As Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen is given an epic television makeover, lead actress Rebecca Ferguson talks to Sarah Freeman about bringing the North Yorkshire author’s historical world to life.
Rebecca Ferguson was not the obvious choice to play Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV and 15th-century cause celebre, in the new adaptation of the historical bestseller The White Queen. The Swedish actress is not exactly a household name over here and until she was spotted by the production crew charged with turning the 400 pages of Philippa Gregory’s novel into 10 hours of television, her acting roles had largely been confined to soaps.
“It was an absolute emotional rollercoaster,” says Ferguson of the audition process. “It was my first casting in London, and I was sent straight into a screen test with Max Irons (who plays the King of England to Ferguson’s consort). I walked in with all my nerves but we just clicked. It was amazing chemistry between us straight away which helped to get rid of half the fear. More auditions followed and when I was back home in Sweden I thought I must forget about the role. In an effort to pull my act together I went for a seven-hour hike, leaving my phone behind for the first time since the last audition. When I came back I had around 15 missed calls and texts from my agent – saying, ‘Where are you – we need to fly you to London tomorrow’. So I jumped on a plane.”
By the fourth audition it was down to Ferguson and just one other actress, but when she was finally told she had successfully landed the lead role in the epic drama there was little time for celebration and certainly no time to brush up on Gregory’s inspiration for the novel – 15 particularly turbulent years in English history.
“The final audition was on last year’s August bank holiday – it was between me and one other girl and we were both staying in different hotels waiting to hear,” she says. “I did not sleep and when my agent called at 7.15am the next morning I said ‘don’t say anything, just give me the news’ and he said ‘it’s yours’. Twenty minutes later my producer Gina Cronk was in the lobby. I remember running down in my pyjamas and asking for a couple minutes to get myself together. I went back upstairs and thought, ‘I just need to put my high heels on and then I will feel a bit more in control’. The job started from there. I went in to have costume fittings and to have my hair coloured blonde and then Gina told me we were going to ‘a little read through’.
“When we arrived at the studios she turned to me and said: ‘I told you it was a small read through, but it is actually with everyone – so whatever you do, don’t fall down’. That night I flew home to Sweden, two days later I moved to London to practice horse riding and a few days later we started filming in Belgium on the Monday. So a crazy week.”
Given the attention she is likely to receive following the long-awaited adaptation of Gregory’s novel, Ferguson should probably get used to living in a bit of a whirlwind. From a glossy series like The Tudors to more lightweight Sunday evening fare in the Downton Abbey vein, historical dramas have a habit of garrnering a loyal following of viewers and The White Queen, penned by Gregory on the small North Yorkshire farm where she lives with her family, certainly has all the elements of ratings-winning drama.
It begins in 1464 when the Wars of the Roses have been raging for nine years. The old king, Henry VI, and his wife, Margaret of Anjou, have escaped to Scotland and the Lancastrian armies have been decimated at the Battle of Towton – the bloodiest ever fought on English soil. The House of York’s Edward IV (Irons) has been crowned King of England with the help of arch manipulator the Earl of Warwick (Leeds-born James Frain). The path of rightful succession rarely runs smooth and when Edward falls in love with commoner Elizabeth Woodville, it is Ferguson’s character who kicks the proverbial hornets’ nest. Add in a large helping of sex, betrayal and murder and The White Queen could do for historical drama what Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy did for period drama.
“Elizabeth is an incredibly strong character,” says Ferguson. “When we first meet her she has recently been widowed with two young sons, her Lancastrian husband killed by the Yorkists. She has to humbly beg King Edward IV for the return of her confiscated land, but that is just the start of her journey. She is a passionate woman and The White Queen is a love story that turns into a political thriller. In the beginning Elizabeth has all the naivety of a young woman falling in love with a boy, who just so happens to be the King of England, but she changes throughout the series as her loyalty to her children, family and husband is tested.”
Over the course of the 10 part adaptation, Elizabeth ages from 27 to 42. Ferguson herself is 29 and while ageing on screen is something many actresses do their best to avoid, she insists she had no problem glimpsing her future self.
“I was so happy to find out I was going to age – what a challenge,” she says. “When the character started to get old, I did think, ‘how do I now do this, how do you age both body and thought?’ I have to say the make-up and hair designer did the most wonderful job, but I also have to thank Janet McTeer who plays my on-screen mother. I looked at her character and really saw what Elizabeth would have been like as she got older. It was a lovely working relationship, so much so I would find myself calling her ‘mama’ off set.”
While Ferguson may have been a leftfield choice to play Woodville, starring in The White Queen has allowed her to fulfil a long-held ambition and brought her a little closer to her acting role models of her youth.
“I had always wanted to do a period drama,” she says. “My mother is English and I was brought up watching period dramas with Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren and thinking ‘gosh, if only I could just have a little role’. While I hadn’t heard of Elizabeth Woodville, I couldn’t have asked for a better role. All of a sudden I’m playing the character of someone who was not born and raised in royalty, but was brought in and left to find her own way of surviving. I did struggle to do as much research as I would have liked as I started filming within a week of being cast. I was sent Elizabeth’s history on two pages of A4, but Philippa Gregory was so kind and she did say that I could email about anything. My family and friends also went into overdrive giving me all the information they could about Elizabeth, but I couldn’t take on too much at once.”
While the story is set in England, filming took place in Belgium with Bruges standing in for the royal court, using some of the exact locations the characters had visited some 500 years earlier. When Edward fled from England to Flanders he attended mass at the medieval cathedral in the heart of the city, where he no doubt had much to pray for.
“It was just the most incredible place,” says Ferguson. “I loved all of it. Every morning I would put on these fantastic dresses and a wig which gave me long, luscious hair, and then I would walk onto these stunning sets which was just wonderful. We could film 360 degrees around the city and everything was authentic. I just loved the architecture. When I walk around I like to explore the history of the buildings, as it tells you so much about the character of the city. Even if you’re not in costume and just out, Bruges is a place which makes you feel part of the history.”
As a memento of her first period drama, Ferguson was allowed to keep a locket and linen shawl that she wore in the first episode. However, she also came away with another permanent reminder of the time she spent as Elizabeth Woodville.
“There was once scene where I had to grab Max’s dagger, which was very sharp. The stunt coordinator taught me how to hold the knife, but what we hadn’t discussed were the little studs on his belt. So in the kerfuffle and me trying to grab the knife correctly, there was blood pouring down my leg caused by the studs. I still have the scar – a lasting memory.”
The White Queen begins on BBC1 tomorrow night at 9pm.