Interview: Phyllida Lloyd & Abi Morgan on The Iron Lady


If you’ve been following any sort of advance Oscar or awards coverage over the past few months, you’ve probably already heard about the movie The Iron Lady. If so, you already know that it’s about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and that she’s played over the course of forty years by none other than life-long Oscar Magnet, Meryl Streep. Dig a bit deeper and you’ll discover that the film marks the reunion between Streep with Phyllida Lloyd, who directed the global phenomenon Mamma Mia!.

The Iron Lady covers a lot of bases, not only within Thatcher’s life and political career, but also one that looks at how a career in the limelight, especially one as controversial as Thatcher’s, affects her life when she’s all alone with the passing of her husband Denis (played in younger days by Harry Lloyd and later in life by Jim Broadbent).

Both Lloyd and the film’s screenwriter Abi Morgan–co-writer of Steve McQueen’s Shame, a New York based drama about sexual obsession–have a strong background in theater, which is fairly pervasive in the film, particularly the scenes of the older Thatcher alone in her London flat trying to come to terms with her changing country since leaving office, which makes those scenes play a bit like a one-woman show… starring Meryl Streep. So you can clearly understand why Streep’s performance is getting so much attention. sat down with Lloyd and Morgan at the New York junket a few weeks back for the following interview in which we tried to talk about other things than just the magnificence that is Meryl Streep. I guess the most obvious question is how this project got going. I guess it started with you and your screenplay, Abi?
Abi Morgan:
It originated with Damian Jones, the producer, who I think in many ways was inspired by “The Queen,” because she’s an iconic figure and that story is so beautifully told, so that was the starting point, and they approached me about doing a film about Margaret Thatcher. Initially, it was very focused on the Falklands War, and I think we spent a long time trying to find an angle or a way into the story, but once we focused on the notion of sort of near-present study of her life, contrasting that with her past, that was when Phyllida came on, and the script really started to fly again.

CS: I’m sure people are going to ask you, if they haven’t already. You had huge global success with “Mamma Mia!” but this is different, first because it’s going to be more polarizing since it’s political and a very different type of movie. Did it feel that way?
Phyllida Lloyd:
In a way, “Mamma Mia!” was such a left field thing for me. I’d never done a big commercial show which led to the movie, so this oddly feels more like business as usual, in terms of the thematic world. Oddly, the fact that there are no songs, to me, is the difference, but it all feels like one continuum of storytelling on some level.

CS: It definitely feels very theatrical and you both have the background in theater, so was this ever thought of as a stage play or was the producer always wanting to do it as a film?
No, I come from a theater background and obviously, Phyllida has a phenomenal theater career, so I think there’s reference points. We’re theatrical in terms of Shakespearean. We talked a lot about “King Lear” and that was a really strong reference point, certainly when I was writing it, and we built on that when we started to work together really so for me, if there is any theatricality, that’s where the metaphor best works.
Lloyd: Yeah, and because the whole memory story was being told from her point of view, so that seemed to give a lead to quite a heightened theatrical idea. A lot of the ministers and advisors we spoke to, and in fact, listening to Margaret Thatcher herself talking about her career, they did speak in these hyperbolic ways about it, as if it was this Shakespearean saga of downfall. And words like treachery and treason, and if was if we were in “Julius Caesar,” and it all had a slightly larger than life feeling to it.
Morgan: Yeah, absolutely, and I think there was a sort of chorus of men, because the film is from her perspective, so in many ways, in her world, it’s a world of men, so I think the cabinet were very much there as almost like a Greek chorus in some ways, and I think that evolves pretty well during the course of the film.

CS: Being from America, we see Margaret Thatcher very differently. We knew she was Prime Minister and now she’s not Prime Minister, but Americans will generally have a different perspective on her. The film shows a lot of things that would have to be conjecture since no one else could have actually been there, so did you just talk to people who knew her?
Yeah, I think there’s a certain sensitivity with choosing her, because she’s an iconic figure who is still alive, but the great thing about choosing a political figure like Margaret Thatcher is that there’s so much source material, there’s the amazing Margaret Thatcher Foundation that has a record of her entire political career and beyond, in fact, and political memoirs not only by herself but also by various cabinet ministers, journalists, so certainly when I was writing it, I was very influenced by certain memoirs and certain biographers in particular, and then when Phyllida came on, I think there was a whole other wave of research in terms of meeting people who were more directly connected really.
Lloyd: And who reinforced the story that Abi was trying to tell, which was of this lone woman in a sea of men, this woman who in her present day was battling the idea of being alone, letting her husband go, and somehow these memories, which we’ve chosen selective moments from her career, only a very few. It isn’t a gallop through all the highlights really, it’s quite distinctive, but all these memories reinforced the idea that she had always felt very alone in the political world, and these ministers and people we met reinforced that. We asked one minister if we had to capture one thing about her what would it be? And he said, “Her loneliness. He said the job is lonely enough but her being both female and from this lower middle class background really made her a double alien.”

