The world of the Tudors has long fascinated audiences, whether they be film fans or those watching on television. Nearly every generation has their take on Henry VIII and his legendary wives, from Charles Laughton’s 1933 feature “The Private Life of Henry VIII” to Showtime’s mid-aughts series “The Tudors.” Even on Broadway, one can see Henry’s six spouses sing about their lives in an ongoing production simply titled “Six.” Evolving beyond these stories as much as it’s building from them, the AMC+ limited series “Anne Boleyn” moves the Tudor discussion into a new realm: one not confined by the gender of who’s telling the story, nor their race.
British actress Jodie Turner-Smith, starring as the doomed queen whose ambition bound her to the chopping block, found Boleyn’s story incredibly relevant. “Women are still put in boxes in this way,” Turner-Smith told IndieWire. “This is the go-to of a patriarchal society: to prosecute women that are disruptive, that are strong, that are challenging, [and] that demand a seat at the table.”
The actress said she was drawn to Eve Hedderwick Turner’s scripts, but still wanted to do her own research. One key element that stood out was the contrast of how many men had written about Boleyn, yet the queen spent a large amount of her adolescence learning about power from women who wielded it on their own.
“She spent basically all of her girlhood around powerful women, and that may have influenced her to be the woman that she was,” Turner-Smith said. It’s something that, Turner-Smith felt, had to have influenced in how Boleyn lived with the King in England. “She grew up rubbing elbows with amazing artists and thinkers of the time in the French court. So it’s like, of course, she will come back to England with some big ideas.”
Turner-Smith was similarly astounded by how much of Boleyn’s narrative was either co-opted by men or completely unknown. “There’s no real account of her in her own words,” she said. “We don’t have any of her writings. […] We don’t even have an official portrait of her.” It’s one reason the series was so significant to produce, in allowing a woman who has been discussed endlessly to finally tell her own story. “It just goes to show that throughout time, whoever records the history and whatever their agenda is, is what leads to what survives, and that’s generally a man. And we’re finding out it’s generally something that we should think twice about because maybe it’s wrong,” said Turner-Smith.
The series also breaks new ground just by casting Turner-Smith, who is Black, in the role of Anne Boleyn (who was white). But to the actress it’s nothing to get excited about. “You’ve been seeing it in theater for so long, this concept of artists of color playing different roles,” she said. She’s not sure why movies and TV have been so slow to follow the theater, but thinks it might be a skewed concept of authenticity. “Perhaps it’s because it’s so much easier to suspend belief in theater when you are experiencing it in-person live vs. when you are presented with something that has been packaged for you to watch in your home. or in a movie theater,” she said. “[Maybe] audiences want it to be closer to something that feels like the exact truth.”
Still, it’s not something that feels particularly complex to the actress. “Every actor is able to bring the nuances of who they are to the role, or we’re able to distill it down to humanity, as opposed to race,” she said.
In the end she hopes people focus more on the universal elements than who is playing the character. Human experience, much of which is showcased in “Anne Boleyn,” applies to everyone, she said — though Turner-Smith understands there will always be an audience who only sees Anne Boleyn as a white woman, she feels the tide is turning. “There’s a much larger audience who’s tired of seeing features with only white people,” she said. “I think it’s necessary to continue to create in that way and I’m happy to be a part of this beginning of creating a different way.”
“Anne Boleyn” is available to stream on AMC+