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The Iron Lady - Phyllida Lloyd interview

The Iron Lady

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PHYLLIDA Lloyd discusses some of the issues surrounding The Iron Lady, her film about Margaret Thatcher, and why it may well surprise a lot of people by not focusing on her politics.

She also discusses reuniting with Meryl Streep, how the actress worked hard on the role throughout the filming process, and her own feelings about Thatcher.

Q. What attracted you to direct The Iron Lady? And how fully formed was Abi Morgan’s script?
Phyllida Lloyd: I think what hooked me was the fact that it wasn’t a conventional biopic. It was at a certain stage. Presumably, somebody said a film about Margaret Thatcher [to me] first…

Q. And what was your immediate response to that?
Phyllida Lloyd: Apprehension. I think a biopic is a very tricky form and so I had maybe half a day to imagine what it might be like and then I was immediately struck by the fact that it’s not… it wasn’t at all what I thought it was. It was a film about something else. It wasn’t really about Margaret Thatcher’s policies. It was a film about power and loss of power and a kind of contemplation of old age and what it feels like to deal with being alone. So, it was a bigger film than just: “Was she right or was she wrong?”

Q. How involved did you get in the evolution of the screenplay?
Phyllida Lloyd: Well, a couple of years ago and we had a very, very rich, creative, exciting development of the screenplay from that moment. Pathe were very intimately involved, Meryl Streep, who came on board… we did a spell of development. I thought we should get it to a certain point before we took it to Meryl, and then we took it to her, she came on board and she became involved. She was very helpful in reflecting back not particularly an American perspective but a sort of no nothing perspective. But we wanted it to somehow speak internationally and to the generation here who we quickly realised when we started auditioning for the role of the young Margaret, and looking for a younger Meryl… actresses came in and I asked one if she knew much about Margaret Thatcher, to which she replied: “Well, I just looked her up on Wikipedia!” I thought: “My God… OK, there’s a whole world out here who know very little about the ‘80s.”

Q. What was your initial thought about Meryl’s casting?
Phyllida Lloyd: Actually, it was kept cunningly concealed from me and, of course, I came to realise that I was in some way the possible conduit to Meryl. But when her name was first mentioned I had another moment of congenital apprehension, which was just… you know, Margaret Thatcher was already two words of provocation, and the next two are ‘American actress’. So, despite the fact that I would have killed to work with Meryl again, I felt like ‘Christ, this is already escalating into something’. And could we cope? But then after that I began to realise, which I’ve said before, that you needed a superstar to play Thatcher. There was something about the size of just the idea of her but there are all kinds of other reasons why Meryl was the choice, which don’t really need discussing.

Q. You’ve talked about Margaret Thatcher being an outsider at the time in terms of her class and her gender, so you thought it would be good to have someone who had come from a different place…
Phyllida Lloyd: Yeah, Meryl being an outsider in a way sort of informed everything about the way it worked – whether it was working on Margaret Thatcher’s voice, her hair, her costume and there was Meryl working on her voice. Somehow, both of them… when Meryl walked into the House of Commons scene and there were 350 British actors staring at her with a kind of ‘you come over here… come on darling, let’s hear it; let’s hear the voice’. And this was on the first day. But you could feel this tension and you could feel Meryl’s will and her will to in some ways command and lead them. It was as if one slip of the accent and the game was up as far as she was concerned. So, it really was a mirror, I think, of the tension between Margaret Thatcher herself and, say, Ted Heath’s first Cabinet.

The Iron Lady

Q. What were your thoughts on Margaret Thatcher at the time?
Phyllida Lloyd: In some ways I’d like it to be irrelevant but the very fact that I was working in subsidised theatre in the ‘80s kind of says it all. It doesn’t need to go much further to say what I felt about the Tory government at that time. I do remember at university obviously not having voted for her, but I remember being in my room and listening to the 10 O Clock News and hearing about the first woman leader of the West leaves Conservative Party Central Office, or something, and thinking… I was living in a house in Birmingham with a load of male fellow students, so I remember sitting in my room and thinking: “Yes, yes… this is a moment for us.” You know, we’d had the vote since ’28 or ’30 and now we’ve got through that door. So, I remember marking it, aside from what I thought about her politics, as a landmark in British history.

