Catherine of Aragon’s story is finally being explored in ‘The Spanish Princess.’ The show’s EPs break down what’s ahead, historical whitewashing, and their hopes for another 8 episodes.
The Spanish Princess is Starz’s latest period drama focusing on the rise of Catherine of Aragon. Charlotte Hope stars as the young princess whose life is changed forever when she leaves her home country of Spain and goes to Tudor England. In the first episodes of the series, Catherine has shown that she is a force to be reckoned with. Tudor history primarily revolves around King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, but The Spanish Princess is all about Catherine. She’s not the rejected wife that history has painted her to be. She’s so much more. The Spanish Princess also brings to light that people of color were very much a part of Tudor England.
HollywoodLife spoke EXCLUSIVELY with showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham about exploring Catherine’s story and the people of color during that time period. They also revealed that they have written another 8 episodes and hope to tell the rest of Catherine’s story in another season. Plus, they tease what they have coming up in the world of television and film. Check out our Q&A below.
At the center of this series is obviously Catherine of Aragon and then there’s also Lina. I did not know she even existed before this. I’ve read a lot about the Tudors, but I’d never heard of her. I wanted to ask you both: what was it about Charlotte and Stephanie that made them perfect for these roles?
Emma Frost: The casting process is very much done between Matthew and me jointly, but we wanted somebody who had vulnerability and strength for Catherine. And that’s harder than you would imagine to find in an actor. Charlotte was the very first person our casting director, Gary Davy, put in front of us on tape. She also has an uncanny physical similarity to Catherine of Aragon, because what many people don’t realize is Catherine of Aragon had red hair, blue eyes, and very white skin. So Charlotte is a dead ringer for her. We saw her right at the beginning and we completely fell in love with her, but thought, “Well, we can’t just cast the very first person we see.” So we looked at actresses from Spain, Italy, France, New Zealand, Australia, America, England, everywhere.
Because what’s more important is that the actor is able to embody the character rather than any consideration about where they come from or language or whatever. But Charlotte just knocked out the park. She was just so wonderful. And in terms of Stephanie [Levi-John], to answer your first question, she absolutely exists as a footnote in history, the character of Lina. There’s some argument over what her surname is because it’s possible that those tiny footnotes have conflated more than one character. What we know for sure is that Catherine of Aragon came over with probably two women of color in her entourage and one of those women was called Catalina. She stayed as part of Catherine’s household for 24 years, even when Catherine couldn’t pay her, because Catherine fell into debt, which is just a bit of the show we’re getting to now. So that implies a friendship.
The only other thing we know about Lina is that she had a romance with an African crossbow maker who was probably called Oviedo. Literally, that is all that anybody knows about them. A lot of very brilliant black British historians have been researching and writing books about people of color in early Britain and they are the people who have thrown up these wonderful details. And for Matthew and I, it was just a bloody joy to find that there is a story we can tell authentically and start to redress the whitewashing of history and tell a story of people of color in early Tudor England that was real.
Matthew Graham: The truth is, there was actually quite a lot of people of color in England for a thousand years. For 500 years even before the Tudors, they came with the Romans. And we’re not talking thousands and thousands, but we are talking hundreds. We’re certainly talking, in the cities, it would not be unusual to see people of color walking in the streets or in the taverns.
History has been so completely whitewashed and I think when we see that on screen, people sort of almost take that as actual history. It’s rare to see people of color in those periods.
Emma Frost: It’s fascinating how quickly the information is coming out. Even since we started scripting The Spanish Princess, a whole load more books and articles have been written, so even what we thought we knew about Catalina and Oviedo has been superseded by a more recent publication. It’s rough. It’s tremendously exciting to feel this stuff finally coming to light and for people of color to be put in their right place in the world again and the right place in history. What’s fascinating and incredibly frustrating is that, of course, some people are so entrenched in this white worldview. You see things on social media of people saying, “Oh, this is ridiculous. They’re just doing diversity. And they’re just putting black people where they didn’t exist.” That’s just complete nonsense. But people are so entrenched in this very prejudiced white view that it is inconceivable for them to imagine that people of color were there and also were free people. And they were, there was no slavery until about 150 years later. So these people lived and loved and worked in London and lived interesting, incredible lives.
I feel like Catherine herself has been a footnote in sort of Henry VIII’s story because she’s always been known as sort of the obstacle Anne Boleyn and Henry had to go through to be together. It wasn’t like what you guys have explored with her. What’s it been like for you both to really fully flesh out her story and fully flesh out who she was as a person?
Emma Frost: I think, for us, just the fact as you say, that part of the story had never been told was tremendously exciting because she didn’t land on the Earth as a matronly, rejected wife. She had an incredible story before then, but I think for Matthew and I, the core of our show is about what happened on her wedding night with Arthur. And what we know from the history books is that the next morning Arthur came out and said that he’d had sex with her. He said, “Last night I was in Spain.” Everybody laughed and everybody assumed that the marriage had been consummated. But five months later when he died, Catherine claimed it wasn’t consummated. So here’s the thing: one of them lied. And I think our what-if premise is what if it was Catherine? So for us, that’s the entire story and show. We have another 8 episodes we’ve written that we’re waiting to find out if they will be greenlit as well, and that will complete the story.
It is a show about lies. It’s a story about a lie that this woman tells. For us, that was undeniable for a dramatic story because even within that lie, there is a read of it that is noble and a read of it that is very selfish. So if Catherine is the one who lied about her virginity, did she do it out of naked ambition and determination to be the queen? Or did she do it partly to protect and support her own household? And even in those ambitions to be the queen because she was so convinced God had told her that was her destiny. So was it in her mind, her way of doing what God wanted her to do rather than doing it for herself? And I think for Matthew and I, that fundamental kernel of a premise is just tantalizing.
