Here is a true-life character study. Can you figure out who it is?
A girl born to working class parents received a strong religious upbringing in Europe. Bright and hard-working, she eventually attended an elite university and studied chemistry. Throughout a turbulent time in the woman’s home country, she married once, had several children, and became interested in politics. After rising through the ranks — including a stint as the leader of the opposition party — she became the first female chief parliamentarian of her native land in her 50s. It is a position she held for more than a decade.
This woman is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And also former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
So how did the nature vs. nurture conundrum result in one woman being, well, Angela Merkel of the all-time high 75 percent approval rating and the other being Margaret Thatcher, who at least inspired some great music while she was being thoroughly reviled? For Gillian Anderson, who plays Thatcher in the fourth season of Netflix’s “The Crown,” delving into the ruthlessness of the character meant examining how the Prime Minister felt about where she came from — in contrast to her inevitably male, invariably privileged colleagues in Tory politics.
“I think she was very self-conscious that she came from the working class,” Anderson said. “She grew up above a shop, with a mom and dad who worked in the shop. They lived a very frugal existence. And even though she went to study chemistry and get a law degree, she never forgot her roots. It always sat somewhere inside her, the fact that she wasn’t considered to be on the same par as the people she was in politics with.”
The class consciousness is most apparent in the Season 4 episode “The Balmoral Test,” where the Royal Family invites Thatcher to the Queen’s castle in Scotland to partake in a variety of activities glorified by the idle rich: hunting, casual humiliation, hiking, and, worst of all, convivial tipsy parlor games.
“That just was not her world,” Anderson said. “And even though she adjusted her clothes and adjusted her look, and she adjusted her voice and she wore pearls — all those things she did to fit in — she was aware of the fact that a lot of people could see through that. She was judged because of her background, rather than where she ended up.”
The scenes where Anderson as Thatcher and Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth speak as part of their weekly audiences at Buckingham Palace are electric case studies in the power of understatement. A raised eyebrow here, a shift in posture there, a “Ma’am” given with a different intonation — it all speaks volumes.
“Just the fact that you have two heads of state, in the same room, at the same time, one of them is the Queen, and one of them is Margaret Thatcher — they don’t even need to talk. They could just eat cucumber sandwiches and that would be interesting,” Anderson said.
While always authoritative, Colman has never been scary or particularly frightening in the role, letting the pomp and circumstance of the setting do the work. All that changes to pure intimidation in a Season 4 scene where she cooly watches Thatcher exuberantly take center stage at a victory parade after the Falklands War in 1982.
“The fact is, they were just very, very different women,” Anderson said. “Thatcher deals with everything head on […] the very nature of the Queen is to do the opposite and to be patient and to sit back and to watch and to wait. That was just anathema to Thatcher.”
Anderson plays Thatcher’s contempt of the upper-class country house circuit as palpable; she has a nation to run, for the love of God — and so, in theory, do these gin cocktail-swilling layabouts. “She finds herself in this world that she has revered for the majority of her life and aims to impress, and yet when she actually got there, she was belittled and they were distracted by silly games,” she said. “I think it’s the juxtaposition between her very intense work ethic and also the class difference […] the royal family considered her to be vulgar, and, in essence, pretending to play this role with her hats and her pearls.”
Indeed, Anderson’s transformation into wannabe posh-adjacent Thatcher via hair, makeup and costuming is remarkable — her wig goes through various stages of color, translucence, and volume — and Anderson’s physicality in the role evolves as Thatcher settles into her power and the country spins into suffering as a result of her draconian policies.
“There’s a lot of footage, a lot of documentation of her in various scenarios,” Anderson said. “It was a playground, in a sense. I worked with a movement coach as to where her weight was carried, the fact that she put most of her weight on the front of her feet. Her left foot is always slightly pigeon-toed. She swings her left arm, kind of pumps herself through the room. Those are things that if you want to play Margaret Thatcher, you don’t want to miss.”
For Thatcher, there was never a moment in which she wavered from this propulsive and combative “Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher” approach to running England. If she could go from working class to ruling class, those that can’t do the same must simply be lazy, correct? In the end, her blindered view of society was her undoing, as she angered both the Queen and the Tory party. Thatcher is summarily dismissed as Prime Minister in a near-Caesarian coup, and the camera captures Anderson leaving No. 10 offering a rare moment of pure, unguarded emotion.
“There are videos after videos after videos of this moment where it appears she starts to well up as she’s looking out the window for the last time, post-Prime Minister,” Anderson said. “I was just trying to get into her mindset of what she would have been thinking at that time, when she felt so unbelievably betrayed — and felt like she wasn’t done yet. Even the people she thought were with her were against her. Politics was her life […] it was where she belonged, where she thrived best. Especially with someone like Thatcher, what’s next?”
All episodes of “The Crown” Season 4 are available on Netflix.