Catherine de Medici didn't give a damn about her reputation.
The 16th century Queen of France has gone down in history for her notorious use of poison, her manipulative courtroom scheming, and her predilection for religious persecution (see: the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre). But Samantha Morton and Starz are here to give you a more complex rendering of the Italian orphan turned French monarch with The Serpent Queen.
Debuting on Starz on Sept. 11, The Serpent Queen follows Catherine from her earliest days as a teenager sold into marriage to a French prince who cannot love her to her rise to power within the French court. Morton stars as Catherine, both narrating her teen years and portraying the monarch in her adulthood.
Catherine, though Queen of France, hailed from an infamous Italian family — and Morton used that background, as well as other pop culture touchstones, to craft her take on the character. "Catherine is like a male character," Morton tells EW. "We wanted to approach her like you would The Godfather or Don Corleone. You think about The Sopranos or The Godfather or Goodfellas, they're always men."
The show also uses a form of direct address to camera, as Catherine tells her maid and the audience her story. It will inevitably draw comparisons to Fleabag, a show Morton cites as another reference point in making Catherine's story feel contemporary. "She [creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge] breaks the fourth wall so brilliantly," adds Morton. "It's not new. It wasn't new on Fleabag. We've always had that breaking the fourth wall, talking to the camera. But normally I'm just in the moment as a character in everything I've ever done. This was the first time I'd ever done narration. But I quite liked the fact that it isn't so stuffy."
Ahead of the show's premiere, we caught up with Morton to chat about her love for historical drama, why Catherine was a character she couldn't say no to, and what, if in Catherine's shoes, she would've done differently.
Starz Samantha Morton is Catherine de Medici
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You've worked a lot in period pieces. So what was it about this one that attracted you specifically?
SAMANTHA MORTON: I did when I was younger. I played Jane Eyre when I was 18. I was 17 when I played Harriet in Emma. And then I did The Libertine with Johnny Depp, which I loved. And then there was a bit of a gap. Then I did Harlots, which was early Georgian London. I'm incredibly proud of that show. But I don't really go, "Oh, I'm just going to do costume drama." When this was presented to me, and I was looking at the fact that Justin Haythe was writing it and co-producing and showrunner and directing. I'm a huge fan of his, and I felt in really safe hands. And it's to play the Queen of France. I mean, I'm 45 years old. When this came along, I could pinch myself. It doesn't matter that it's a historical drama to me, because it feels a very contemporary story. The costumes are certainly the best I've ever, ever had. I loved playing Mary, Queen of Scots many years ago, and I loved those. But these were exceptional, like museum pieces, works of art. And we were filming in the real Château de Chenonceau, which was breathtaking. To touch the stone where Catherine would have touched, to be able to walk on the stones where she walked felt really unnerving and inspiring and spooky. It's really about the role. It's a great role to be given the opportunity to play, and I'm very grateful to be playing such an amazing role at my age.
As you mentioned, you did previously play Mary, Queen of Scots, who is also a character in the series. Having spent time with both women, do you admire Mary or Catherine more than the other?
No, it's all down to interpretation, isn't it? Women have been vilified throughout history for being women, and for being strong and making choices. The show feels very contemporary with that. Because history is written by men and the male perception of women is to vilify us, put us down, call us witches. I find that really, really sad that that's how it appears to be. Mary, Queen of Scots is surviving in her own way. These women are all surviving in a very male dominated world. And they have to play very dark games of chess in order to do that.
Starz The younger version of Catherine de Medici as played by Liv Hill.
When you came in, what did you know about Catherine? What were some of the things that you learned that helped you start to understand who she was?
When something comes to me that is connected to history, it's an opportunity for me, as Sam, to learn about things — to not only do my job and to get better at my job and to exercise those muscles, but to learn new things, which is hard in life, especially if you've got three kids and you've got a mortgage. It's like, "Oh, I get the opportunity to go back to school." I didn't know anything about Catherine before this show. I knew the Medici name, because they're still around today. And it's a very famous name to do with the arts. It was all an incredible surprise. Reading the synopsis of the show, and then reading some of the scripts and then I got the audiobook of Leonie Freida's book, so that I could listen to that. To be able to put my headphones on and just immerse myself in that book was incredible. I was fascinated that we're sharing her rise from being an orphan to being in the convent and the education she had there and then being kidnapped and everything that happened on the streets to then finding herself married to a royal, being taken from Italy to France.
