Margaret Thatcher earned the nickname “Iron Lady” for her unwillingness to bend on her policies during her term as the UK’s prime minister from 1979 to 1990. But well into her 80s, she is rendered powerless by Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative form of dementia, which impacts memory, thinking, and behavior. The upcoming film The Iron Lady, out January 13, takes a brave look at this still taboo, rarely explored disease and presents a softer, more vulnerable side of the former prime minister. In her Golden Globe-nominated performance as Thatcher, Meryl Streep explores the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s with a unique honesty and compassion. The result is a journey through a highly publicized history recounted through Thatcher’s memories as she grapples with her loss of control, confidence, and sense of self. Healthline sat down with The Iron Lady director Phyllida Lloyd — perhaps best known for directing the box office smash Mamma Mia! — to discuss her connection to Alzheimer’s disease, how Meryl Streep got into character, and the media’s reluctance to address this dreaded cognitive disorder, which, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, affects over five million people in the U.S. alone.
Alzheimer’s disease is a touchy subject in the U.S. Is it openly talked about in Britain?
Phyllida Lloyd: All of us working on the movie were very committed to trying to put a story that tackled dementia onto the screen. There really isn’t enough discussion of it. This story of Margaret Thatcher’s dementia was put into the public domain by her daughter, Carol, who wrote a book discussing it in which she describes the first moment she realizes that her mother’s mind is in some way struggling to compute various thoughts. And so we gathered that Carol Thatcher wanted this [film] to get beyond the taboo subject of it.
Do you have a personal connection to Alzheimer’s?
PL: Meryl Streep, Abi Morgan, and myself have had experience [with] dementia sufferers and it was something that we were personally committed to exploring. The wall between being so-called ‘sane’ and ‘insane’ is a very thin one and all of us do things that make us feel: ‘Gosh, am I entirely in control of my mental state?’ [We] wanted to sort of close that gap between those of us who think we’re totally in control and are ‘sane’ and somebody who’s classified as insane, to bring those people together to make [them] feel more connected and more empathetic to the condition.
Meryl Streep is known for her ability to transform into the characters she’s playing, and she certainly did that in this challenging role.
PL: One of the things about Meryl Streep is that her vision for a project goes so way beyond ‘What does my character do?’ and ‘When do we start?’ and ‘When do we finish?’ Her sphere of interest is so enormous and her investment in the project is so total and collaborative. The experience for all three of us was a personal one that exploded the notion of a biopic, because we wanted the audience to recognize themselves in this story somewhere. We’ve all got careers; we’ve all got some kind of home life. How do you juggle those two things and then how do you deal with that loss of power and facility and fitness? How do you make that transition into that next phase of your life? And in many ways [Margaret Thatcher’s] story is like our stories, but magnified to the max. It’s a sort of larger version of perhaps the lives that we’re living.
When an actor is portraying someone with cognitive disorder, it’s always a bit of a fine line between accuracy and parody. Meryl Streep did such an amazing job pulling off a sensitive, yet authentic portrayal. Did she have any special training?
PL: All three of us working on it had had friends or family who had been sufferers, so there was personal experience to draw on. But I think that it was also that she didn’t regard it as something totally separate from her own experience. In other words, losing where you are in the middle of a dinner party, losing the plot, missing a beat, and not ‘being there’ is something we all do. It didn’t feel like, ‘Now I have to act like a mad person in a demented state.’ It was something so close to everyday experience.
Was there a doctor on set to help instruct her?
PL: I spent time in a hospital for patients suffering from dementia and we had a consultant psychiatrist who was a specialist in dementia who helped advise us. He wasn’t on the set, but he was someone that we spoke to in trying to understand how the condition worked and the impact [it has] on families. That’s something we wanted to really try and show, how delicate those negotiations are with [caretakers] and how traumatic it is for the [caretaker]. Like the daughter, Carol, can’t be quite sure whether her mother is punishing her, if she really feels she’s inadequate, or whether that’s part of her condition. Again, it’s something that goes beyond biopic and becomes a sort of universal dynamic, a story that — even if we haven’t experienced it — we can all imagine. It’s taking history and then using that history to tell a much bigger story, a story of power, loss of power, and then how we survive alone.
Ronald Regan also suffered from Alzheimer’s. I know that they were political cronies and they’ve even been compared to one another. When Thatcher’s daughter revealed the details of her mother’s dementia, Ronald Regan, Jr. called it “in monumentally bad taste and unnecessary.” Why do you think Alzheimer’s is stigmatized the way that it is?
PL: The mind is still a largely unknown country. I think that one of our biggest fears — beyond cancer [and] heart disease — is a fear of going into that place of losing control, losing our identities, losing ourselves. And it’s a terror like a terror of death — a kind of living death — reverting to being a baby in an adult’s body. You can have a conversation with a friend about what it felt like to be diagnosed with breast cancer, what it felt like to go on that journey, etc. but it’s hard to talk to somebody [about having dementia].
Were you afraid that showing Margaret Thatcher with dementia would expose a side of her that her supporters or the British public in general wouldn’t want to see?
PL: We talked a great deal about the morality of showing a living person who might not be able to defend themselves in this state of frailty, but as this had been put into the public domain by her daughter, we felt that it could be discussed openly, and I was pretty confident that Meryl Streep would take care of Margaret Thatcher’s dignity. Given that we wanted to create empathy for the condition, we were hardly likely to make her an object of ridicule.
There’s been a lot of buzz around Streep’s performance. She’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe, and there’s even Oscar buzz.
PL: Obviously, we are all rooting for her — and that’s an understatement! But somebody did actually say to me, ‘How did you manage to persuade Margaret Thatcher to make an appearance in this movie?’
You worked with Meryl Streep in the past on Mamma Mia! When this project first came about, did you immediately think of her?
PL: I had a moment’s pause, thinking ‘Gosh, how is England going to take the news?’ But then I thought, ‘Oh, they’ll get over it!’ What was interesting was, a couple of years before starting on this project, there must have been a rumor about this film and they asked the British public, ‘Who would you like to see playing Margaret Thatcher?’ And Meryl came out top. So I don’t know that I knew that at the time, but there’s been surprisingly little complaining about it. Even people who were very close to Margaret Thatcher, who knew her very well, have been absolutely stunned by the brilliance of [Streep’s] performance.
The film really humanized dementia, which is often thought of as this scary, misunderstood, abstract condition. Have you received any feedback from any mental illness organizations?
PL: I haven’t gotten anything in writing, but we did do a screening for a number of different organizations, including Dementia Society in the UK. People seemed very moved by it, by the performance and by the truthfulness of the portrayal and the sympathetic way in which it had been drawn. We came away from that feeling encouraged that we were hopefully going to make a small difference.