Q. Did your opinion of her change through the process of making the film?
Phyllida Lloyd: I think there were aspects of the story that really shocked me and moved me. I think that when I asked one of her Ministers which was one of the more significant factors between her and, say, the first Shadow Cabinet she formed, for whom she was the nightmare that they thought they would quickly wake up from. I said: “Which was more significant – that she was a woman or that she was lower middle class?” And he said: “Unquestionably, that she was lower middle class. That was a savage divide between them.” And that was something I hadn’t really taken on board. So, tracing that history, tracing her journey in relation to that… obviously, she began to then try and change, consciously or unconsciously, the kind of demographic of the Cabinet and bring on more grammar school boys.

I guess it was a time pre-spin and I found that very startling – that she would go into interviews or high level meetings and there’d be no question of what her policy was on this, or what are we doing about X, Y or Z. What we were encountering in our research was this instinctive politician who, for better or worse, just knew how far she could push us and knew at what point anarchy would break out… until she lost it and her political instinct and really did push us to the point where anarchy broke out. So, yeah, there were lots of aspects of it that were powerful and moving but it wasn’t going to change the way I’d voted.

Q. How did Meryl cope with portraying the various stages of Margaret?
Phyllida Lloyd: Well, we had exhaustive tapes for the Prime Minister part of it but she plunged more confidently into the old Margaret because that was really a work of pure imagination. There was very little to go on for her. But the whole thing has been the most incredible team journey and a really life-changing experience.

The Iron Lady

Q. When you released the first picture it hit the front pages of every newspaper. Did the reaction give you encouragement? Or did it suddenly become apparent just how enormous this movie would become?
Phyllida Lloyd: I’d already started – and eventually I had to give it up because it was too traumatic – surfing the Internet at about the time we started shooting because I saw on IMDB that someone was saying we were starting filming. So, I went online to see what people were saying about the film and people started off: “Oh, it’s obviously a whitewash job and they’re a load of Commies and Lefties, I’ve looked them all up!” Then they’d start arguing about what it would be. And within a few episodes they were into: “Do you realise what she did to ship building in Glasgow?” People were just going at each other without reference to the film, so then it was like ‘moderator had to remove this due to abuse’.

People were lining up… so, that’s when I began to realise that the debate about her was so cliché-ridden… it was as if she was to the hard right ‘St Margaret’ and somebody who had saved Britain from its post-war decline, and yet on the other side she was a monster and the Spitting Image puppet… even a witch or a she-devil. I had friends who stopped me in the street and said: “You’re putting me in a really difficult position because I’ve been saving up with my mates to have a party when she dies.” It was just sort of really medieval the whole thing. So, we were glad we were making a film about something else.

Q. Weren’t you ever tempted to correct people’s perceptions?
Phyllida Lloyd: That is, of course, something that makes people nervous… that people were coming expecting a biopic and, as you’ve seen, we’ve only really taken two or three incidents from her career and public life and are only showing those because they are [so important]. It’s more a film about can I survive on my own. It’s a question that most of us will at some point be asking ourselves. And then somehow these memories that are ambushing her are also telling her that she has felt on her own all the time for reasons of class and gender, etc.

Q. With the intense loathing with which Thatcher is regarded, certainly in the North and in Scotland, do you feel that you’ve made too sympathetic a film by dwelling on the aspects of the onset of dementia? This, to me, is a sympathetic portrait of someone that many people feel ruined Britain…
Phyllida Lloyd: I think that to me this was King Lear and I probably wouldn’t have voted for King Lear. I’m sure he wreaked as much havoc as Thatcher. But I think it’s implicit in that story that there’s a tyrant there. But that was not the story we were telling and actually it didn’t seem to us odd to be asking for an audience to empathise with someone struggling with dementia. It seemed that that was something that was worthy of a study. And so therefore no, I’m not embarrassed to be asking people to think about themselves, their mother, their father, their granny… this wasn’t a documentary. I’m sure there will be one or many of those upon her death that addresses those issues.

