‘The Serpent Queen’ Creators Share Everything We Need to Know About Season One

·14 min read

The STARZ historical drama tells the story of Catherine de Medici from her point of view.

History hasn’t been kind to Catherine de Medici, possibly because during her era (1519-1589), the actions she took were shocking because she was a woman, even though they would have been perceived differently if enacted by a man. Now STARZ is telling her tale from her point of view in The Serpent Queen, and possibly she will be judged a little more kindly.

“I always wanted to do a story about a villain from history making their case, and saying, ‘Yeah, you call me The Serpent Queen. Well, here’s why I did what I did,”” series creator/executive producer Justin Haythe tells Parade in this exclusive interview. “And I wanted her to tell that story to someone who thought a royal show had nothing to do with them, so she plucks a servant girl out of the kitchen.”

When Haythe was searching for his villain, he wasn’t looking for a story about royals, or even a period piece, he was searching for an antihero.

“When I first read the book, I couldn’t think of a female antihero like this,” Haythe adds. “And by antihero, I mean somebody who you sympathize with, you root for, you like watching them win at this corrupt game. And at the same time, you wonder how far they’ll go and what will be left of their soul at the end of it.”

Here is everything we learned from Haythe and executive producer Erwin Stoff about the first season of The Serpent Queen, which is loosely based on Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France, written by Swedish author Leonie Frieda.

When is The Serpent Queen premiere date?

The Serpent Queen will premiere Sunday, September 11 at midnight on the STARZ app, all STARZ streaming and on-demand platforms and internationally on the STARZPLAY premium streaming platform across all territories. On linear, it will debut on STARZ at 8 p.m. ET/PT in the U.S. and Canada.

What is the story of The Serpent Queen?

The Serpent Queen is a reimagined take on the epic life and rule of Italian orphan Catherine de Medici, who was forced into marrying Prince Henri of France at age of 14, but who, against all odds, became one of the most powerful and longest-serving rulers in French history.

Related: Alicia von Rittberg on the Politics and Sexual Intrigue in the Young Queen's Life in Becoming Elizabeth

Of all the names that could be given to Catherine de Medici, why was it The Serpent Queen? Did she have something to do with snakes?

Justin Haythe: Well, no, she didn’t, but she was also known as the “Maggot from Italy’s Tomb” and “The Black Queen.” I think she was called The Serpent Queen because she entered a world that had been governed by François I for years, this larger than life, 6-foot 2-inches king, which was a giant for that age, who kicked in the doors, warred, and was the heir of Henry VIII. None of these skill sets were available to her. She had to be subtle, she had to be stealthy, she had to be manipulative, and a serpent is a perfect analogy for that. It also has obviously very powerful symbolic meaning in our culture.

Who is in The Serpent Queen Season 1 cast?

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Samanta Morton as Catherine De Medici

Born in Florence and orphaned within days of her birth, Catherine de Medici was married into the French court at the age of 14, a union negotiated by her uncle, Pope Clement, to further his own political ambitions. Catherine’s arrival at the court -- a backstabbing, sexually corrupt, and politically insecure place -- is at once the greatest challenge and biggest opportunity of her life. Not only is she derided as plain, common, and infertile, her husband spends his nights with the beautiful - and much older - Diane de Poitiers, a woman with whom he will be obsessed for the rest of his life. When Catherine finally does produce heirs, she is surrounded by duplicitous nobles vying for her children’s’ crowns and foreign powers plotting against France.

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Liv Hill as Young Catherine

Justin Haythe: It’s a huge challenge to have two actors play the same part. But to tell Catherine’s story, essentially you tell how young she was when she was plucked out of her life and she was dropped in this court and had to consummate her marriage in front of a room full of strangers. In order to understand the things she does to survive, you have to understand how young she was when she was first sent into this challenge.

It’s easier to talk about what I see in both actors now, which is that they both have an incredible poise, and a strength and depth. You’re able to look at them endlessly and say, “Is this person good with shards of bad? Or is this person bad with moments of good?” And I think they both have a mystery to them that comes from a depth of character.

I think that we got incredibly fortunate, or part of the reason it worked so well, and Erwin can speak to this, Samantha we knew and admired greatly. Liv came through an audition and she immediately popped out as the one, but they both come from a very similar part of England.

