Ophelia Lovibond on playing Boris Johnson’s wife in This England

20 January 2023

Ophelia Lovibond on playing Boris Johnson’s wife in This England

Co-written and directed by BAFTA winner Michael Winterbottom (The Trip, Greed, Welcome To Sarajevo), This England stars Oscar winner Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson and Ophelia Lovibond (who you might recognise from her role in saucy series Minx, also on Showmax) as his wife, Carrie.

The six-part drama takes us inside the halls of power during Johnson’s tumultuous first months as Prime Minister, as he grapples with Covid-19, Brexit, and a controversial personal and political life.

Lovibond shares her experience of playing the woman at Johnson’s side, the media consultant and daughter of the founder of The Independent newspaper, Carrie Johnson, who became Johnson’s third wife in 2021.

How did you prepare to play a figure so much in the (British) public eye?

People are very familiar with her image but I was excited for the same reason — she’s so ‘of the moment’ and in people’s minds. Boris and Carrie Johnson have both been part of our lives so it
was also an exciting prospect. The thing I discovered researching what she sounded like and the rest of it is actually, there’s not that much footage of Carrie … Obviously nowhere near as much as there is of Boris Johnson. So I kind of thought, ‘Well, I’m going to have to go off my own reading of what little is available, just go off the scripts,’ rather than trying to go off all of the videos you’d think would be available. You think you know her but you realise that actually, we don’t know her that well.

How would you describe Carrie Johnson to someone who has never heard of her?

I would say that she is a well-educated, intelligent woman, but the instant you try and put it in to a succinct sentence it becomes tricky – because she strikes me as intelligent and well-educated. By
all accounts, she’s quite gregarious and very friendly, very charming. But she’s come under fire because she’s been seen to advise the Prime Minister, who happens to be her husband, when obviously she’s not been duly elected.

I have to find a balance between, ‘Well, she’s confident… she’s his wife, she’s going to give her opinion. And her opinion happens to be something where she actually knows what she’s talking about, because of her background, in the work that she’s done.’ But then on the flip side, she’s not duly elected. It’s just trying to walk that line.

What are her motives? What do you think she wants?

I think she wants her husband to be successful. Any spouse would want that, and I think if you boil it down to brass tacks, I feel like that’s ultimately what she wants. She wants success herself, whether that’s as a mother or in her working life, but it strikes me that Boris’s success is important to her. The thing that came to my mind oftentimes throughout filming is she wants this relationship, this life to be a success.

Episode 4. Photographer: Phil Fisk

Carrie has had a bad press in the UK, as you say. Did you have to find some empathy with her?

The fact that much of the reporting has been done by men makes me wary. The kind of unfavourable and derogatory name-calling she’s been a target of makes me think ‘Well then, how reliable is this information about her? Does this come down to sexism? Does this come down to not liking this woman having power?’

And even asking that question will shift how you would then play a certain scene. Because you know that regardless of who you are, reading horrible things about yourself is not going to feel good. I do feel like some of the names she has been called are because she has Boris’s ear and maybe people don’t like that. On the other hand you do have to think about the level of influence that she would hold and whether that’s appropriate. You do look at some of the decisions that they made and wonder, ‘how did you think people wouldn’t find out about this?’ Or, ‘What were you thinking at that point?’ and trying to get into her mind.

How were you made to look like her?

The hair was a big thing. Her hair is completely different to mine so as soon as we got that right it was quite strange how quick the transformation took hold. Then it was looking at the clothes and
at her walk and things like that. You’re not doing an impersonation; I’m not an impersonator and I don’t claim to have got it absolutely pitch perfect in that way.

Obviously, the baby bump was very helpful — the various sized baby bumps. But a lot of it, to be honest, was being with Ken on set, just the two of us behaving around each other as Boris and Carrie. That actually was the most effective way of slipping into character because you’d be sitting in front of Boris Johnson at home eating breakfast talking about Dominic Cummings.

Episode 6. Photographer: Phil Fisk

That must have felt a little strange, too?

It was strange walking around the set of Number 10 — and they recreated that so diligently it was quite remarkable. But part of the fun of being an actor is that you do step into your character quite quickly. There were some weird moments. For example, I was getting ready in one of the trailers and Ken walked by the window. I did do a double take, because I wasn’t on set in costume with a camera right next to my face, and out of context, I really did think it was Boris Johnson. That happened a few times because Ken is so good at transforming.

The other strange moments were when you would see the front page of the newspapers, and it’d be yet another story about Boris and Carrie. You’d be in the middle of filming a scene that had occurred however many months beforehand and it would feel like a glitch in the matrix type thing. There’d be a new revelation that had come out and you’d be thinking, ‘I’ve got to ignore that because I don’t know that that has happened yet’ … But overall it wasn’t that strange: I just felt really glad that I’d been given the opportunity to try and help tell this story. I think we’re all still processing what’s happened. So I felt quite a responsibility to try and get it right.

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