The new Starz 10-part drama series The White Queen, adapted from the best-selling series The Cousins War by Philippa Gregory, tells the compelling story of the women caught up in the ongoing conflict for the throne. Woven through the stories of three different yet equally driven women – Elizabeth Woodville (The White Queen), Margaret Beaufort (The Red Queen) and Anne Neville (The Kingmaker’s Daughter) – they will each stop at nothing to support the ones they love.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actress Rebecca Ferguson talked about how grateful she is to have gotten the chance to take on the character of Elizabeth, that this was a role she really had to fight for, the instant chemistry between her and co-star Max Irons (who plays Edward IV, King of England), how dangerous it was to marry for love in 1464, getting to tell this story from the female perspective, just how ruthless Elizabeth will have to become to survive, and how much she enjoyed working with Janet McTeer, who played her mother. She also talked about how she went on to do a main role in Ridley Scott’s television movie The Vatican (with Matthew Goode, Anna Friel and Kyle Chandler), and played John Hurt’s daughter in Hercules, with Dwayne Johnson. Check out what she had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
REBECCA FERGUSON: I’m so happy and so grateful that they actually gave someone who is nobody a chance for this role. It’s so interesting to portrait these people that we don’t talk about. We don’t know much about them, at all.
Is this something that you felt you really had to fight for?
FERGUSON: Yeah! I really wanted this role. I was only given a side that was two scenes, and I had never had a casting in England before. I had just started collaboration with an agent in London, and they called me and said, “We have this thing. Do you want to fly over and meet the casting directors? Instead of always putting yourself on tape, do you want to fly over and meet them?” I said, “God, yeah, of course! I’ll do that. Any reason to come to London!” So, I flew over and the first meeting happened to be a chemistry test. I walked in and there was Max Irons and the producers, and it was craziness. And then, I was called back four times.
Did you and Max Irons have chemistry, from the moment you met?
FERGUSON: I’d never done a chemistry test. It was all very new for me. So, when I walked into the room, even though Max Irons was sitting there, intelligent, smart, tall and handsome, it was just a very, very safe environment. That doesn’t always happen. We all know that. Sometimes we meet people, if it’s random people on the street or at work, it just works. And this time, it was an amazing chemistry and a security, from day one, from the first second.
When you were finally given the script to read, what did you think?
FERGUSON: I was given three scripts, the same day that I got the part. I got the part on a Tuesday. I was flown over to do the last casting on a Monday, and I knew it was between me and another girl, and I knew that she came in from America. I don’t know who she was. I never asked. I don’t want to know. I just knew that one of us would get it. So, I went for the casting, and then I walked around London because I couldn’t sleep. And on Tuesday, a quarter past seven, my agent called and said, “It’s yours.” I still get goosebumps. I wanted it so badly, but at the same time, I felt that it was such a good character that anyone who got to play her was just so lucky.
FERGUSON: I hadn’t read the books. I knew about Philippa [Gregory], and I knew that it was a best-seller. We have it in Sweden, as well. But, I didn’t know the ins and outs of it. I wanted to know what happens to these characters and what the history was. When I got the role, I said, “I need a breakdown because I need to know who she is.” We were filming in five days and I needed to know where she’s coming from, who she is and what the history was. And they gave me a great synopsis about Elizabeth, at the time, and her background.
This show is telling a part of history that hasn’t been explored from a female perspective before. Is it exciting to be a part of that?
FERGUSON: It is. I think it’s fascinating to tell a story that has been told before, but from the female perspective. We’re breaking in a new ground, in a different way. Three strong women are fighting the same battles, wanting a throne and wanting power because of safety for their children and for their own safety. It’s fascinating. I’m happy we’re not living in the Middle Ages. Can you imagine? And these are lucky women. These are the highest society women, who could use charm and sexuality and intellect for plotting and scheming. They had a chance of actually changing something, especially Elizabeth because Edward loved her so much. The door to the court life was more open for her than anyone else’s door was, which also was way Warwick hated her so much. He was terrified of Elizabeth because she had so much power, that was power based on love.
How did you find a way to understand and relate to what Elizabeth was going through?
FERGUSON: Well, this is not my history, being Swedish, so I was amazed by the high stakes. This is what happened, during this time. You’d be York, then Lancaster. You’re on the throne, you’re off the throne, you’re in a monastery. For me, it was just hanging in there with Elizabeth and thinking, “How do you protect your boys? How do you protect the heir, off and on the throne?” I was amazed at how quickly things would change, during that time.
Edward comes very close to raping Elizabeth, but then she ends up marrying him. Was it hard to justify how all of that happened?
FERGUSON: I call it rape. He says the intent of rape, but that it’s not a rape scene. We fought about it. Can we ever justify love and our actions, even today? I don’t think we can. Even though this is the Middle Ages, it’s about a girl who falls in love with a boy. The consequences are, of course, much more deadly. It’s life-and-death. At the same time, you can’t often stop yourself when you fall in love, can you? You act before thinking. And her actions weren’t always the good ones, but they’re the ones she made. For her to become White Queen, all of her family had to change sides, which was a good idea, at that time, because of the stakes. The stakes were so high.
How ruthless will Elizabeth have to become to survive?
FERGUSON: As ruthless as she’s asked to be, to save her family and to save her own ass, literally. You have two sides. She’s on the thrown and, all of a sudden, they capture Edward, which means she has no power anymore. Because he’s the man, he’s the King, which means she has to run to sanctuary. Sanctuary is in a church, which means no one can break sanctuary. They’re not allowed to go in, but they don’t all abide by that. It means you bring the gold you have, and you bring the children you have. Hopefully, some people support you and bring you food. As soon as you walk outside the church door, you would be killed. And then, he’s on the thrown again, which means she’s on the throne again. Talk about a split personality.
And all of that drama is just because Edward chose to marry for love.
FERGUSON: Yes, and that wasn’t the plan. Warwick had planned for England to sign a treaty with French, not a roadside strumpet. But, it changes history. That’s what makes The Tudors. The Tudors wouldn’t have come, if it weren’t for us.
What was it like to work with this talented cast?
FERGUSON: It’s incredible! First of all, I got the role of my life, as a first role. And then, I looked at the cast and went, “Janet McTeer is playing my mum? Robert Pugh, James Frain and Max Irons are in it?” I’ve been lucky. I’ve been lucky to have Janet next to me. I love Janet. We bonded, on and off set. We shared an apartment, for a week, and we would just sit there and talk. I guess that’s why it worked so well. We found that, and she’s still my momma. I’ll call her, and she’ll call me. She’s a giver. When we did our scenes, she would change her acting so slightly. Every time, she would give me different things, like home tutoring without verbally teaching me. She would never put her thoughts in my head, but she was the best teacher I’ve had, in a very long time.
And you went from doing this to doing a role in Hercules, with Dwayne Johnson?
FERGUSON: I went from this to doing the main part in Ridley Scott’s new television movie, The Vatican. And then, I got Hercules. John Hurt is my dad in that. Dwayne is amazing. I love him! That cast is also brilliant, with Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell, and lots of Norwegian actors. It’s cool. We’re doing it, right now. After this, I fly back to Budapest. It’s fun. I’m lucky.
The White Queen airs on Saturday nights on Starz.