The day I felt Maggie's wrath: Playing Geoffrey Howe opposite Meryl Streep’s Mrs T in The Iron Lady was just like facing the real thing– especially when she sacked him!
From TV star to Hollywood: Anthony Head first found fame as Giles in Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Anthony Head in the flesh is dishevelled, handsome, tall and charismatic, with mud on his boots from the farm where he lives with his partner Sarah Fisher, a renowned dog and horse whisperer.
He looks younger than his 57 years and is known for pretty sexy roles, including Rupert Giles, the mentor to Buffy The Vampire Slayer. He also plays King Uther Pendragon, Prince Arthur’s father in Merlin.
So you wouldn’t expect him to be a natural choice for the portly and unglamorous former Chancellor Geoffrey Howe, whose 16-year political relationship with Margaret Thatcher ended quite spectacularly when he challenged her over Britain’s commitment to the EU in 1989, and was then forced to resign from the Cabinet, setting in motion the chain of events that led to her downfall.
Howe was her stalwart, her go-to man, until the moment came when he could support her no more.
Head totally inhabits Howe in the movie The Iron Lady opposite Meryl
Streep’s Margaret Thatcher, one of the most talked about films of the
new year, and watching it I was actually frightened for him when
Meryl/Maggie raises her voice and gives him that terrifying look of
disdain. Says Head, ‘Howe spent months as the butt of her ire, subject
to extraordinary rants in the Cabinet. She lost patience with him.’
Was he nervous sharing a screen with Streep ‘On the first day of rehearsal she was delayed, so we waited and it was an extraordinary moment when she came in because it was all men. She said walking into the room was disturbing and she found herself quite anxious.
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Nemesis: Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe to Meryl Streep's Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady
‘I’ve never voted Tory in my life. My
beef with Mrs Thatcher was that she hated actors and thought the arts
were a complete waste of time. But the first thing you think when you’re
asked if you want to be in a film with Meryl Streep is, “Er, yes”.
You don’t pass up the chance to work with someone like that. When it’s
your close-up, the person you’re playing opposite gets as close to the
lens as they can so your eyes are close to the lens. She would ram her
head up against the side of the lens to be as close as possible, so you
could fill the frame. She’s very, very generous like that and it’s
something young actors could learn, that it’s not all about you.
They didn’t pay me a lot to do it – they didn’t pay anybody a lot – but
the experience was such a masterclass, I’d have paid them to do it.’
Head is part of an acting dynasty. His mother, Helen Shingler (‘she’s now 92, bless her’), played Madame Maigret opposite Rupert Davies in the 1960s TV detective series Maigret. His father, Seafield Head, was a documentary film maker.
Force to be reckoned with: Meryl Streep was almost as much or a presence on set as Mrs T was in Parliament
His older brother, Murray, is an actor
and singer and his daughters, Daisy, 21, and Emily, 23, both act –
Emily was in the hit British series and film, The Inbetweeners.
So it must have been all the more special for him to play opposite Meryl Streep, revered as an actors’ actress.
‘I didn’t know what kind of actress she was going to be. Would she be
method or was she going to find her character in the trailer and come on
with it She is the most extraordinary chameleon. She chats, she
laughs, she’s one of the lads, easy to be around, and when the camera
rolls she’s bang in it.
THE FIRST WOMAN PRIME MINISTER IN NUMBERS
The number of days Margaret Thatcher was in power at the head of her Tory government
The age at which she became prime minister. She was elected as an MP at 33
Lady Thatcher is the fifth longest-serving prime minister in British history
The time in seconds of her farewell speech when she left Downing Street in 1990
The number of years she was married to husband Denis before his death in 2003
did those little pauses that Margaret Thatcher used to do. I’d think,
“Oh, she’s forgotten her lines.” I’d look at her and she was just fixed
on me. Everything in me tightened. It was an effort not to be
intimidated.’ He shudders at the memory of the scene where she tells
‘For me the film isn’t a political
treatment and it’s not a biopic. It’s her memory. It’s what happens when
someone’s entire being, their whole life, is spent in pursuit of power
and that power rises to the impossible.
