Becoming ElizabethPremiering Sunday, June 12 at 9/8c on Starz, it tackles relatively uncharted territory.
Set during Elizabeth I’s adolescence, the series explores her tumultuous journey in the wake of Henry VIII’s death. Elizabeth’s nine-year-old brother Edward (The Romanoffs‘ Oliver Zetterström) takes the throne, triggering a dangerous power struggle with Henry’s surviving children – Elizabeth (Genius‘Alicia von Rittberg), Maria (suffragettes Romola Garai) and Edward – caught in the middle.
Series creator and writer Anya Reiss was initially hesitant to tackle Elizabeth’s story because she didn’t want to do a “period show with all the old white folks talking about things that don’t matter; it has been done a thousand times.” But after talking about the story with executive producer George Ormond (National treasure), she immediately changed her tune.
“He told me the story and it was like listening to a soap opera,” Reiss tells TVLine. “It was so amazing, this piece of history that I had no idea, and it was never really done.”
In the story, Elizabeth does not know her place in the world at this point in her life and this creates a cloud of uncertainty around her future. “Her childhood was very uncertain,” explains Ormond. “Her mother was executed when she was two. Sometimes she was the daughter of Henry VIII, sometimes she said she was illegitimate.” And with Henry’s death: “She doesn’t even know where she’s going to live, so she spit it out into this world.”
As Alicia von Rittberg, who plays Elizabeth, puts it: “She doesn’t know who to trust. She is completely alone.
“If she makes a wrong decision, she loses her mind,” creating “a dangerous, dark world,” says the actress. “I think that made her the brilliant leader and politician that she was, because she learned to observe [and] absorb it all before she came to a conclusion. It’s a survivor’s habit.”
Keeping in line with the story, Thomas Seymour – Edward’s maternal uncle and lover of Henry VIII’s widow Catherine Parr – is fond of Elizabeth. Given the huge age gap (she’s 14 and he’s in his 30s on the show), Reiss worked to make sure the audience understood that this relationship was inappropriate.
“I’m so firm, ‘It’s abusive,’” notes Reiss. “It’s a terrible thing what happened to her. But we also want to tell you through your eyes, and we don’t want to see her as a fool or a part of that decision.”
“I think a lot of women [can look at] an early relationship and say, ‘Oh, that wasn’t good, was it? I thought about that he was at the time…” says Reiss. “But probably because I was exercising my own demons a little bit, it was like, ‘No, we need to show he’s a terrible person.’ George [Ormond] it was very good at stopping me from that and trying to let things happen as they happen. I hope there is room for interpretation within what it is.”
Tom Cullen admits he was scared to take on the role of Seymour given the nature of that relationship, but realized the story wasn’t being told through the courtier’s eyes.
“This is a story about a young woman who is trying to find her place in the world. [while] being pulled and pushed by powerful men, and I am one of those men,” Cullen explains. “I had to try to make the audience love me the way Elizabeth loves Tom – that he’s so effervescent, so alive, so fun to be around that you can’t help but be drawn to him. In a way, the audience is seduced by him alongside Elizabeth.”
Ormond hopes audiences will see the complexity of this dynamic and experience it through Elizabeth’s eyes.
“You definitely feel like [Thomas] is a charming man who shows real interest in Elizabeth and listens to her,” says the EP. “He has real conversations where he’s not just trying to maneuver for a political position, and she falls in love with him. But he’s inappropriate because he’s encouraging it and drawing her closer to him. It felt like a really interesting thing to explore, the fact that Elizabeth was blamed for this relationship.”
That said, Ormond never wanted it to look like the audience was “15 steps ahead of her and [thinking] she’s being really stupid, ‘Why can’t she see what we can see?’ It was an interesting balance between understanding how she feels about him and also caring about her and letting the story unfold.”