CS: How daunting is it tackling this material when you know that she’s still alive and may one day see the movie? Do you just make the movie you feel you need to make and not worry about that kind of stuff?
Abi, talk about Carol’s book.
Morgan: Yeah, in many ways, her dementia was in the public domain, so to a certain degree, I don’t think we’re revealing anything that isn’t already out there, but in fact, one of the inspirations for choosing this angle came from Carol Thatcher’s book, which she wrote about what it was like growing up and being the daughter of Margaret Thatcher, but also specifically an article that I think came out of that, which alluded to a lunch she had with her mother in about 2004, when she realized while they were having a relaxed but political conversation about the current political climate that she’d forgotten a very key bit of information that she never would’ve done before, so I think it was the moment where Carol realized her mother was facing dementia. That became really interesting for me that that was being acknowledged by her own daughter. And then she talked a lot in this article about what it’s like living with someone with dementia in the sense that they live in another world. That became the sort of starting point, and I think one has to have a profound sensitivity, because of course we’re dealing with a woman who is still alive, but I also think we’re engaging with a public figure and for me, that runs slightly parallel with the private figure, so it is conjecture, it is an imagined world but also when you bring on the caliber of actor that has been brought on in terms of Meryl Streep but also Jim Broadbent, you kind of know it’s going to be channeled and delivered I hope with real humanity and dignity, which I think it is, I really do.

CS: Having worked with Meryl before, was it very obvious from reading the script that she was the actress who had to play the role? How did you get from your first read of the script to having Meryl play her?
I think that Abi and Damian had spoken of Meryl before I came on board, but in order to just at least open the conversation up before jumping into that, we did discuss other possibilities, and her, and then we quickly all agreed that to play somebody of the magnitude of Thatcher, you needed somebody of the size of Meryl, and we then went onto working, because we then had only just begun our relationship on the screenplay. We went on working for a while and when we were happy, we then sent it to her, and her first reaction was that for a long time she’d been looking for a project that considered the end of a life, and she thought this would be the project. In other words, her access point to this was not… of course, it was the opportunity to play somebody over the course of forty years, which was an extraordinary challenge for any actor, but it was very much the old lady in the present day that gave her the igniting spark for the project. She didn’t see it as a biopic. She saw it as a story about something else, a bigger story, about the cost of a big public life and the cost to self, family, colleagues, etc.

CS: If for some reason you went into this movie not knowing Meryl Streep was starring, I’m not sure you’d know it was her until the flashback to Thatcher’s earlier life, but you also have another actress playing Margaret Thatcher, Alexandra Roach. Can you talk about how you found her and how you decided where to transition between the two of them?
Obviously, we were looking for somebody who you could believe was Meryl’s younger self, but oddly, Alexandra doesn’t look anything like Meryl at all. And she just left college. She was very new on the scene, but she had this seriousness of purpose, it felt as if she was not running in the 21st Century in a very powerful way. She had just left RADA (a drama school), she’s from Wales, and yeah, she had this very grave approach to the material, but also, it was obvious from talking to her that she had great wit, and it sort of evolved from there.

CS: What was Alexandra able to draw from since we obviously don’t have as much out there about Thatcher from when she was younger?
Nothing whatsoever except reading and imagining.
Morgan: Did she look at broadcasts?
Lloyd: Yes, but there’s very little. There’s a tiny little moment when she makes her maiden speech, but nothing really from the very early life.