Erwin Stoff: They both have working class backgrounds. They both understand England, still a very class-oriented society. They both understand what it is to be up against actors that went to one of the posh acting schools and come from a more privileged background, and so on. The other thing that made Liv great for it is she has a tremendous innate intelligence that she obviously projects, and she has a certain vulnerability. And you kind of had to understand from the get-go, "Oh, she is somebody that is smart enough to figure out how to survive in this nest of vipers."

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Ludivine Sagnier as Diane De Poitiers

Catherine’s cousin, Diane de Poitiers, is a famous beauty who is well-informed and who can converse easily with her superiors in the French court while keeping those below her in their place. When the young Prince Henri returned to France after being held hostage in a Spanish jail as a child, the widowed Diane assumed a maternal role in his life and became his mentor. However, they eventually became lovers and Henri fell under her spell, securing her position and power within the court. When Henri married Catherine, Diane assured the young bride that she wiould take her under her wing, but instead it was the beginning of a lifelong competition for love, power, and security between the two women.

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Sennia Nanua as Rahima

Rahima is a young servant girl who was assigned to wait on the feared Catherine. Even though Rahima was abused by the palace staff, she would prefer that to a meeting with the Queen. Catherine, of course, has selected Rahima for a reason and was intent on showing how a good, God-fearing girl could also be corrupted to commit bad deeds if pushed around enough.

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Lee Ingleby as Prince Henri

Catherine married Prince Henri, the second son of King Francis, when they were both 14 years old. On the surface, Henri was the prince every girl dreams of. However, Henri was traumatized by his childhood as his father had used him and his brother, the Dauphin Francois, as political pawns resulting in their being taken hostage in Spain. By the time they were released and returned to France their mother had passed away. The experience made Henri needy, insecure, and easily influenced by those who would give him the love he wished he had received from his parents. Catherine fell for him almost at first sight, though he remained enamored with the beautiful, though much older, Diane de Poitiers, throughout his life.

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Colm Meaney as King Francis

King Francis was virile, militaristic, and in possession of an easy command of power due to an outsized ego, voracious appetites, and past exploits on the battlefield. Francis had long possessed a love for the art and culture of the Italian Renaissance and it was for this reason that Catherine was arranged in marriage to his second son as he recognized that this union could cement the French claim on certain Italian territories.

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Charles Dance as Pope Clement

Catherine’s uncle, Pope Clement, was appointed to the papal throne not because of any religious faith but because the Medicis realized that in order to rule well they would have to make a member of their own family the head of the Catholic Church. As Catherine’s guardian, he arranged her match with the French prince and thought little of the false promises he made, including the offer of a massive dowry, leaving Catherine to face the consequences of his actions.

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Kiruna Stamell as Mathilde

Mathilde, a little person, was conscripted as a servant in the monastery where Catherine de Medici was raised. When Catherine was married into the French court, she took Mathilde with her, and so Mathilde owed Catherine her freedom. Mathilde was amoral by nature and, therefore, Catherine’s perfect companion.

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Amrita Acharia as Aabis

Aabis was a member of Catherine de Medici’s entourage, chosen to travel with her to France when she wed Henri. Aabis was everything that Catherine was not, with a beauty that regularly invoked the desire of powerful men. At first, she was grateful to be rescued by Catherine from the predatory Pope Clement, however, once in the French court, Aabis earned Catherine’s envy.

Barry Atsma as Montmorency

Enzo Cilenti as Ruggieri

Antonia Clarke as Mary Queen of Scots

Raza Jaffrey as Francois Guise

Ray Panthaki as Charles Guise

Nicolas Burns as Antoine de Bourbon

Danny Kirrane as Louis de Bourbon

Related: All Hail the Queen! Everything You Need to Know About Becoming Elizabeth!

Is there a trailer for The Serpent Queen Season 1?

Yes! And it shows the unique tone that the series takes, which is explained by Stoff and Haythe.

Erwin Stoff: What interested both of us about the show, and one of the reasons we wanted to do it, is because we both felt it was an incredibly contemporary story. We live in an age now where people talk about a glass ceiling for women. Well, Catherine lived in an era where there was a concrete or stone ceiling for women that was truly impenetrable. Yet she did penetrate it.

