Breaking Out: Abi Morgan, the Woman Behind The Iron Lady, Shame, and The Hour
Abi Morgan and Meryl Streep
Photo: Dave Hogan/Getty Images
It is a daunting task, writing a biopic about one of the most divisive public figures in recent history, especially when that public figure (in this case,Margaret Thatcher) is portrayed by one of the most beloved actresses of a generation (Meryl Streep).
But according to screenwriter Abi Morgan, The Iron Lady isn’t meant to be a biopic, or, for that matter, even a political film. “To me it’s a study about power, and the loss of power,” said Morgan, on a recent trip to New York from London to promote the movie.
Power is likely something to which Morgan has given considerable thought lately. Over the last few months, the 43-year-old has seen her own stock in Hollywood skyrocket: she penned two Oscar-buzz-worthy screenplays (The Iron Lady and Shame), and The Hour, the 1950s newsroom drama she created, has just been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Miniseries. And with adaptations of Sebastian Faulks’s epic novel, Birdsong (starring bright young things Clémence Poésy and Eddie Redmayne) and Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman (directed by Ralph Fiennes and starring Felicity Jones) on the way, she is quickly establishing herself as one of the most sought-after writers in the industry.
We sat down with Morgan, a well-respected playwright before she started writing for the screen, to talk about the process of conceiving The Iron Lady,why she’ll never get tired of powerful women, and what dramatic tension the fashion industry can offer her next project.
Is the idea of a film about Thatcher something you had been thinking about for awhile?
No, I was approached by Damian Jones, the film’s producer. He was enamored, not only with the idea of doing a film about Thatcher, but also with the idea of Meryl Streep playing her. He actually said in one of our first conversations, “Don’t you think Meryl Streep would be amazing as Margaret Thatcher?” It wasn’t something I was burning to write, at all. But the more I read, the more intrigued I became.
How did you personally feel about Thatcher? Is there much of your own experience in the film?
Growing up, I spent a lot of time in Newcastle and Stoke-on-Trent, and both of those areas have huge mining communities. Stoke also has the pottery industry, which went into huge decline during her reign, so I knew about that. But what I didn’t want to write was an apology.
The Iron Lady’s nonlinear narrative is a bit unexpected. When did you decide that was the approach you were going to take?
Very early on. When I pitched the film I said, “It opens with Margaret Thatcher going to buy a pint of milk and no one recognizes her.” That for me was the way in. It actually came out of an article Carol Thatcher had written about the moment she realized her mother was experiencing the early signs of dementia and how living with someone with dementia is like living with someone in another world. I think that’s what we try and convey in the film. [History] is very much seen from her vivid point of view. It’s quite Shakespearean, in a sort of King Lear way.
Did you find yourself sympathizing with her?
I think there is a difference between connecting with a character, and supporting and believing their policies. For me, the film is about the fragility of this woman who had destroyed herself with her drive and her conviction. Also there is something interesting about someone who has, in many ways, been fossilized in the public psyche. She hasn’t done a Tony Blair and started a series of lecture tours, she hasn’t done a Bill Clinton and become a humanitarian. She’s actually been incredibly private.
Many are saying that the current climate in Britain mirrors the social unrest of the Thatcher era. Were you aware of that when you were writing it?
Having worked on The Hour I now feel like I spend my whole time interrogating history. I think there is something fascinating about the fact that, yes, the pendulum has swung the other way again, the Conservatives are in and everything Cameron is facing at the moment has a huge resonance. But I just think that’s the nature of history. That is why, love or hate this movie, people are talking about her again—if only to affirm the fact that this is the outcome of her policies.
Would you say you’re done writing about powerful women for the moment?
No. I’m writing something about the suffragettes early next year, and there are so many wonderful actresses I want to write for still. Perhaps I’m done writing about powerful political women.
What would be your dream project then, and who would be your dream actress to star in it?
There are so many actresses I love: Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, all the Kates, basically. I wrote a play for Miu Miu called The Moment Is the Present, That’s Why It’s Called a Gift. Instead of doing a catwalk show, all the actors wore the clothes and performed a 20-minute play. I’m quite interested in doing a film about fashion. As someone with no fashion taste whatsoever, I think it would be good for me. Also the fashion world is fascinating. It’s quite like theater because it has a backstage and front of house and an audience. And also it’s filled with dynasties.