We do these things with these TV shows or films, but a lot of this stuff really did happen. This is historical drama, but it's not just a novel. It's not Charlotte Bronte. It's not Jane Austen. This happened, and that's what I find really exciting and powerful because these women are written out of history.
Having played in around the same era before, was there something you had to do that you had never done before?
Filming in the heat of the South of France in all of the real chateaus in those costumes. That was crazy hot. The south of France is beautiful and stunning, but wearing those clothes, [yikes]. Catherine, at a certain point, only wears black. She was the first person ever to do that historically. That was something new to me on a practical level. On an emotional level, I've never played a royal in this way. Mary, Queen of Scots briefly. But this was a long commitment and a huge amount of prep, huge amount of dedication, which I give anyway to any role, but this is like a long haul flight. I've never played anyone like that. So I just felt really, really excited for the challenge.
In preparing to play her, what surprised you most about Catherine?
The love. The heartbreak and the love because she's seen as the Serpent Queen and this villain. But she had this deep, deep connection to her children and her family and her court. And she was insanely loyal. And it doesn't appear that way. But in the long haul, you'll see the long game of it all. The audience will see why she is the way she is.
Starz Diane De Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier) was famously the mistress of King Henry II
The tagline of the show is, "Tell me what you would have done differently," and we hear her say that in the show as well. Now having played her and lived in her skin, what would you, Sam, have done differently?
Oh, I would have got rid of Diane de Poitiers. I would not have tolerated her. But I think she tried her best to get rid of Diane. She played an incredible game. That's the only thing I'd do differently.
Has playing Catherine changed how you view narratives about women in power?
I don't think it's changed how I view that. I've always been aware that there are reasons, collectively, that we vilify women who are looking for freedom of one sort or another in their field of choice. Whether that be wanting to leave a marriage, wanting the children to live with the dad, not the mum, there's all sorts of ways we vilify women in society, down to the way Hillary Clinton was treated when she was running to be the president. It's always about fear. People do awful things when they're afraid. So it's about freeing people from that fear, educating people. In regards to The Serpent Queen, there'll be people out there that'll go, "Oh, this great costume drama on Starz. We love this swashbuckling or whatever." But actually, they'll learn a huge amount as well. It will really educate people. It will make people see things in a different light and go, "Gosh, what they were up against and what Catherine was up against." Everybody wanted to kill her. Everybody wanted her gone. There's [many] reasons that people say you don't belong in the room. But Catherine de Medici says, "I belong in this room," and she creates that space for herself.
The show has some fun modern touches, from its music to some of the language of the dialogue. What did you make of that contemporary flourish?
[Showrunner] Justin Haythe and I talked about, Who do we want to talk to here? The story is what it is, but you don't want to alienate young people. You want young people to see this as well, so to contemporize it, but not too much. There are certain TV shows that are incredibly successful that are costume dramas that I just can't watch because I feel they're too removed from me. Something isn't right. I can't feel the truth in it. As long as you're focusing on finding the truth in everything, then you're being respectful to the subject matter. If you're contrived about everything and you're doing things because you think it's cool or this how to get people in, it's the wrong reason.
You mentioned Fleabag. This breaking of the fourth wall and direct address seems to be a very popular storytelling device right now. Why do you think it's so in vogue?
I think Justin wanting to do it was because this story is historical. It's so far removed that Catherine has to be stoic and cunning and wise all the time. When you see me play Catherine, you'll see there's a stillness to it. When we break that fourth wall, and I look to camera, it's like I'm in private. You get to see Catherine in private moments. She's saying, "This is how I feel on the inside." And that's really powerful, and it's almost like having a secret window into the character. I'm not narrating the show. Whenever I did those direct addresses to camera, I was treating the audience like they were my best friend. And I was treating the audience and the camera like I was just so truthful in those moments, whereas sometimes in the scene, Catherine has to play a very clever game.
What do you hope people take away from the series?
I hope, first of all, that people are entertained, because it's funny and daring and shocking and quite sexy. I also hope that they learn something that they didn't know before, and that they're compelled to keep watching because it just gets better and better.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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