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Photo: Starz

Television

‘The Serpent Queen’ — A modern woman in a Renaissance world

Samantha Morton, Liv Hill, Justin Haythe, and Erwin Stoff discuss the upcoming The Serpent Queen.

Catherine de’ Medici could arguably be called the most important woman in Europe during the 16th century. She would become husband to one king of France and give birth to three others. During each reign, she would wield significant power and influence. She is such an interesting historical figure, that she would become the focus of an upcoming series, The Serpent Queen. Recently, we had the opportunity to speak with the executive producers (EP), Justin Haythe and Erwin Stoff, and stars Samantha Morton and Liv Hill.

Haythe described how the concept of The Serpent Queen came together. “I wasn’t looking for a period show. And I wasn’t looking for a royal show…I thought this was an incredibly modern character. I thought it was a female antihero that I’d never really seen. Somebody who you were utterly sympathetic with and rooted for, and rooted for when they got one over on the people unfairly working against them, and you were also scared to know what she is capable of.”

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He added, ” I also thought she was incredibly modern. I thought the world that she lived in, found herself in, Renaissance France, was kind of hilarious and absurd. Where anybody could die at any second. Where the whole system was based on someone saying God picked me because I have a shiny hat. It’s a dangerous and funny world. I thought that tone with this really sympathetic human and modern character would make a really interesting show.”

The two EPs believed Morton would be excellent in the role of the older Catherine. Haythe was very complimentary saying, “Samantha is one of our greatest actors. I think that she’s absolutely extraordinary. I think that she holds an innate mystery to her…she could embody that question of is she good capable of badness or bad capable of goodness.”

The Serpent Queen 1
Photo: Starz

Stoff shared how Morton’s working-class background helped her grasp the character. “She really had a fundamental and innate understanding of what Catherine, who was not a royal, was up against.” He also mentioned how she picked up the series’ vibe of “Goodfellas in the Renaissance,” and what he enjoyed about The Serpent Queen. “There are people around to shiv each other. Nobody really trusts each other, but it’s weirdly fun to watch and kind of aspirational.”

Both Hill and Morton play de’ Medici but at different stages in her life. Haythe explained his approach to storytelling with the two actresses. “The debate for us was how do you tell Catherine’s story because you have to tell the really young section and see how young she was when she was plucked from that orphanage and dropped in the French court, this world of vipers. Then had to consummate her marriage in front of everyone…To see how that young person outlived multiple kings, out maneuvered everybody. Had ten children and lost nine of them.  You needed to tell that breath and it’s impossible to do that with one actor.”

Speaking of consummation, sex scenes can be tricky to shoot in general. These were the first ones Hill has ever done. She compared them to “more like intercourse” and “very detached and mechanical.” She was never ashamed of the scenes and even watched them with her parents. In fact, she was proud of her work because it was “as awkward and uncomfortable and quiet” as she hoped it would be while also being “sweet and tender.”

Since The Serpent Queen is a period piece, it did require very intricate costuming. However, the outfits really helped the actresses get into their characters. For Morton, “Once I get that black dress on, she means business. It’s not the vulnerable Catherine. It’s not the Catherine behind closed doors. It’s the poker face. It’s okay, bring it on! We’re going to play this game now. I think the clothes help enormously.”

The Serpent Queen 2
Photo: Starz

Hill experienced a similar transformation. The costume gave her a different posture, with her head up more high. This made her look more intimidating, and exuded the strength and power that Catherine so desperately needed at a time in a vulnerable position.

Much of The Serpent Queen is told in flashback with Morton’s character narrating. Haythe discussed why he chose this format. ” My inspiration, I’ve always wanted to take a villain in history and give them their day in court. Have them turn to us and say, “Do want to know why I’m called the Serpent Queen? Do you want to know why I did the things I did? Well, you would have done the same because all the better people are dead on the side of the road.”

He continued, “She’s presenting her case in this direct address but I didn’t want her directly addressing the audience. I wanted to see who she was addressing. Specifically telling the story to Rahima, which is an act of manipulation. I liked the idea of hearing Samantha’s voice, tell the story in voiceover, while Liv turns to the camera and speaks in her voice.”

With Catherine telling the story, can she really be a reliable narrator? Morton believes so. “It is trustworthy. She’s telling this as if she’d tell this to a grandchild. You’ve got the narration but there is a bit of talking to Rahima as well. The question she asks is What would you have done differently?” she said.

“From what I can tell and the research I’ve done, it seems to be kind of compelling in the fact that she’s sharing facts. She’s not being manipulative with those facts. She’s telling it how it is and her reasons for doing certain things. But that’s open to interpretation, isn’t it? Two people can be in the same room and witness a crime. And I guarantee it too, if the police officers are interviewing those two people, they might both have a different version of events even though they saw the same thing. It’s always our take on it.”

Audiences can make up their own minds when The Serpent Queen premieres Sunday, September 11, on Starz.

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