Interview: Actress Charity Wakefield on Mary Boleyn
The life and death of Anne Boleyn has inspired countless portrayals across pages, stages, and screens. But what of the other Boleyn sister? In an exclusive interview, MASTERPIECE discussed Wolf Hall's complicated Mary Boleyn with the actress who portrays her, Charity Wakefield (Sense and Sensibility), who shared her thoughts about Mary's character and relationships; reveals the content of bonus scenes, and describes some very surprising—and odd—Tudor customs!
Who is Mary Boleyn?
Mary is a very strong woman, very in touch with her sexuality, and very generous with her sexuality. She's known to have been a mistress to the prince, to the king of France, and she's written about as such in quite graphic detail, more graphic detail than we actually included in the screen play, or in the finished adaptation.
In a sense, Mary Boleyn was against stereotype, because she was smart and she was a survivor. She wasn't particularly ambitious, but she knew what she had to do to maintain her position in court. As soon as you are no longer in favor with the king, and your major position is to be one of the mistresses of the king, and your sister—who is a hugely ambitious and very emotionally volatile woman—has cottoned on to the fact that the king might, may or may not, take you up as a mistress again, yes, you find yourself in an extremely vulnerable position.
And I just think I'm glad that I'm born a woman now. And not in the Tudor period.
What became of Mary Boleyn?
It's known that Anne Boleyn cut her off while she was at court and was jealous of her for getting pregnant. There's a sub-storyline from the book that happened in real life, which we shot but which didn't get included, about Mary kind of getting banished from court.
The great thing about Mary is that we know—well, we suspect, with the historical records that we have—that she married someone for love and then, when she was banished from court, it's supposed that she lived with that person and survived and lived with her family, her children from a previous husband who'd she lost, and from her new husband, William Stafford.
It's believed that Mary bore King Henry's illegitimate son—while not included in the series, did it figure in to your performance?
Yes, absolutely, and I in fact decided to presume that that was true, because I just think it is so unlikely that it wasn't. It's in the history books that he was presumed to have been Henry's, that he looked like Henry, and he was in fact called Henry himself. And so the signs are there, and I think it's very likely, considering that she would have been sleeping with him regularly at that time. And that is a very strange scenario to get your head around, as a person living in the modern world. That that might be acceptable, and that certainly everybody would know.
Describe Mary's relationship with King Henry
Another plot line [filmed but not included] showed Mary being taken back as Henry's mistress after Anne is pregnant and sent away to confinement to have her baby. Because it was so dangerous to have a baby in those days, it was so common that women would miscarry or die during childbirth, they would be sent away for a long time. Of course, that's an opportunity for a king, even if he didn't want to, to prove himself to be still virile, to be seen to take a mistress again. And so, Mary was—completely regardless of her feelings—taken to be a mistress again whilst her sister is hopefully bearing the next future king or queen of England. And it's just such an extraordinary thing that, I just can't imagine in the modern day. And it is sort of like a job, really, because your livelihood is dependent on whether or not you can sexually satisfy your sister's husband. So it's strange. [See the bonus scene.]
Describe Mary's relationship with Thomas Cromwell
A really interesting thing that we discovered, actually, [was that the relationship between Mary and Thomas Cromwell] was more charged than I'd expected it to be. I think that what happened is that in playing her, I realized the danger of her position, and the constant pressure of losing one's place, one's status, and that she had children to fend for. Her sister was becoming more and more volatile, and she needed somebody to marry, somebody that would be strong. Seeing someone with such power, that has risen so quickly... I often wonder, what would have happened if they'd have made an alliance, but it probably, as he says, would never work. She would probably be killed.
What was it like working on a production that so prioritized historical accuracy?
We can't include everything in the TV series, but I think Peter, the director, felt it was really important for everybody to be as historically accurate, or at least inquisitive, if they could be. So, and it was also great that the cast could come together and meet one another, and, you know, we had these historical dances as well to do, so a chance for us to get to know one another and learn these original practices, and feel like we were a group of people that really knew each other, that could, if we were in the back of a scene, doing an archery scene, that we could really be talking and really, and feel like we were actually there in the period, and not be thinking on the day, "hang on a minute, how does one stand, or how do you eat?" We'd learned all of that before.
What surprised you the most about the time period?
Noblewomen would not wear knickers. That surprised me. Apparently women that wore knickers, or knickerbockers, were seen as prostitutes. I find that absolutely insane! But that's the case.
And they would sit for long hours at court and have a potty underneath, so that they could actually go for a wee while they were at court! It's sort of finery, but also, absolute repulsive living at the same time. It's quite shocking.
We learned that lots of the food would be served on these huge elaborate feasts. Someone would come in and bless the room, and then leave. The guests would come in and sit, and then they would bring in all of the food in its whole-ness, so if it was a swan or something ridiculous that they were eating, it would come in as a whole piece, a whole hog, or a whole boar, and then they would take it away to the side and cut everything up into tiny pieces, and the whole thing just took hours and hours. And they would put these little pieces of meat onto these little pieces of bread.
What was it like to work with Claire Foy (Anne Boleyn)?
Claire actually went to the same drama school as me [The Oxford School of Drama], so I felt, even though I hadn't worked with her before, an instant connection. And although there wasn't a big defining scene between Anne and Mary, we would talk a lot about what they wanted, what they wanted to achieve, and how much they were willing to sacrifice of their own lives and their own previous relationships to get what they wanted. And in Anne's case, she was prepared to sacrifice everything. And Mary, I think she just wanted to survive.