From writer and executive producer Justin Haythe and director and executive producer Stacie Passon (based on the book Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France by Leonie Frieda), Starz’s latest period drama The Serpent Queen tells the story of one of history’s most complex and complicated figures, Catherine de Medici, who ascends in power and status to become one of France’s longest-serving rulers. As an orphan, Catherine (Liv Hill) marries into the French court at a young age, but quickly learns that she must counter — and in some instances, outmaneuver — her political opponents, many of whom would rather see her dead than on the throne. What makes the series even more intriguing is that it’s Catherine herself (Samantha Morton) telling her own story, in her own words, to her newest maid and confidant Rahima (Sennia Nanua). The upcoming series also stars Colm Meaney, Ludivine Sagnier, Kiruna Stamell, Barry Atsma, Alex Heath, Amrita Acharia, Charles Dance, Enzo Cilenti, Antonia Clarke, Adam Garcia, Beth Goddard, Raza Jaffrey, Ray Panthaki, Nicholas Burns, Danny Kirrane, and Rupert Everett. Francis Lawrence and Erwin Stoff also serve as executive producers.
Ahead of the show’s September 11 premiere on Starz, Collider had the opportunity to speak with Morton about when she first came across the role of the titular Serpent Queen, as well as why she didn’t even consider herself for the part of Catherine — at least not initially. Over the course of the interview, which you can read below, Morton reveals her own deep obsession with the historical figure, what initially drew her to Catherine, and why she wanted the series to be both history lesson and entertainment. She also discusses collaborating with Hill (who plays the younger Catherine) on the character, how the costumes tell a journey, and what she hopes the show will illuminate about Catherine for people who might not have been familiar with her before.
SAMANTHA MORTON: I was doing a movie and the makeup designer, Jacquetta, was already on The Serpent Queen. So she was already sending in images. She’d be doing my makeup in the morning and I’d be like, “Yeah, what’re you doing next?” She was talking about The Serpent Queen and I said, “Well, who have they cast as the Serpent Queen?” She was saying, “Oh, they haven’t found the person yet. They’re thinking of maybe an actress to play the younger and the older one.” I was thinking about actresses that I knew that I thought were brilliant. So I emailed about three friends saying, “There’s this show. It’s called The Serpent Queen. It’s about Catherine de Medici, and you’d be amazing.” I thought I was too old, because obviously, I couldn’t play younger and older Catherine.
I went away, and I finished that movie, and I got home and the scripts were waiting for me. It was a “Could I read them very quickly? What did I think?” [They asked me] to get on the phone with Justin Haythe and Erwin Stoff and Stacie Passon, the director of the first one. I said to my manager, “I know all about this because I’ve been Googling her and Wikipedia-ing her and everything her for about six weeks because I was really intrigued.” So the project was in my life before it was in my life, and then when it was in my life, I became pretty obsessed. The idea of working with Justin and Stacie — I’d loved her work on Pretty Birds — and Erwin Stoff, who’s just… wow. I mean, the whole team was just extraordinary. So soon as it was around, then I really wanted it and I hoped they wanted to work with me too.
MORTON: I felt that before I read the scripts, and I just prayed to God the scripts were good, and they were very good. I thought it was very interesting how Justin managed to make it relatable. Because a lot of the times when you do … I’ve played Jane Eyre, but again, that’s based on a book. That’s Charlotte Bronte. I’ve done Tom Jones, and again, it’s a book. It’s Fielding.
A lot of the costume dramas I’ve done are all literature. When you listen to the audiobook, Leonie’s audiobook about Catherine, the Serpent Queen, it’s history. I thought, “Well, how are they going to do it? How are they going to do this?” It can be quite boring sometimes for people that aren’t history buffs. I wanted it to be something that really was relatable, to young people, to people of all genders, people of all races. I just wanted something that was entertainment as well, so you get a history lesson at the same time as watching a really fantastic show. When I read the scripts, I was like, “He’s so clever. I get it.” There are some big twists that happen later on that are really exciting.
I spoke to Justin about this idea of Italian woman. A lot of the time in Italian cinema — and certainly American Italian cinema in regard to… when we think about The Godfather or The Sopranos, I know that’s television, or Goodfellas, guys have the great roles. They’re the clever ones having to move the chess pieces around the board and survive. So I just said, “I just see her like a guy.” She’s just playing this very, very, very long, clever game of chess.