THE IRON LADY
Interview With Phyllida Lloyd
Can you tell me about the genesis of THE IRON LADY?
I started on this project about two years ago when I was sent the screenplay
by PathÃ© and Abi Morgan. The first thing I thought was,"Margaret Thatcher is
the most significant female leader Great Britain has had since Elizabeth I." I
was thrilled that it wasn't a conventional biopic. The biopic form is very
tricky to pull off. How do you get away from that catalogue of facts? But this
was a different beast altogether because of the brilliant writing, particularly
with Margaret as an elderly woman, which was an act of pure imagination.
Could you describe how the film is set in the present?
The film takes place in the present over a couple of days, days when Margaret
has finally decided to let go of her deceased husband Denis's clothes. It's a
big moment for her and as she begins to sort through his things she's ambushed
by her past life. It's a story of letting go, a story of acceptance.
Abi Morgan's screenplay is a really radical piece of writing. I think the
beauty of it is in the detail. Because this is about memory, often the entry
point to a scene is something small like a button being sewn on. When we
remember things, it's often keyed off by a sound, a smell, or something
incidental that then makes us remember.
Margaret Thatcher is seen as quite a divisive politician. How did that affect
your telling this story?
What sets this film apart from a conventional biopic is that the whole story
is told from her point of view. So the audience doesn't know whether what is
depicted is true or not. This is her version of her journey. There is no other
perspective on the political events.
Margaret Thatcher's story is almost Shakespearean, the story of a great
leader who is both tremendous and flawed in all kinds of ways. It's a story of
power and a crash from power and what happens when someone whose life has been
absolutely bursting to fullness with their work must grapple with the end of
Do you think the audience will be surprised at the politics of the film?
I think people will be very surprised by how un-political the film is. It's a
little bit like asking,"Did you approve of King Lear's politics?" It's not
really the issue whether you approve of the policy or not. You get a taste of
both her passionate conviction and her uncompromising ferocity, but you're never
really asked to judge the policy. There is a mass of research material
available. How did you decide which moments to focus on?
There is so much written and visual material, but we also met a number of
Margaret Thatcher's colleagues, both political and civil service, and gathered a
wealth of information and opinions and facts about her. Abi chose those
incidents that give great dramatic shape to her career.
How have you balanced the need to be factually accurate with the desire to
make a piece of drama?
We were meticulous in our attention to political detail and when we made a
choice to show something that didn't actually happen, it was made consciously in
order to clarify the story. But it's very evident from early on, when we see
Margaret as an elderly woman remembering her past and interacting with visions
of her dead husband, that this is an act of imagination on Abi's part.
One of the things that people may find unusual is that there are no women in
our depictions of the House of Commons in the film. Now, of course, we all know
that there were a small number of female members of Parliament when she entered
the Chamber, but from Margaret's point of view she feels as if there are no
women there. She feels entirely like a lone woman in a sea of men.
The job of prime minister was described to us as being extraordinarily
lonely, but this was compounded by her being lower middle class and a woman.
There's something profoundly moving about her isolation in the Conservative
Party and how hard she had to struggle, first of all when she became leader,
just to take control of Edward Heath's Cabinet, almost all of whom had had very
privileged backgrounds. One of her former colleagues said that he felt her being
lower middle class was actually more significant than the fact she was a woman
in rendering her an outsider.
When you were researching the project did your opinion of Mrs. Thatcher
change at all?
I don't know that any of us working on it came out of this project having
changed our political colors, but there were all kinds of aspects of Margaret
Thatcher's life and career that we found immensely moving. What distinguishes
her from politicians of today, who have to listen to focus groups and what the
polls say, is that she would never ask before going into an interview, "What's
our position on this? What do we feel about this?" She was such an instinctive
politician that she knew what she felt and that was enough.
Can you tell me a little about the casting of Meryl Streep?
When we were having a meeting about casting Margaret Thatcher and PathÃ© said,
"What do you think about Meryl?," I had a moment of thinking, "Gosh, a film
about Margaret Thatcher is one provocation. Casting Meryl could possibly be the
second. What would the combustion of these two elements be like? What will be
the reaction in Britain?" And I went away and spun round three times and walked
back in and said, "Yes, yes." Because my first thought was you need a superstar
to play Margaret Thatcher because Margaret Thatcher was a superstar. She had
this extraordinary charisma and ability to charm absolutely anybody. But it was
potentially a slightly chilly role, so I felt it was important that the actor
playing her had warmth.
It was a gargantuan challenge; at one point we seriously thought we might
have to have three actresses play her because the age span for the adult
Margaret was still nearly 40 years. But Meryl was moved by the story of this
lady at the end of her life, someone who was reckoning with her entire life.
What was your reaction when you first saw or heard Meryl's performance as
I was in Selfridge's on virtually Christmas Eve last year. My phone beeped
and it was a message from Meryl saying, "Here is a first pass at Maggie." I put
on my earphones and started to listen. I was with my brother and I took off one
earphone and I gave it to him. We both sat there open-mouthed. That was my first
moment when I just began to realize the enormous force that was about to be
unleashed. Then we did camera tests and there was a moment when Meryl came out
of the make-up room as old Margaret in costume, said good morning as Mrs.
Thatcher to some people sitting and waiting for an audition and shuffled off
down the corridor, and their jaws dropped.
Meryl brings empathy, humanity, an attention to detail that goes so far
beyond an impersonation that when she walked onto the set, whether she was old
Margaret or younger Margaret, everyone was in awe. Meryl has some qualities that
resonate with the role: she is a great leader on the set; she has more energy
than everyone else put together; she's the last one to drop; she's more prepared
than everyone else; she notices everything that happens; her vision for each day
is immense; and she never stops investing energy into the film.
There's a fantastic level of detail that goes into nearly 300 extras in the
House of Commons and Brighton Conference scenes, each of them in suits,
sideburns, glasses, all being changed from one day to the next to fit different
The work done by Consolata Boyle, J. Roy Helland, Marese Langan and Mark
Coulier on the costumes and the make-up was remarkable.
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