Matthew Graham: She was the daughter of Isabella of Castile and Isabella was recognized as one of the greatest monarchs of all time, certainly one of the most powerful women in European history. We just couldn’t stand the thought that people only thought of Catherine as being the tired old dame and not granting a divorce when she was actually this woman who’s the daughter of a warrior. If we get to tell the rest of the story, there are some amazing things. One of them is that Catherine herself actually joined the army that faced the Scots, heavily pregnant in armor that was made for her to carry her own baby into battle. She’s a tough cookie. So we really, really love that idea of the mixture of feminine vulnerability and feminine power.
So with The Spanish Princess, you have 8 episodes of this season, so you would want another 8 to complete her story?
Matthew Graham: Yes. We’ve created an arc that covers 16 hours of television. If we get to do the second block, it’s a new story in and of itself in that it takes place a little bit later on, but it’s very much the continuing journey of Catherine and Harry. If we get to the end of that, then we really have brought the story to the point where I think without giving anything away, we’ll have brought the story to the point where the likes of Hilary Mantel try to take over and we head off towards the period of Henry VIII’s reign that we all know a lot more about. It’s a bittersweet journey, but it’s also a very empowering one, I think.
So with these first 8 episodes, how far are we getting into her journey?
Emma Frost: I’m trying to think carefully how to answer that without spoiling it. We bring it to the breakpoint when she’s with Henry. We reached the point where Henry VIII has acceded to the throne and he takes Catherine as his wife, but there’s a little twist waiting for you in episode 8.
Ruairi O’Conor and Charlotte have an incredible chemistry and we talked about this a little bit before, we’ve always viewed Catherine as sort of the woman in the way of Henry’s destiny at the time to be with Anne Boleyn. But what’s it been like for you both to explore the early stages of their relationship?
Emma Frost: One thing that we said to Ruairi very early on when we were chatting to him before filming is, “Don’t play Henry VIII. You’re not Henry VIII, at least you’re not Henry VIII yet. But you’re physically not Henry VIII because you haven’t been crowned, but also you’re not that man yet. You’re this young man in love. So just think of him as young Prince Harry and play that.” So he did do that. What was great was that when Ruairi and Charlotte did some screen testing for us so we could just test lighting and costumes and things, those two immediately hit it off. They’re really good friends.
Matthew Graham: We tested for chemistry to see how they would gel and Ruairi and Charlotte hands-down had the most electric chemistry.
Emma Frost: I was there in the room when they first read-tested together and just kind of went, “That’s a slam dunk. That’s our Harry and Catherine.”
With this being the halfway point, we’re going into episode 5 of The Spanish Princess. What can you tease for the fans about what they can expect in these next episodes?
Emma Frost: There’s a very interesting situation with Catherine’s sister coming up, who is known to history as Joanna the Mad. So there’s an episode where we deal with Catherine’s family dynamic and some quite big stuff.
Matthew Graham: Hopefully those people who have heard of Joanna the Mad will hopefully see her in a slightly different light. Again, because it’s a very much show about female empowerment and very much through the female lens, I feel we have maybe readdressed something for her, the character of Joanna. There is some real tragedy coming, a very personal, sad story and also some amazing stuff for young Rosa who is the other lady in waiting along with Lina.
Emma Frost: Oh, and Catherine and Harry hot up.
Matthew Graham: Catherine and Harry hot up. There’s also some big things coming with the Lina and Oviedo love story as well. Some very powerful moments coming up between them as well.
What do you have planned next?
Emma Frost: We are very busy. In the television world, Matthew and I now always show run together. I’m not sure if you know, but we are in a relationship, so we were showrunning separately prior to that. But given that we’re together, we do all our showrunning together now or we’d be in different countries. So we have a very exciting TV project, which we can’t discuss with you because it’s not announced yet, but it’s a contemporary true crime story. It’s a big show. It’s very exciting. So we’re hoping to move ahead with that very soon. We have the other 8 episodes of The Spanish Princess, which we hope very much we’ll be moving forward with. I think after that, certainly for a while, we’re both so done with history. I certainly am because if we make those I’ll have done 34 hours of this universe and I think that’s plenty.
Matthew Graham: We’re writing a movie together. We’ve just been commissioned to write a thriller. It’s about a relationship where they want to kill each other. It’s a thriller mystery around the marriage and relationship and about men and women and we’re very excited to be doing that.
So you’re waiting on the other 8 episode and you said you’re likely done with history, so you think you would stop with after The Spanish Princess or is there a possibility to focus on another historical figure?
Emma Frost: I never say never, but the honest truth is if we make the other 8 episodes I’ll have done 4 seasons of this. And the truth of the matter is just you want a fresh world to be in some times. I am just very hungry to be back in a contemporary space. I used to write Shameless with all the swearing and comedy and something that is more immediate. It has different challenges and I’m excited just to flex different muscles. I’ve got a movie with Focus Features called Switched On, which is a contemporary movie, which hopefully we’re going out to actors with very shortly. I’ve got another movie I’m doing with Lynette Howell Taylor, which just got announced a couple of weeks ago called Stepsister, which is a fantastic subverted fairytale about Cinderella’s ugly step-sister, which honestly is a lot of fun. So we’re the busiest Brits in Hollywood.
Matthew Graham: Having said we show run together, I snuck off… she thought I was going to the bathroom, but instead I went off and started developing a TV show, which is quite exciting as well and is in the very, very early stages. But it’s based on one of the biggest authors in the world. Again, there’ll be an announcement about that further down the line.