Prepare for the real game of thrones. Many films and TV series have taken on Henry VIII and the Tudors, but shockingly little has been done on the English dynasty that preceded them: the magnificently brutal Plantagenets. That's odd, considering that the Plantagenets, who battled one another for 30 years in the calamitous Wars of the Roses, did just as much roaring and whoring as the Tudors did — and were way more dangerous and dysfunctional.
Starz plans to rectify this royal oversight with The White Queen, a sweeping, sexually charged 10-part series (premiering Saturday, Aug. 10 at 10/9c) focusing on three kick-ass women and their fight for power in the court — former commoner Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), mad matriarch Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) and teenage political pawn Anne Neville (Faye Marsay). Even Brits may learn a thing or two from the series.
"The Plantagenets have been completely upstaged by the Tudors, even in England, where their history — especially that of their women — has been sorely -neglected," says executive producer and best-selling author Philippa Gregory, who wrote the three historical novels upon which the series is based: The White Queen, The Red Queen and The Kingmaker's Daughter. "If you like the Tudors," she notes, "you will absolutely adore the Plantagenets, because they are even madder and badder. Their era was full of crime and violence, filth and poverty, yet the glamour was intense and the chivalry was amazing. There's nothing quite like it."
The saga of this bloodline and its two branches, the House of York and the House of Lancaster, hits full boil when York's young Edward IV (Max Irons) is crowned King of England, thanks to the manipulations of his power-mad mentor Lord Warwick (James Frain). But Edward soon makes a move that infuriates Warwick: Rather than go through with plans to marry a French princess for political reasons, Edward falls deeply for the luminous widow Elizabeth Woodville and secretly marries her. And that sets Warwick on a crazed quest for revenge.
"The stress and anxiety resulting from the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth is unbelievable!" Irons says with a laugh. "Who can ever relax? It's a deadly scenario where neither of them can trust their nearest and dearest advisers or even their own families. And with good reason! The price of life was a lot cheaper back then."
Gregory's feminist take on the story was "a bloody thrill to play," says Ferguson. "These are not women who just sit back, do needlework and have babies. They are tough and unrelenting and will do anything to outmaneuver each other and protect the safety of their heirs. Their strength is even more astounding because you could be off the throne with the flip of a coin — or the drop of an ax."
Of course, it doesn't help that Elizabeth and her mother, Jacquetta (two-time Oscar nominee Janet McTeer), dabble in mysticism and sorcery — activities that put the latter on trial for witchcraft. "To invest in this 15th-century story, you have to park your modern opinions at the door," Gregory says. "People back then genuinely believed in magic and enchantment. They believed they lived in a world where miracles occurred, where the battle between good and evil was reflected in the weather. It was a point of criticism with the novels, but I have been quite robust about keeping magic in this story!"
Yet Gregory also needed as much realism as possible. The White Queen was filmed in Bruges, Belgium, the best-preserved medieval city in Europe, and features a cast of mostly fresh faces. Ferguson is best known as a soap star in her native Sweden, and this is Marsay's first part out of drama school. Irons, son of Oscar winner Jeremy Irons, got his start as a Burberry model. "We didn't want the traditional all-star English company that had the audience going, 'Oh, look, there's so-and-so!'" says Gregory. "We needed actors you can truly believe in."
And ones who would also go for broke in those steamy Starz sex sequences. Edward and Elizabeth are especially big on bodice ripping, their boudoir -action bordering on soft porn. "Anyone who's seen our series Spartacus or DaVinci's Demons or Magic City knows we do not flinch when it comes to nudity and sexuality," says Starz managing director Carmi Zlotnik. "We gave The White Queen -creative team a lot of latitude."
The heavy lust quotient was "weird and uncomfortable at first," Irons admits, "especially when Rebecca and I showed up for a first rehearsal at our director's house and there was a mattress on the floor." But the actor pressed on. "This is a story about power driven by sex. It wasn't so bad after a while. Once I lost my dignity, I was good to go!"
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