During the course of her research, Samantha Morton realised Catherine de Medici permeates pop culture in unimaginable ways. “When you see the wicked stepmother looking at the magic mirror in the Snow White story, you might not realise that Catherine de Medici did it first,” says Samantha over video call from the south of England.
Admitting to be a little bit tired from talking for a couple of days, Samantha, who plays the 16th century Queen of France in the drama series, The Serpent Queen, says, “Catherine always had a mirror and she was the first person to look into it and ask to see her fortune. The poisoned apple in Snow White also comes from her. She was the first person to wear black for mourning, the first to wear knickers under her clothes, to wear high heels and use a knife and fork.”
Being a magpie
If one is doing a biopic on a person who is recently deceased, or even alive, the Academy-Award nominated actor says, there is video or audio footage and photographs to refer to. “You can go to the source material very easily. When somebody has been dead for hundreds of years (laughs lightly), you can look at historical information about them, but it is really open to interpretation.”
It is amazing, Samantha says, to use one’s imagination and work with writers to create the character. “To look back at the things that have been written about her and gather it all up like a magpie, any little bits or nuggets of information and bring it all together and turn that into a person.”
Describing Catherine as a survivor, Samantha says, “People wanted to kill her from when she was born. She was a child bride sent off to marry a prince in France. When she arrived at court, being Italian, she was not welcome. She had to quickly learn how to survive.” She says, Catherine had already been doing that for a few years as a child. “She learnt many languages when she was living in the convent. She became shrewd and astute in all sorts of different skills in order to persevere and survive.”
The 45-year-old actor says her initial research process included listening to the audiobook, Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France (2004) by Leonie Frieda. “That was the first thing I did after reading the script. Speaking to Justin Haythe, the creator of the series, was also important to me. We are not making a docu-drama, this is still entertainment. This is still television. He, as a brilliant dramatist, has to take these factual things that we know about history, and turn it into television. There was a constant relationship and dialogue with Justin about how best to achieve that.”
Telling tales through costume
Karen Muller Serreau, who designed the costumes, is unlike anybody Samantha has worked with before. “She works differently. She works with the fabric, the body and draping fabric over you. Her drawings in her little pad are just so beautiful. She understands texture, light, sunlight and moonlight and how cinema lighting affects and works with fabrics.”
Each character had a theme, the Sweet and Lowdown actor says. “Mary Queen of Scots was in a lot of Chanel tartan, which I thought was brilliant, brave and amazing. Diane de Poitiers, brilliantly played by Ludivine Sagnier, was in black and white. There are lots of emotional reasons why that character only wore black and white. My character, at a certain point, without giving any spoilers away, only wears black. I thought that was exciting and devastating,” she says.
The show was shot on many actual locations including Château de Chenonceau, where Catherine lived. “Just seeing the majesty of the architecture, and the fact that she had lived there, touched those walls, and walked on those paving slabs was extraordinary. I found that memorable and beautiful. I felt proud and honoured. You can feel it in the walls, in looking at the gardens that she designed.”
The Serpent Queen is currently streaming on Lionsgate Play