Samantha Morton On How Brains Won Over Beauty for Catherine de Medici in 'The Serpent Queen'

·9 min read

Samantha Morton on playing the delicious role of Catherine de Medici in the STARZ series 'The Serpent Queen'

The majority of movies and TV series about the lives of queens have featured British monarchs, like Elizabeth I, Elizabeth II, Anne Boleyn, Victoria, and Mary, Queen of Scots, but now, STARZ is taking us into the French court to tell the tale of one its most fabled queens, and not Marie Antoinette.

Rather, STARZ is unfolding the life story of Catherine de Medici, who was born in Florence and orphaned within days of her birth and then sent to be raised in a convent, before being forced into marrying Prince Henri of France at age of 14. Even with all that adversity, Catherine went on to became one of the most powerful and longest-serving rulers in French history.

History hasn’t been kind to Catherine, possibly because during her era (1519-1589), she was smarter than a woman was supposed to be, but it was her wits that saved her, when her lack of beauty couldn’t, but it was also her wits and resulting deeds that branded her The Serpent Queen.

Parade had the opportunity to talk to Oscar-nominated actress Samantha Morton, who plays the adult Catherine in STARZ's The Serpent Queen to get her take on why Catherine was branded her The Serpent Queen, why the sex life of Catherine and Henri play such a key role in the series, what it was like to split acting duties with Liv Hill, and more!

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History has dealt really harshly with Catherine de Medici. But this project seems to be told a little bit more from her point of view. Was that what attracted you to the role?

I felt excited by the fact that I hadn’t heard of her before in regard to her achievements and who she was, and that she was somebody that seemingly had been not erased from history but certainly not celebrated. So, I found that absolutely fascinating, having played Alpha in The Walking Dead, to go from that into this role felt very exciting.

One of the things that is impressive about her is that she always seems to be one of the smartest people in the room. Because she was a woman, do you feel that that worked against her? She was named the Serpent Queen, and I wonder if a man had done the same things that she did, if he wouldn’t have been disparaged half as much for it.

I have to agree with you. I think that, of course, it’s the fact she’s a woman that she’s vilified. Women in history, whether you’re a midwife, an aromatherapist, or you’re an herbalist, if you help people, you’re a healer, you’re called a witch, you’re burnt at the stake. Women weren’t allowed to be priests or vicars; we weren’t allowed to have a connection to God or the earth in the same way as men.

And so, I think absolutely, if a man would have achieved what she achieved, I doubt that he would have been called the Serpent Master or whatever. So, I think that that’s interesting, and I like the fact that you’ve picked up that she’s often the smartest person. The annoying thing about that for her is that, obviously, being a woman she can’t show that she’s smarter than the other people. She has to always suppress her intelligence.

And yet, she used it to save her position several times, which was very impressive. But I think her father-in-law King Francis I caught on to it. Maybe nobody else did, but I think he did.

Yeah, I think that sometimes there are times in history when he’s probably like, “Oh, you’re the son I never had or the daughter I never had.” They certainly had a connection in our story.

When Catherine first meets Henri, at least in the series, she immediately falls in love with him. Do you think she stays in love with him because she is so very much aware of his fascination with Diane de Poitier?

I think she does love him forever. She’s loyal and it’s true love. I think that for Henri, my interpretation of that having listened to the audio book and done my research, is that Henri almost had-- I might have gotten this wrong -- but it is like Stockholm syndrome, where people are held captive by somebody but then forgive them and are in a codependent relationship.

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I think that based on what I’ve heard and listened to and read, Henri was a very small boy when Diane first kissed him. I think he was six years old when he was first given to the Holy Roman Emperor. And then when he’s returned as a teenage boy, Diane started to sleep with him. And so, Diane today would be considered a pedophile really. She was a grown woman, I think more than 30 years older than him, and he was very, very little.

