It’s been nearly four years since The White Queen wrapped on Starz with the Battle of Bosworth and the death of King Richard III at the hands of Henry Tudor, but in the royal drama series’ anticipated April 16 return with The White Princess, it’s been but a few days.
Henry (Jacob Collins-Levy), son of the scheming Margaret Beaufort (Game of Thrones’ Michelle Fairley), is crowned king, and in an effort to join the warring houses of Lancaster and York, Princess Elizabeth (Jodie Comer), the eldest daughter of Dowager Queen Elizabeth (Essie Davis), is promised his hand. This headstrong princess, however, had already engaged in an affair with the deceased King Richard, grieves over his death, and maintains a strong desire to marry for love.
While the history books may have you thinking otherwise, The White Princess and the Philippa Gregory novels on which the series are based are told with a refreshingly feminist twist, showcasing how it was the women behind the scenes who often guided their husbands’ hands in both personal and political affairs.
Rotten Tomatoes spoke with breakout stars Comer and Collins-Levy along with showrunner Emma Frost to learn what’s in store for the eight hour-long episodes ahead. Here are 10 things we learned about the series.
You don’t have to have seen The White Queen to tune in for the new series — though the first, which starred Rebecca Ferguson, is definitely recommended viewing.
“I think [the series] does completely stand on its own, and we’ve worked really hard to make sure that we’ve told the story from a standing start for anyone who didn’t see The White Queen,” Frost explained. “In the first episode, for example, we reestablish what the curse was that’s going to be so important as we move forward.”
The only way Richard III was able to rise to power in the first place was because after King Edward IV’s death, the rightful heir to the throne, Dowager Queen Elizabeth’s son Edward V, is captured and held hostage within a tower; he and a boy who’s thought to be his brother, Richard, don’t make it out of that tower alive after someone who wants Richard III to be king assassinates them. So, of course, Elizabeth cast a curse on her child’s killer’s descendants.
At the start of The White Princess, it’s unclear who’s responsible and whose head that curse will fall upon.
“Hopefully it’s very clear what all the relationships are and what the battle lines are between the different houses,” Frost added. “But obviously, watching The White Queen will give people much more depth of understanding of the history of these characters and the history of the conflicts between them and where they’ve all come from.”
Be warned, though: while binging The White Queen may enhance this viewing experience and help viewers understand just how deep the rifts between these royal families run, the characters are portrayed by an entirely new cast — the players have changed, but the names remain the same.
Comer was Frost’s No. 1 pick to play Lizzie.
“Lizzie had to be an actress who owned that kind of regal entitlement, and Jodie is a phenomenal actress who is actually self-trained,” Frost said. “She’s a real rising star. Jodie already had this quality of just, ‘I’m an actress, I’m a lead, I can own it.’ So she had that incredibly innate royal quality to her. I think we saw her on the first day of casting, and just said, ‘Please don’t go anywhere — we can’t offer it to you right on the spot, but we want you. You’re perfect.’ ”
According to Comer, auditioning for Lizzie couldn’t have been smoother sailing. She booked the job in a short two weeks.
“About a week after [the callback], I just found out that I got the role,” she said. “It was a lovely surprise, because sometimes audition processes can get quite long and you’re just left in the unknown. It was amazing. I didn’t feel an awful lot of pressure. It was a really fun process.”
For Henry, they auditioned about 300 actors before discovering Collins-Levy.
“Casting Henry was incredibly difficult because it was so clear what I wanted, which was he had to work as a love story. He had to be someone that the audience and Lizzie, we believed, would fall in love with, and I kept saying, ‘It has to be somebody who the audience wants to love better,’” recalls Frost. “In the beginning, he’s so damaged by his life; he’s so damaged by his mother; he’s so screwed up. And we have to have somebody that we warm to despite those really complex psychologies going on for him.”
And so the “most gigantic” international search began and 300 self-tapes were combed through until Collins-Levy, who was “basically an unknown Australian actor,” blew them away.
“We flew him over, and yeah, there was still some other people in the mix then, but he just has this incredibly soulful quality where he can be very strong, but always, always likeable,” Frost said.
Coincidentally, Jacob’s journey as a working-class, struggling Australian actor being plucked up, flew to London, and tapped to star in a major new miniseries paralleled Henry’s journey of being the most unlikely victor and king going into battle at Bosworth that it wasn’t much of a stretch for Collins-Levy to tap into those emotions of being an outsider.
“I was working in a packing warehouse when I got the job. I had done a couple of small things back here in Australia, [but] I’d kind of only been acting for two years. I really was moving forklifts and packing boxes and things, so it couldn’t be any more different from the experience I had when we were doing the show,” Collins-Levy said. “When I first was sending tapes across to London, I was so connected to the character and was so attracted to the project, but just thought there would be no chance of me getting it. I think that’s probably how Henry felt when he was going into battle. He was certainly the outside chance. It was a challenge.
“Like Henry being thrust into his kingship and kind of feeling unprepared and then kind of having to make it up — I felt like that,” he continued. “I was working with such terrific actors like Jodie and Michelle Fairley, and they all had more experience than I did. For me, it was just kind of relaxing into it and observing and watching them and trusting that I could do it because for the first few months, I felt very much out of my depth. But I had so much support from the other cast and from the director and from Emma herself so it was an interesting beginning. And then by the end, I started to let those anxieties be part of the process rather than bang up against it.”
Comer and Collins-Levy underscored the fact that this period in history marked Henry’s kingdom, but Lizzie’s reign.
