The Woman behind ‘The Iron Lady’ –
An interview with Phyllida Lloyd
Q: I just got a chance to see The Iron Lady yesterday. And throughout the whole film I kept asking myself, what was the initial attraction to the infamous Margaret Thatcher?
A: I’m always attracted to stories of powerful and complex women. I’ve worked on two projects about giant female political personalities of the U.K. – Elizabeth 1 (in opera) and Mary Queen of Scots (Broadway Theatre), so Thatcher is the third in the sequence. Thatcher was the most loathed and worshiped figure during the 1980s in the U.K. and still rouses the most extreme passions in people who lived through that era. There are many people who have saved up money to party at her death and others who regard her as single handedly having rescued Britain from its post war decline. Whatever you thought of her, she was a figure of gigantic proportions. On another level what attracted me to the film was it’s universal theme. What goes through the head of someone who once had immense power and now has virtually none. It’s our lives writ large.
Q: Though having worked with Meryl Streep in ‘Mamma Mia’, why the choice of her to voice the Iron Lady rather than British actress? Furthermore, can we officially declare her your muse?
A: People ask, “Why Meryl for the role?” Look at it the other way round, if you could find a project that would attract Meryl, would you not pursue it!? Thatcher was something of a global superstar and we all agreed you needed a star of similar proportions to play her, someone of matching charisma, fearlessness and intellectual power. There was something fitting about Meryl being an outsider on the set. Thatcher always felt like an outsider in her party and had to work super hard at her presentation to dominate firstly her inner circle of men and then to command authority on the world stage. The tension that was created by Meryl being there was a mirror of the tension in the story. And is she my muse? Well let’s say if she needs a chain gang to break stones for her, I’m happy to sign up!
Q: Throughout the film, we are trying to get a pulse from the Iron Lady. In fact, I don’t believe we see MT in any exterior shots at all. How did you go about bringing a heartbeat to such a cloistered politician?
A: I think you don’t have to look farther than Meryl. Meryl brings a massive inner life to every role she tackles. You see fragility and vulnerability in equal measure to power and certainty. That’s the essence of the story. However mighty we feel, or allow ourselves to feel, we are all going to face that diminishing of power. Look at the scene in which she makes mincemeat of the young doctor – he asks her if she is experiencing hallucinations and although she dismisses it with a ‘no’, you can see with the minutest flicker of Meryl’s eyes that she is lying.
Q: During the scenes of political unrest, which usually included actual footage, was this a mirror of how you remembered the turbulent times during Thatcher’s time in office?
A: It’s Thatcher’s memory of a series of battles she fought. A kind of collage. Not literal, not documentary but expressionistic. Its fragments of memory. Thatcher had a strong island mentality and her political life was fought against a series of enemies in a series of battles. She’s like a military general. The rise to Ten Downing Street footage – her triumph. The footage of industrial unrest and terrorist attacks – her embattled but holding the line. Then the Falklands war – embattled and victorious. Then the final battle with the Polltax rioters – a kamikaze mission that destroyed her.
Q: Reconstructing Thatcher’s personal triumphs and trails, did you find yourself reliving old memories of her often unpopular politics?
A: All of us who lived through the 1980′s brought our stories to the movie. And we met many politicians and civil servants who were at the center of these events and gave us extraordinary insight into how they unfolded and Thatcher’s part in them. That said, what has excited us is how people all over the world, who did NOT live through this era have connected with the story on a personal level. We just traveled to Japan where this is received as a story of power, loss and bereavement as well as awomen’s attempt to make her voice heard in a male world.
Q: One aspect I enjoyed in The Iron Lady was the creative shots-even a Dutch Angle or two. Were some of these angles derived from your theatrical and opera background or as a possible homage to fellow British director Carol Reed?
A: Several of Thatcher’s friends and enemies spoke of her life and particularly her downfall as having been ‘Shakespearean’, ‘like grand opera’ and herself as ‘a tragic heroine’. She herself in talking about her demise uses hyperbolic words such as ‘treachery’ as if she is a character in Julius Caesar. Since her memories of her political life, are seen entirely from her point of view and she is clinging, in her mental fragility, to that life, it seemed natural that it would be inflated, subjective, heightened, full of primary color and energy. This contrasts with the monochrome stillness of her present. Yes there is a strong vein of theatricality in earlier British cinema, but also in the work of Orson Welles and Fellini who I admire greatly.
Q: Finally, after two features, one being a musical and the other a moving political drama, what is next on your agenda, Ms. Lloyd?
A: I‘m sitting on the Moors in the west of England staring at the heather trying to work that out!