In spite of every disadvantage you could think of -- she got stiffed on her dowry, she couldn’t get pregnant, etcetera, etcetera, she wound up winning at the game that she was charged with winning. But because of the world she lived in, at what cost? At truly horrible and tragic cost. So that helped define the tone, because the tone then suddenly becomes one that is very contemporary.

Justin Haythe: To pick up on what Erwin said, he used the word “game.” And when you read the history of this time, there’s an absurdity to it. There’s an absurdity to any royal system that’s based on somebody saying, “God picked me to be in charge of all of you. And how do you know that God picked me? Because I have a gold hat.” That’s basically the basis. So, there’s no meritocracy, there’s no being smart enough, good enough to succeed, it’s all about the whims of the people who are in power and through no necessary skill of their own but who their parents were. That makes for an absurd system.

I hope you find the show funny. To me, I never want to be caught telling a joke, I wanted all of the humor to come out of the circumstances. There’s a scene early on where some of the kids throw furniture out a window at each other as a joke. This really happened, and they actually killed each other doing this. These are rich, spoiled kids with no limits and no repercussions.

Erwin Stoff: There was never a day that we came to set and would say, “Oh, well, they wouldn’t act like that in that period.” These were people, they didn’t know they were in that period. They acted the way that we act. The first meeting that we had with Samantha Morton, and it was one of the things instantly that endeared her so much to us, is when we said, “Well, what’d you think about the script?” She goes, “Well, what I love about it is it’s Goodfellas in the Renaissance.” And that is how we approached it.

These were people that were on the make, human life didn’t really matter to them. They wanted to grab what they could grab, they wanted power, they wanted wealth, they wanted to satiate themselves and didn’t care at whose cost it came. And whether you want to compare it to Goodfellas, or to Succession, they don’t act any differently. It’s the clothes that are different and it’s the lavish lifestyle and wealth that was different, but that’s it.

If Catherine had been a man with her intelligence, because she was often the smartest person in the room, would her reputation be different?

Erwin Stoff: Correct.

Justin Haythe: Absolutely.

Erwin: Look, something that I said earlier is I got into this business in the early '80s, and it was a very different world than insofar as there were no women in the entertainment business that had the greenlight power. There were no women in positions of power. The glass ceiling was in full force. And what you often heard about women at that time, “Well, watch out for so and so, she’s got really sharp elbows.” “Watch out for so and so, she’s really conniving,” and so on. When a man in the same position was lauded for being smart and ambitious.

The other interesting thing about the series is how much we deal with Catherine and Henri’s sex life in the fact that his penis was allegedly bent and that it took her 10 years to get pregnant. Is that something that is for modern audiences? Or are we dealing with it just because it’s really an important aspect of the story?

Justin Haythe: Look, all that stuff is real, and that’s the absurdity of it. The idea of some of it feels absurd but long ago her sole purpose was to produce an heir. At the same time, trying to get pregnant is certainly something that happens in a contemporary world. There’s a lot of time and money that people spend trying to get pregnant, and the heartbreak of not being able to get pregnant.

And also, this is a world that we’re portraying where there’s almost no consent. There’s a scene later on where one of the women says to the king, “Who has consent?” It’s a world where bloodline is everything and control over a woman’s body is in play. I think these are contemporary questions in different ways but they’re definitely in our dialog right now.

How much of this is true and how much is embellished?

Justin Haythe: Listen, I promise you, the most absurd thing that happens in the show is true. I promise you that I didn’t invent anything that is more absurd than what actually happened. This was an absurd world they lived in. And look, whenever you start reading history you realize there’s three versions of every event that someone would tell you has absolutely happened.

Catherine really did drill a hole in her husband’s lover’s wall to see how they made love. That’s a truth. It was in the ceiling; in our show it’s in the wall. But at the same time, if history’s our guide, history is only populated by white noble people. And the people who work, the seamstresses and the people who work in the fields, they just don’t exist. So, there’s a whole other world of invention.

So, my feeling was respect what was absurd about the day, but at the same time to really honor what were the pressures on these people. So, it might seem absurd to us that you have to create an heir to survive, but it was real for them.

How many episodes are in The Serpent Queen Season 1?

There are eight episodes in The Serpent Queen’s first season.

How can I watch The Serpent Queen?

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.

Is there a Serpent Queen Season 2?

STARZ has not yet renewed The Serpent Queen for a second season.

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