The Iron Lady

Q. A telling moment was when Dennis stands up to her and says that it’s not about duty, it’s about ambition. What do you think of the theory that this ambition eventually drives her into a lonely and pathetic cul-de-sac?
Phyllida Lloyd: Yeah, not wanting to harp about the Shakespearean dimension but there is something sort of tragic about this. As you’ve seen, the whole thing is told from her point of view, so the heroics of it – such as they are – are all very much her own idea of her own heroism and her apprehension of the enemy out there. It’s very heightened from her head. But yes, it’s that tragic element of believing in your own publicity – yes, she won the Falklands War and became a global superstar, she felt invincible and she stopped listening to people and that she is kyboshed by her own hubris in our story seemed to me to be what it was about. In that final scene with Geoffrey Howe, it’s as if she knows that she’s lost control. That’s how I imagined it.

Q. What did Meryl see as the key to understanding the playing of the character? Did she stay in character?
Phyllida Lloyd: She never stopped working on it. Every morning, when she was getting ready to be old Margaret she had to spend three hours sitting absolutely still while they created the make-up for her. So, all that time, every morning, she was plugged into recordings of Margaret Thatcher and she went on doing that until the very last day. I think one of the keys for her in trying to get on top of the part while she was getting match fit for it was… she worked on a couple of interviews that Margaret Thatcher gave to Robin Day. There’s a famous interview where, for seven minutes, she prevents Robin Day from interrupting her. And she was learning this big speech and she was struggling to get enough breath to finish the sentences. Meryl is a big swimmer and is very fit and she just could not understand how Margaret Thatcher had these vast tanks of breath with which to create a sentence and then when somebody interrupts to come in with another clause. There’s no way of cutting in. So, somehow that gargantuan energy or will that Thatcher had was something that Meryl found an interesting technical challenge.

Q. Is this a poison chalice in many ways in terms of how it’s perceived?
Phyllida Lloyd: Well, I guess if I say we’re not doing a biopic, eventually people will find that out and discover it’s about something else. Again, I think of it in much more epic terms. You wouldn’t think about this Hamlet or this Macbeth to make sure he’s nice enough so we don’t this but on the other hand that he’s selfish enough… I just think we were not really thinking in those terms. We were feeling that we had to play every moment as if we’re showing her vast conviction and that, in many ways, her flaws were her strengths: her sort of passionate conviction is the flip-side of her inability to listen and her ability to shut everything out. We weren’t really thinking we had to tread this really carefully; we were thinking about being honest in the moment. As you can see in certain scenes there’s almost a merciless quality… in her treatment of Carol in some scenes… to us, that was savagely cruel the way she treated her daughter in our imagined story. So, it wasn’t as if this was a creature who we all felt we wanted to be best friends with. I wasn’t making it necessarily just for my generation. I wanted to make it for other generations and cultures. We wanted to put a story about an old lady on the screen. It’s not like there’s been so many.

Q. Do you think Margaret herself would want to see this film? Or do you not think she cares how she’s viewed by history?
Phyllida Lloyd: I think her caring how she’s viewed by history would be separate from whether she’d want to see this film. As we understand it, she does not watch dramatic portrayals of herself. She famously did not read newspaper reports about herself, which I am beginning to think is a really, really powerful decision. She just couldn’t take the savagery of the criticism, so she had it moderated. She is supposed to have remarked about this film, or one of the other portraits of her, when she was told it was happening: “Ah, another programme…” To me, that summed it up… that actually she was quite detached from it and protected by those that care about her. So, I don’t know whether she’d watch it. I don’t know if you’re touching upon the morality of doing this piece about someone who is alive and who is suffering.

But that’s something that we did consider very seriously and I think that Carol Thatcher had put this story of her mother’s mental frailty into the public domain by publishing her book and then serialising it. So, that was Abi Morgan’s starting pint for the film: she read this article about a lunch between Carol and Margaret. And that was what sort of inspired her to set the story in the present. So, we felt that Carol had somehow offered this story up either because she wanted to make her book successful or because she wanted to somehow put this into the public domain. It’s not something that’s necessarily spoken of enough, it’s still a taboo subject, and therefore we felt perhaps less hesitant about tackling it than if we had somehow invented this story or taken the roots of it from gossip and hearsay.

Read our review of The Iron Lady