Despite the smash success of Netflix’s Bridgerton and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking musical Hamilton, which both shattered tightly held ideas when it came to casting people of color in period projects, there was still some commotion when Jodie Turner-Smith was cast in a new miniseries as legendary Tudor queen Anne Boleyn.
But for British-born Turner-Smith, who is Black, it was never about accepting the previously perceived off-limits role simply because she could, but rather because it offered a chance to reexamine the life of a famously maligned and misunderstood woman.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh, I want to just play this historical figure who is white because I can,” Turner-Smith explains to The Daily Beast, ahead of the premiere of AMC+’s three-part miniseries Anne Boleyn on Dec. 9. “It’s really more so about what resonates with me is the story.”
“I’m glad that now there are more opportunities for us to step into stories that are based in times where my people were subjugated, but we’re actually being offered the opportunity to play roles in which we’re not [subjugated].”
In the series, Turner-Smith brilliantly plays a different kind of Boleyn during the monarch’s short-lived reign. Instead of meeting the cunning young courtesan as audiences normally do—as a young, scheming seductress eyeing Queen Catherine of Aragon’s crown—Turner-Smith’s Boleyn is introduced just as her power, influence, and bewitching hold over King Henry VIII is slowly beginning to slip away, ultimately leading to her execution in 1536.
And while Turner-Smith’s Boleyn kept true to many of the royal’s famed attributes—haughty, ambitious, captivating, clever, fashionable, and incredibly jealous—the actress offers a softer and more vulnerable side to the perceived imperious queen, especially when it comes to her role as a mother.
“I think what was interesting to me is it was more about humanizing [Boleyn], instead of sort of sensationalizing her,” Turner-Smith says. “We’re not just saying she was this seductress and this scandalous woman, but more about this person who had desires and goals and dreams for herself, for her daughter, and this is what happens when those things start to slip away from her.”
“The idea of showing her kind of losing grip is because we’re trying to tell a story about her humanity, about what loss and grief and fear did to her and what they mean.”
Because there are no official diaries or letters straight from the hands of Boleyn, the various accounts of her doomed life leave many blanks. So Turner-Smith and historian Dan Jones compiled their own studies about Boleyn, filling in those empty and muddled spots with their own research in order to create a backstory for the queen.
“All official records that we have of her were written by people that it was in their best interest to sort of disparage her,” Turner-Smith says. “So it is not shocking to me that she would be viewed as somebody who only [had] negative attributes.”
Among Turner-Smith’s discoveries was how influential and intelligent Boleyn was, including how she helped shift the country’s culture and was perhaps instrumental in the push for translating the Bible from Latin into English.
“She really was actually trying to make it so that women had a seat at the table and so that she was allowed to be a part of conversations about what was happening,” Turner-Smith says. But, as history shows, “whoever is sort of the victor, the winner is going to record the story in the way that they think best benefits them. It doesn't necessarily reflect the truth.”
It was in her search for a truer understanding of Boleyn that Turner-Smith began to see the repeated patterns of how the British monarchy has stamped out women who challenged the status quo.
Most recently, there’s been ongoing scrutiny with how the monarchy treated Meghan Markle, who was brought into the royal family’s fold when she married Prince Harry in 2018. The family had reportedly cautioned Harry against rushing into a relationship with Meghan—a Black, American, divorced former actress—and things only got rockier after the Duke and Duchess of Sussex famously decided to resign from their royal duties last year.
In a bombshell interview with Oprah in March, Meghan and Harry accused a member of the royal family of expressing concern about the color of their son Archie’s skin. The couple also said they felt they had no support from the firm regarding the constant torrent of negative and racist press directed at Meghan, essentially suggesting she grin and bear it. To make matters worse, Meghan was constantly pitted against her publicly adored sister-in-law, Kate Middleton.
Kristen Stewart’s acclaimed performance as Princess Diana in Spencer, which is already drawing Oscar buzz, also touches upon the idea of how the monarchy chews up and spits out women who challenge the institution. In the film, the ghost of Boleyn torments a struggling Diana as she painstakingly tries to push back against some of the royal family’s long-held traditions.
While Turner-Smith says she hasn’t gotten around to watching Spencer just yet, she agrees that there are similarities in how Meghan, Diana, and Boleyn were treated.
“That’s another thing that made this story an appealing one to tell, that as a concept, this idea that a woman who appeared to be disruptive to the monarchy—what that meant for the people around her and how that meant they needed to try and destroy her and bring her down,” she explains.
“I think it’s a universal concept. I think we find it with womankind across the world, a woman who is powerful, who is pushing for change and is disrupting in any way, is considered a threat.”
“In today’s world—I mean, look at any woman in power. Look at how Michelle Obama was treated, look at what people had to say about Hillary Clinton. Anne Boleyn was not without her flaws, but the way in which we treat these women when they seem to be powerful, and how it then becomes society's impetus to bring them down, it's just a symptom of patriarchy.”
Indeed, Boleyn’s downfall could easily be chalked up to the whims of the patriarchy, as her husband Henry VIII was fixated on having a son and rejected the idea that either of his two daughters—Mary, from his first wife, Queen Catherine, and Elizabeth, from Boleyn—could take the throne. Just months after Boleyn miscarried a child, believed to be a son, she was found guilty of treason and beheaded.
“That’s why I wanted to do the project, because it felt like such a modern concept,” Turner-Smith adds. “This idea of a woman who is viewed as an outsider because of the things that she is trying to do, and change is a threat to the existing patriarchy, and how that makes people feel the need to take her down and destroy.”