I think that that meant that Henri was never free because he lived with his abuser, and he was messed up with how he related to his abuser. Whereas I think, obviously this a question for Ludivine Sagnier, who plays Diane, but Diane needed him for survival. If she didn’t have him, how is she going to survive? Because she was an old lady in regard to the court and the times. So, to circle back, I believe that Henri was Catherine’s true love.

Samantha Morton ,Lee Ingleby, Ludivine Sagnier<p>STARZ</p>
Samantha Morton ,Lee Ingleby, Ludivine Sagnier

STARZ

It sounds as if appearance was so important back then because as you implied, “Who would take care of an old lady?” But there also seems to be an obsession with the lack of beauty that the court perceived in Catherine, and I wondered if that was something that you knew to be historically accurate. Or if it’s something that since we’re so superficial these days, it’s something that’s for modern audiences?

That’s a really good question. I think [creator] Justin Haythe would know more than I do, but from what I’ve heard, she wasn’t considered a great beauty. She was Italian, they were different to the French, she carried herself differently. Obviously, with the clothing as it was, you couldn’t really see whether she had child-bearing hips or not. She was 14 when she married Henry, so she was a child still.

And the Medici’s always fall pregnant late, so there was a lot of things to do with that, but she wasn’t considered a beauty. In different times, different faces or shapes, in ‘50s cinema there’s the hourglass figure, fuller figure, a fuller face. And then you go to the ‘90s when it was fashionable, sadly, for women to look like they were starving. Then before that you’d had models that were kind of athletic. Our concept of beauty does change in time, but I think ultimately it was her brains that meant that she was able to survive, not trying to be coquettish or use her beauty in that way, because she was constantly told she wasn’t good looking. So, I think it is contemporary but it’s also something that was said of her.

Catherine finally gave Henri nine children. One died at birth, so a total of 10. At that point in her life when she was finally able to give Henri an heir, did she feel safe?

No, because she will always be an outsider. And there’s always going to be somebody trying to get rid of her, mainly Diane. And I think that also she’s Italian in her blood and that’s her man. That’s her husband and she loves him very much, so the complexity is there. She never felt safe while ever Diane was around.

It’s also interesting how much depth the series goes into about their sex life. We don’t always see that.

No, and I think that in court then it was public information. Because they don’t belong to themselves, they belong to the state. They are God’s vessels on this earth. It’s all a bit bizarre really, isn’t it? But they all did watch. They all did sit and watch [the newlyweds have sex], that’s absolutely true.

In the first few episodes, you split the role with Liv Hill playing the younger Catherine. Did the two of you have any conversations to coordinate interpretations of her so that it would flow, so it wouldn’t be jarring?

We did. We weren’t on set at the same time because I was in New York making a different film, and Liv was in France shooting. So, we had Zoom conversations about who we understood Catherine to be, her motivations, her feelings towards Henri, towards Diane, towards the Pope, towards everybody.

And then also talking to each other about our lives. we’re both from a very similar part of the U.K. We’re from the Midlands, so we have a very similar way of grounding about us that you have to be from there to know it. It’s like if someone says, “Yeah, I’m from the Bronx,” and someone goes, “I’m from the Bronx!” there’s this thing you get. So, that was really good.

The tone of the series is a change from a lot of historical dramas. At times it felt kind of sly. How do you see the tone?

Obviously, this is a historical piece, but I think Justin and Erwin [Stoff] wanted to, ultimately, contemporize it so that it felt more present to a modern-day audience. And you do that in the way that you would shoot any other show, whether it’s The Wire or Succession, or anything like that. You try and have the camera with the protagonist. What’s happening? What are they feeling? What are they seeing? So that you’re on their side.

Oft times with historical dramas, we’re asked to stand back and watch just like it’s an opera or something where everything, for me certainly and a lot of these TV shows seem incredibly fake and fantasy. This is based on literature; it’s based on a novel rather than something that really happened. So, I think that was the way that we wanted it to feel, that you were rooting for her in a more contemporary way.

The Serpent Queen is available exclusively on STARZ, the STARZ app, all STARZ streaming and on-demand platforms and internationally on the STARZPLAY premium streaming platform across all territories.

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