchy and in terms of somebody being an outsider and being different, and being able to navigate that space,” she said, adding that “you can draw so many parallels if you look for them” between Anne and Meghan’s attempts to figure out life within a British palace.

“There is very little room for someone brown to touch the monarchy,” said Turner-Smith — who, upon being cast as Anne, fully expected the move to draw criticism in the country.

For the actress, that presented even more reason to push back against people’s assumptions about Anne. “Art is supposed to challenge you,” she said. “The whole point of making it this way was for a different perspective. What is going to resonate with somebody by putting a different face to this and seeing it in a different way?”

Dr. Stephanie Russo, the author of “The Afterlife of Anne Boleyn: Representations of Anne Boleyn in Fiction and on the Screen,” said there were many reasons for Britain’s fascination with and attachment to the Tudors, and Anne specifically. The “soap opera” of a younger woman disrupting a long-term marriage remains fascinating, she said, as does the rise and fall of a powerful woman.

There is also a patriotic element, Russo said: Anne’s daughter was Elizabeth I, the monarch who oversaw Britain’s “golden age,” when William Shakespeare was writing his plays and many historians credit the British Empire as having been born.

The series was conceived as a feminist exercise, unpacking what Eve Hedderwick Turner, the show’s writer, called “those big, insulting and detrimental terms” attached to Anne, which at the time included accusations of treason, adultery and an incestuous relationship with her brother.

In the mini-series, Anne falls out of favor with Henry after a stillbirth. No matter how nominally powerful or ambitious she is, she is no match for the forces that seek to extinguish her, which come to include her husband, his advisers and the country’s legal system. All the while, she tries not to show vulnerability in public.

It was important, Hedderwick Turner said, for the creators to put “Anne back in the center of her story, making her the protagonist, seeing everything from her perspective.”

The political machinations of Henry VIII and his advisers, his internal life and his motivations are largely obscured in the series. Instead, viewers are privy to Anne’s state of mind and her relationship with her household’s ladies-in-waiting.

“Henry is spoken about as this great man, because he had all of these wives” and killed some of them, Turner-Smith said. “It’s just like: Actually, there’s a woman at the center of this story who is so dynamic and fascinating and interesting.”

Hilary Mantel, the author of the “Wolf Hall” trilogy charting Thomas Cromwell’s life serving Henry VIII, wrote in a 2013 piece for the London Review of Books about how fictionalized accounts of Anne’s life communicate society’s contemporary attitudes toward women.

“Popular fiction about the Tudors has also been a form of moral teaching about women’s lives, though what is taught varies with moral fashion,” she said.

What, then, does this “Anne Boleyn” say about today’s world?

“We’re finally getting to a place where we’re allowing women to become more than just a trope,” Turner-Smith said.

Traditionally, when playing a female character, “you’re either the Madonna or you’re the whore, right?” she said. But in this series, “We’re saying we’re unafraid to show different sides of a woman.”

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