CS: I wondered about the chronology of shooting. A good part of the movie is when Thatcher is older and alone in her apartment, so did you want to shoot all the flashback stuff first so she could have that in her mind while playing the older Thatcher?
Exactly that. We wanted to shoot the memories first, which was very, very taxing for her, because we had to go in with some of the huge dramatic scenes right at the top of the shoot. The other thing was that at the beginning, we weren’t sure that the prosthetics could be worn for six days a week. They were pretty sure. There were other actors who the brilliant prosthetics artist named Mark Coulier, had worked with whose faces simply couldn’t take that amount of stuff and began to get allergic. Of course, we were very frightened of that, so we scheduled it so we weren’t doing six days a week with the old lady. We had these breaks which was a bit odd, so it was a combination of wanting to get the memories first, but also wanting to alleviate this three-hour gig she had every morning.

CS: Three hours is pretty good. They’ve really sped up the process because usually a make-up job like that might take five or six hours or more.
It began as six hours, but it got faster (laughs) with me, the harpy, coming down outside the room.

CS: One of the interesting things about the film is how it balances love with politics, and how Denis had such a big impact on her life both when meeting him and after losing him, and it mirrors her own political life. Can you talk about how you chose to balance those things? A movie like this you could really overplay the romance and change the very nature of the movie.
I think I was influenced by the kind of strong men and women behind political leaders. I thought a lot about Hilary Clinton actually, who has obviously ended up having her own political career and Sherry Blair, but specifically with Denis what was very intriguing was that quote “Always present, never there,” which he’s often referenced as having said. I think there’s sort of a truth in that. He was a constant shadow who walks a few paces behind her, and in many ways, that was incredibly modern and he was an oddly modern man, I think. Those kind of men are more familiar in the 21st Century, but I think to have grown up in the ’50s and ’60s and to have been so supportive of his wife’s political career, I was really intrigued by that, and I think there’s an intensity of respect between the two of them that I think was true to life but also what you see in this film. That was very important, but I also think for me what’s interesting is that he sort of becomes her conscience as well, becomes the voice of reason and reckoning and provocation at times as well, which I think a good partnership does.

CS: I want to talk a bit more about the politics because some people will like or love this movie because it’s not that political, some people are going to be upset that it’s not taking one side or another either for or against Thatcher. Can you talk about how you decided which way to go and when you felt you had to say, “We can’t go that political”?
Abi should start with that really…
Morgan: Well, I mean, I think it was very important to… I feel the film is a study of power and loss of power and also the isolation and loneliness of being a political leader, so that for me is what I focused on, and I think you obviously can’t look at Margaret Thatcher without looking at the context of her politics, and the way that she was both reviled and revered. I think what’s interesting is that there’s always going to be a conflict about feeling something about someone and being moved by someone who maybe you don’t believe in their policies. I think that’s sometimes where the conflict derives, but in many ways, I feel that it doesn’t shy away from exposing the civil unrest and fury that was leveled at her, but at the same time, one is also trying to get into the mind of that woman. I think there is an essentially humanity to that.
Lloyd: It’s absolutely critical that it’s not a political film. In a way, the debate about Margaret Thatcher in Britain has just gotten fossilized in this notion that she is either this she-devil who wrecked the industrial base of the country and ruined the lives of millions, or she is the blessed Margaret who saved the nation and rescued us from our post-war decline. There’s nothing really in between those two positions, so if this is political, it’s political in terms of a feminist look. It’s a look at gender and class really, but it’s a Shakespearean approach in that–as he did with many of his historical subjects– he would have taken a historical figure, choose very selectively half a dozen episodes from their history and used those to explore some big existential theme. We talked about “King Lear.” Whether King Lear’s policy was right or wrong is not really the issue, it’s more watching the mighty leader crashing, either through their own hubris or the treachery of the family, in the case of that story. It’s important that people don’t come to it expecting a biopic or a political film. It’s just not that movie.

CS: Is it hard to accept that people will view this film differently depending on how they perceive Thatcher, whether they have strong feelings for or against her?
Yes, because we bring our own… I’m sure if someone else had written this other than us two, I would have brought all my fury from the ’80s to the movie theater and I think that’s what’s happening, but then there’s a whole generation for whom we’re making this movie who first of all know nothing about Thatcher, and another generation who comes to this because they have contemplated mortality or they have experience of family… dementia was something we wanted to explore, put into the public domain. It’s a taboo subject still. It’s not discussed enough. Meryl, Abbi and I all have experience of it, and so we have other missions in a way then either reclaiming Margaret Thatcher’s policy or the opposite.

The Iron Lady opens in select cities on Friday, December 30, and then expands to other cities on January 13, 2012.