If the title The White Princess seems familiar, it’s because it’s a follow-up miniseries to 2013’s The White Queen, both of which were adapted from Phillipa Gregory’s bestselling novels. The new chapter on Starz, consisting of eight episodes, is a continuation of the story of the Yorks and Tudors as the Wars of the Roses come to a close, and stars Jodie Comer as Elizabeth “Lizzie” of York, who is arranged to marry Henry VII (Jacob Collins-Levy) to secure the Tudor throne in a country torn apart by civil war. Though the two hate each other as the story begins, they end up forming an alliance, despite the machinations of their mothers (Elizabeth the Dowager Queen played by Essie Davis and Margaret Beaufort played by Michelle Fairley) who are hell-bent on restoring or keeping the crown for their respective houses.
A handful of journalists and I were visited the set of The White Princess in Bristol last October, and I was able to speak with stars Comer and Collins-Levy (both of whom are exceptional in the new series) about their characters’ unconventional love story, dealing with their scheming mothers-in-law, and what surprised them the most about their characters. (Of note, you don’t have to have watched The White Queen in order to dive into The White Princess!)
COLLIDER: This isn’t a traditional love story, so can you talk about the unique relationship your characters have, and that journey that they take in this miniseries?
JACOB COLLINS-LEVY: Well it’s an arranged marriage first of all, and it’s for political reasons why they’re put together, and I don’t think either of them really wanted it at first. And it’s something that kinda grows as they can complement each other as king and queen, and I think they’re very similar. There’s a certain arc to their romance that starts very much as a strained kind of thing and then they start to come together in the middle.
JODIE COMER: Yeah, I think they come to the realization that this situation isn’t going to change, and we either make it work or we all fall all to pieces.
COLLINS-LEVY: And England falls to pieces.
COMER: Exactly, so there’s this huge responsibility! And in history they did love each other, so that was really important to show in this series, even though you don’t really see that until I’d say midway through.
Regarding the Wars of the Roses, in the United States we learn a little bit about it, but was this a period of time you were interested in or is this just something you learned in school?
COMER: I was aware of it, but I can’t remember learning it in school — unless I did and I just can’t remember because my brain is like a mashed potato [Laughs].
COLLINS-LEVY: I learned about it through Shakespeare, because his history plays cover the Wars of the Roses, so that was the extent of it. I didn’t know too much about it factually, I just kinda had that kind of dramatic interpretation of it. And our show starts where that ends, Richard III, Battle of Bosworth, so that was sort of my understanding. But I didn’t know anything about that period really.
So talking about Richard III though, it starts with Elizabeth pining for this love she had for Richard, and in the book it very much goes into that. In the miniseries are we going to see more of Henry’s story, or his side of things and how he feels about that relationship?
COLLINS-LEVY: Yeah absolutely, there’s a real sense that he came in and his army defeated Richard’s army, and it was something that was campaigned for a long time and he was basically raised to do that from birth by his mother. And once he gets to England there’s this constant comparison with the previous kings. Edward IV, who was Lizzie’s father was this notoriously “good” king, and Richard III, who she was in love with, was a notorious and interesting figure, who is seen as a villain in Henry’s eyes because he’s the man Henry defeated. So I think throughout, particularly at the start, he’s constantly comparing himself to these two kings who were so close to her, and there’s a real sense of never being able to live up to them in her eyes.
Is that exhausting to play someone who is so anxious to not be a pretender?
COLLINS-LEVY: Yeah, the thing is I think he’s so paranoid throughout the entire show, it’s not really until the last episode that we get a sense that things might be ok. There’s a slight break in time where we understand it’s been about 7 years of peace that they’e had, and [he and Lizzie] are very much happy and have fallen deeply in love in that period, and then certain kinds of things happen that test their love all over again.
So for Elizabeth, she is the daughter of a king, then niece of a king, then married to a king — how does she find her own strength in these relationships?
COMER: I think the thing for Lizzie is that her idea was always to fall madly in love with someone and be married for love like her mother was. And I think when she’s introduced to Henry, she’s a very ballsy person herself, she doesn’t shy away from the fact that she was in love with Richard, and she makes it very clear to Henry that she’s not here for an easy ride. But I think he mum is her biggest strength, and her mum’s always there telling her what she needs to do for the good of the family and for herself. I think eventually she accepts her role as queen and says, right, well if I’m going to be in this marriage I’m going to try my best. They also have a baby which is a massive turn of events, because she has this beautiful baby who she’s so madly in love with, and all of a sudden it becomes about protecting him, and if we’re not working together then the baby’s life is also in danger.
COLLINS-LEVY: And the baby represents those two houses of York and Lancaster.
Motherhood is such a big theme in the story, so for Lizzie, how does she feel that her mother is scheming against her and this baby that she loves so much?
COMER: That’s a massive kick in the teeth for her, she doesn’t take it very well. At first she doesn’t believe it, and she kinda questions it, and it becomes very apparent that is what she’s doing. And Lizzie makes her decision about where she stands … which is very sad once you see mine and Essie’s [Davis] relationship, from the start of the series and where it ends.
And for Margaret (Michelle Fairley) too and that fraught relationship, can you both talk about some of the ways you characters interact with their mothers and their mother-in-laws, too?
COMER: I love my mother-in-law, she’s like a mother-in-law from hell — in real life Margaret would be — but it’s like, Margaret has such an intensity and she just has to give you a look and you know that you’re in the wrong!
COLLINS-LEVY: You understand a lot about Henry’s character when you see what Margaret is like. And they didn’t spend time together too much, they weren’t really — she gave birth to him, but he basically lived in exile with his uncle for most of his life. And it’s not until he gets back to Westminster as King that he gets to spend time with his mother. So they have a very interesting relationship. But you get an understanding of Henry and why he is how he is because of that, and the way he is around the court because of his mother’s way of pulling the strings.
What surprised you the most about your characters in this role? Maybe coming into a historical drama you had certain expectations …?
COMER: I didn’t realize that you literally could not be left alone, you would have ladies in waiting, and they would be in your bedroom, they would sleep in your bedroom, they would go into the toilet with you — they were with you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I just didn’t realize that, it must have been so intense. Even acting when there are 3 people following you, you’re constantly aware of it, and especially with all of the goings on and the secrets. There must have been a lot of interesting conversations that were overheard, and I think that’s one thing that surprised me.
COLLINS-LEVY: For Henry I think I was surprised … he’s not a king, he wasn’t raised like someone like Edward was, he was brought up to … he raised to be a king but he was raised in exile, so to not play a king is an interesting thing. He’s a foreigner, he’s not English, but he’s the King of England, and so there was a really interesting thing for me about finding someone who everyone is going “This isn’t an Englishman, this is someone who has lived over in Europe and in exile, why is he the king?” so not playing a king was a surprising thing.
The White Princess premieres Sunday, April 16th on Starz.