Midway through the new miniseries, Anne Boleyn, the doomed 16th century English queen and second bride of Henry VIII warns her chief tormenter, Thomas Cromwell, that even if he succeeds in his plan to dethrone her, her memory will ultimately eclipse his. That's proven to be the case: the story of Boleyn's life and death has been told and re-told in a number of different mediums across the ensuing centuries. But it's never been presented in quite the same way as this latest dramatization, which premieres Dec. 9 on AMC+. And that starts with the identity of the performer playing Anne: Jodie Turner-Smith.
The England-born Queen & Slim star is the first Black actress to portray this major historical figure on screen, and her casting ignited controversy in her native country when it was first announced last year. "I didn't pay attention to it, because you really can't," Turner-Smith tells Yahoo Entertainment now. "When you're doing the work, you just have to do it. Anne Boleyn is a polarizing and fascinating character that people either love or love to hate. I knew that there were going to be people that were very protective of her story, and they would feel conflicted about a Black actress playing the role."
"But obviously our aim was not historical accuracy," she continues. "Our aim was to tell an emotional human story, and that meant that any actor could play the role. And isn't it wonderful to finally see actors of color telling these emotional stories that for so long there was only room for white actors to tell? That's how I feel, and I think that many other people feel that way. And the people that don't feel that way were never going to watch the series anyway!"
Even though Turner-Smith may not resemble the Anne Boleyn depicted in contemporaneous portraits, she says that she deeply identified with the way the queen was "othered" by the royal court as her husband and Cromwell set her downfall in motion. "I mean, it is my life experience: I'm a woman who was often othered, so I understand that journey. This was my telling of Anne Boleyn in a way that's unique to me and my experience, but in a way it also allowed me to tap into the universal experience of a woman who was already an outsider in many ways."
Turner-Smith's presence lends the series an extra resonance when Anne is put on trial for high treason in 1536. The actress filmed those scenes in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody last year, a case that shined a new light on systemic racial injustice within the American justice system. "For me, those scenes were less about that and more about the limitations placed on women at the time," she explains. "Don't be so bold; don't be so outspoken; don't ruffle any feathers; know your place — all of these things that I feel Anne sort of refused."
Still, Floyd's death was very much on her mind that entire summer and continued as the case went before the U.S. courts this spring. "It was impossible to not follow it with a heightened awareness. Those events are things that are part of my existence as a Black person in the world. To follow these things, see how these trials occur and what happens and what the verdicts then say about my humanity. And then having to reaffirm my own humanity based on my disappointment with how [these trials] often go."
Beyond feelings of otherness, Turner-Smith says that she also felt bonded to Boleyn by their shared experience of new motherhood. The actress gave birth to her daughter with husband Joshua Jackson five months before production began. "I was nursing and pumping as I shot," she says, laughing, adding that the demands of production often kept her separated from her newborn.
"Obviously, I'm in nearly every scene of the show and that means a very extensive work schedule. Some days I was waking up before she was even awake and coming home after she'd gone to sleep. So all I really was able to ever do was take her out of her crib as she slept and nurse her. It was really hard to not see her: you don't want to miss bedtime, you don't want to miss them waking up. You don't want them to not really see you except for on the weekends when you have time off. I have so much respect and admiration and appreciation for all working mothers because it's not easy."
Jackson wasn't available to pick up the parenting slack either: while Turner-Smith was shooting Anne Boleyn, the former Dawson's Creek star was filming the Peacock series, Dr. Death, on location in New York City. "It's a f***ing brilliant show, and it was challenging for him in the same way this was for me," she says of her partner's performance. "It was long hours every day playing someone very intense."
"We spoke and FaceTimed as much as we could, but there were many mornings, where I would be on my way to work, and he would be going to sleep," Turner-Smith explains. "I would call him, and he would help me to run lines, but he could barely keep his eyes up. so This was a project that I did without the benefit of having him physically close by, and that was definitely tough. But we made it work as we do because we're two working actors."
As the actress notes, Boleyn was also frequently separated from her only child — and eventual successor to the throne — Elizabeth I. After Elizabeth's birth, Anne suffered multiple miscarriages as she tried to satisfy Henry's demands that she conceive a son and heir. "Having just gone through birth, I felt I had a much deeper and more raw connection to this idea of having your child and your child not surviving, and the grief that would give you," she says. "And then having to push through that to continue to compete in the court. It's very intense! So often all the stories I've seen about Anne Boleyn were more about that — like, here was this really ambitious, scandalous woman. But this felt like a story about a mother, and that resonated with me."
Anne Boleyn premieres Thursday, Dec. 9 on AMC+.