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Why Kharmel Cochrane Cast A Black Woman As Anne Boleyn

From casting controversies to hair and make-up nightmares, it all comes down to women supporting women for this casting director

By Hannah Karpel

9 June 2021

t’s 9am sharp on a Tuesday morning, and the sun is beating down in Paddington, London. Award-winning casting director Kharmel Cochrane is engrossed in her MacBook, prepping work ahead of the release of the highly anticipated psychological thriller Anne Boleyn on Channel 5, starring Jodie Turner-Smith as the Queen in question.

She has a long and packed day ahead of her, but nothing she can’t handle after 17 years in the industry. Having cast everything from film and television including The End of The Fucking World and The Witch to music videos and commercials like Stormzy’s Vossi Bop and Amazon’s brilliant The Show Must Go On, this project saw a real turning point for Cochrane.

“I’ve been casting for 17 years and this was the first time that I think we've ever had a solid core of women.”

This was the first time I felt really empowered and listened to during the process…

We worked with an amazing women-led production company called Fable Pictures, the production company behind the Bafta-nominated film Rocks and it was wonderful. It was a collaborative process between myself, the director, and writer, we all have a joint Whatsapp group.

We went into the process like peacocks with our puffed-up chests. Faye Ward, who is our lovely producer, would check in when I was drowning. She’s got kids and I’ve got kids and she would be like: “Right, what can I do to help you?”. At times when it was all too much, we really dug deep together and used our strengths. It was all hands on deck.

I’ve been casting for 17 years, but 11 years on my own and this was the first time that I think we've ever had a solid core of women.

'THE END OF THE F***ING WORLD' which aired in 2019 is one of the many popular TV shows cast by Kharmel Cochrane.
Image by Netflix / courtesy Everett Collection.

For me, it was about how we can elevate the beautiful text of Anne Boleyn and make it fresh and contemporary…

There have already been iterations dangling. We've seen Natalie Portman do it, we've seen Natalie Dormer do it, so there are versions of Anne Boleyn that exist. She [Jodie Turner-Smith] is so fiercely intelligent, it’s not as if you just cast someone for tokenism. She is a wonderful actress. We weren't changing the wheel by casting her, we were just, you know, putting Porsche wheels on a Ford.

I cast Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn because…

I think she had all the qualities of Anne Boleyn. She's fierce, intelligent, very regal, just in her posture and the way she carries herself, like a Queen. So for me, it was a no-brainer.

Historically, diversity in the hair and make-up industry has been awful…

I've had my hair and make-up done for events and I look at myself in the mirror and I’m four shades darker or lighter. So for me, anytime I am set to cast anyone Black or Asian my first question to production before we even cast is who does your hair and make-up? Are you thinking about someone?

So it is a subtle in from me to say, you need to sort yourselves out. This way, we are not six months down the line and I've got the actor saying: “They haven't got the right people to deal with my hair.” I do think that actors are much more vocal now, saying this isn't working or this is what I want and making it a contractual point, which is great.

“We weren't changing the wheel by casting her, we were just, you know, putting Porsche wheels on a Ford.”

There's so much finger-pointing in this industry and I just don't want to work like that anymore…

I have had such a different experience with Faye and Fable – I called Faye the other day because I was having an issue with something and I asked for her expert opinion on how to deal with that, so it feels like you've got a really great support system.

Conversations need to be had about what is happening behind the scenes. There is obviously the misogyny, the widespread sexual abuse, but I think that what happens in our industry, is it’s traditionally built on such a hierarchy that the people who have power feel like they can kick down on everyone else.

The way we work in the office is with no pyramid structure; it's very much horizontal management. There is not that ego trip or pressure that we need to stay on till 11pm to get things done.

I hope that everyone sees Anne Boleyn for what it is...

A beautiful story. I hope the focus is on the story and the storytelling and how wonderful the actors are, rather than it becoming a racial piece.

Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn, casting by Kharmel Cochrane
Image by Charlie Fern / Channel 5

We found it really hard to cast Henry VIII…

It's playing second fiddle and leading male actors are not used to being in support roles. We found that really hard and we were aiming high. If Brad Pitt said he wanted to do it, I don't think we would have been upset but we were definitely really ambitious.

But I always say, you end up with the cast that you deserve. And I think we've got a wonderful, wonderful cast and Mark Stamey is genius. He came in and did a belter of an audition and I was scared. That's a good sign. He really encompassed that brutal animalistic side, but then had these moments of real vulnerability and tenderness.

Probably the easiest part was casting Jodie...

It was a conversation that started on Zoom and then I think within a couple of days, the deal was done. And that's just a testament to Faye and Jodie.

The second episode of Anne Boleyn airs tonight at 9pm on Channel 5 or you can catch up on the full series now on My 5.

Lead image: Casting director, Kharmel Cochrane photographed by Kiran Gidda

The Short Stack

According to Kharmel Cochrane, casting actress Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn in the new Channel 5 series was simply about finding the best person for the job, someone who carried themselves like a Queen.

By Hannah Karpel

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