Ultimately it all fell apart because she wasn’t listening to her Cabinet.’
points out a line on his forehead – it could almost be a scar. ‘In
acupuncture this is one of the meridians, the paths through which life
energy flows. When I was in Los Angeles and stressed because I was away
from my family [he spent eight years there doing Buffy] I woke up one
morning and this crease was there. Quite a lot of men have it.
Politicians, after they’ve been in power, seem to have it.’
Head also played a Blairesque Prime Minister in Little Britain. Blair has such a line.
Thatcher, he tells me, had to have three or four Spitting Image puppets made. ‘The eyebrows go up more and more with the stress. She ended up looking like a hawk. That’s the stress of power.
We’ve got this person who spent their life courting it, until the bubble bursts and there’s a vacuum. Then it’s old age, and dementia.
'One moment I found most touching was when she didn’t want to go through her husband’s things after he died. My own mum doesn’t want to take my dad’s stuff out.’
Inspiration: Geoffrey Howe and Margaret Thatcher at the EEC summit conference in Denmark in 1987
Through a friend Head got to meet
Howe at the House of Lords. ‘He’s very charming. He’s a little bit
hunched but he’s still Geoffrey Howe. I noticed from old footage that
whenever he got up he’d always pat his pockets. I wondered whether it
was a habit, or some sort of OCD ritual. He said, “It was cigarettes. I gave up smoking three times and I was always making sure they were there.”
Phyllida Lloyd, the director, said she
didn’t want us to do impressions, she wanted the essence of the person,
and I’m not the obvious casting for Geoffrey Howe.’
how did he get the Howe look ‘I put on a few pounds and I had to grow
my hair from the moment I got the part, and then they stuck extra things
in it to make it into the ski slope. I had to put padding on my hips
and thighs so that when you put your legs together they don’t quite
‘You can’t pass up the chance to work with someone like Meryl’
It’s unfortunate that the only thing we remember now about Howe and Thatcher’s long relationship is the break-up.
was no conflict until Howe was Foreign Secretary and Thatcher was
becoming a one-woman show. He and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel
Lawson, threatened to resign if she wouldn’t commit to the Exchange
Rate Mechanism, the precursor to the Euro. He was really shocked when
she sacked him as Foreign Secretary.
'The whole Cabinet felt the need to point out that she was wrong and it became increasingly difficult for her.
‘My partner Sarah is very intuitive,
and when I asked her what I should ask Lord Howe, she wondered if he had
to apologise to someone for something he’d done, who would it be. He
told me he didn’t feel sorry for what he did and didn’t regret his
resignation as Deputy Prime Minister. He said he did the right thing.’
up for Head is a Stephen Poliakoff series called Dancing On The Edge
for the BBC, about the lives of a jazz band in the 1930s. ‘It’s a
page-turner and it’s set in an extraordinary period when everything was
about hope. My character is an entrepreneur who loves finding new talent
but when the aristocracy close ranks he closes with them.’
The Head dynasty: Anthony with his daughters at The Iron Lady premiere in London this week. Emily (left) and Daisy are both actresses
It sounds like just the kind of ambiguous character to which Head is drawn.
‘Nobody is black and white,’ he says. Including Geoffrey Howe.
There’s talk of a Buffy movie, although not necessarily with him in it.
‘I loved Buffy. It still feels really current [it was the precursor to the phenomenally successful Twilight saga]. I did five seasons as a regular and seasons 6 and 7 as a recurring character.
'I missed my family too much. But I was extremely fortunate. After the Gold Blend ads, there wasn’t a huge level of TV and film work here. Sarah said if you want to do it, do it now.’
At home on the farm, they keep horses and five dogs. He says one of the dogs, a Doberman, will whine at the others if they are sitting in a chair he wants. He’ll only stop when they clamber off. ‘I don’t whine at people to get my own way,’ he says. And he laughs.
He knows he doesn’t need to.
The Iron Lady is in cinemas now.