“I think it’s tremendously exciting to be able to try and reappropriate history for the people who are excluded from it,” Frost said. “As we know, history is written by the victors. History books are written by predominantly white men of a certain social class. Our books are litanies of wars and property and laws and all the male pursuits. And so I think it’s incredibly exciting and politically important to try to go back to that history and say, ‘OK, what were the women doing? How did their stories play out?’ ”
This pursuit, however, had its share of challenges. That information is not always readily available precisely because the history books are written by white men of a certain social class.
“Philippa Gregory talks about it a lot in terms of saying that with this series of novels particularly, there has to be more invention because the information we have is incredibly scant,” Frost said. “So, I think what’s exciting for me is we dig up the little kernels of information that we can find, and then beyond that, I take poetic license. Ultimately as a drama series, this show has to work for a 21st-century audience and it has to describe the human condition in a way that 21st-century viewers can engage and feel excited [by] and really want to go on the journey with these characters.”
Fortunately, Comer and her Lizzie are just the kind of girls whose journey you’d want to join. She knows the context of her actions and she knows the duties that are expected of her; while playing to those expectations, she is able to act out her own will behind the scenes.
“At the time, women were expected to conform. Women were really misrepresented. and men are always the successors and kind of mighty, and I feel like the women are a huge part of that,” Comer said. “What was fun about Lizzie is she knows. She’s very wise, and she knows her duty and she’s publicly loyal to her husband, but behind, in private, she resents him and she plots against him.”
Collins-Levy believes this feminist take on history is particularly important today.
“Given our current political climate, that’s an important thing to look at — how we still live in a world that’s predominately run by men in political positions,” he said. “A story that deals with that, but it shows it with a female viewpoint is absolutely paramount right now…. If it were not for Lizzie, there’s no way this guy would still be on the throne, as we start to see throughout the series. She’s the one running the show. And I don’t want to give too much away about how that kind of plays out, but it’s that dynamic between them that’s so fascinating. Margaret, his mother, definitely is pulling strings with Henry at the start. I wouldn’t know how to describe the way that Lizzie is running the kingdom without giving too much away, but I think that’s a major story of his life.”
Given its themes, it was important for Frost to work with a predominantly female creative team.
“The entire writing team is female,” Frost said. “We have women in pretty much every grade. We have female editors, we had female VFX people, we’ve had female stunt people, almost all of the production design department, which is helmed by a man, Will Hughes-Jones, who’s brilliant, but almost his entire department was female. Almost all the costume department was female. We have women on sound, female casting directors. There’s been an enormous amount of female talent behind the camera. You know, it’s a perspective. It’s incredibly important [to consider] literally what lens you’re using to look at these stories and these female characters.”
Despite their warring houses, Lizzie and Henry are actually known today for their loving marriage.
Comer remembers our protagonists’ reign as “a happier one than many before and after,” in part because Lizzie ended up truly giving Henry her love, “and that’s something that he’d never had.” This especially comes into play when they have a child and become a family; despite being at first a tense arranged marriage, they learn to share their lives and to rule together.
“Lizzie now has Henry’s child,” Comer said, “and she’s made a conscious decision for them to both make this work for the good of their family and for their family’s safety.”
Lizzie’s decision is challenged, however, when a young man comes forward claiming to be Prince Richard, her brother and the rightful heir to the throne. Richard has long been assumed dead after he and his brother Edward were betrayed in the tower in The White Queen. Now he’s come back, and Lizzie must decide whether to stay the course set by her mother or to stay with Henry, their son, and the life she’s built herself in the royal court.
“This forces Lizzie to choose between her new husband and the boy who could potentially be her brother and the rightful king of England,” Comer said. “Her mother’s been very clear what she expects of Lizzie; she told Lizzie to take the throne until her brother came along, and then she was to give it up. And obviously, Lizzie’s alliance may be changing. That’s definitely a massive decision that Lizzie has to make. It definitely changes the energy when all that starts [in the series].”
Through this journey, Lizzie’s costumes by designer Phoebe De Gaye come to represent her growth into womanhood.
“I had a long conversation with Phoebe about wanting Lizzie’s costumes to really track what happens for her emotionally and psychologically as she goes from being this very impassionate young woman to somebody who is a real tough queen by the end of it,” Frost said. “And so the clothes sort of become more armor-like as we move through the series. The design and the costumes and the whole aesthetic is part of the storytelling.”
Comer added: “[Lizzie] was kind of going into battle, per se, with all the problems that are going on around her, so I really felt that [the costumes] really showed what she’s going through. The costumes just help so much when you get into character. They make you walk differently; you hold yourself differently.”
For Comer, those costumes were also one of the series’ major challenges.
“[The costumes] were a nightmare if, like, you ever wanted to nap at lunch,” Comer said. “You couldn’t lie down!”
Comer also said that there’s definitely a blooper reel of her and all the other women on set tripping and falling over their dresses at one point or another: “The material is so long and heavy, you might have to do a scene where you’re storming down a corridor with determination or anger and then you trip over it and the magic’s gone.”
So can we expect a third miniseries? Frost is hopeful.
“I think we always wanted to do [this series] because what we all feel is the story that’s kicked off in The White Queen is absolutely finished in The White Princess. It’s the story about what was it that actually happened to those boys in the tower, and we finished that story with this second miniseries, so there was a wonderful sense of closure for me,” Frost said.
“But of course, now we’ve done The White Princess, I want to keep on going because you’ve got the next characters and go, ‘Oh my god, there are incredible stories we could keep telling,’” Frost said. “There’s some wonderful characters — women of color who come into the next generation, and it would be groundbreaking and wonderful to be able to do a historical drama series where the protagonists are people of color. So I think, you know, it gets in your blood. You start writing big stories for incredible female characters, and you just go, ‘Oh, I wanna go again!’”
The White Princess premieres Sunday, April 16 on Starz