‘Mary & George’ Star Tony Curran on King James I’s Romance With George: ‘He Fell For Him Deeply’ (Exclusive)

Tony Curran dazzles as the alluring King James I in the new series 'Mary & George.' The Scottish actor opens up about his intriguing role as the monarch at the center of the series.

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Image Credit: STARZ

King James I is the grand prize in the ultimate game of scheming and power. Mary & George premieres April 5 on STARZ. The magnetic Tony Curran effortlessly steps into the role of King James I, who is seduced by the charismatic George Villiers, played by Red, White & Royal Blue’s Nicholas Galitzine. With his mother’s influence, George becomes King James I’s lover and one of his most trusted advisors.

Hollywood Life spoke exclusively with Tony about diving into the role of King James I and how the royal’s traumatic past influenced him as an adult. He opened up about how King James looked for a “distraction” and falling in love with men like George provided that outlet for him. But did the monarch’s yearning for “sensual pleasures” cost him his life? Read our full Q&A below.

Tony Curran
Tony Curran as King James I in ‘Mary & George.’ (STARZ)

King James I is very well known in the long list of royal figures. What kind of research did you do on him? 
Tony Curran: I read a lot, and I went on YouTube. But the most informative part of the research was a gentleman called Benjamin Woolley. Benjamin is the author of the novel The King’s Assassin, which the show is based on. Benjamin is like an Encyclopedia Britannica of historical monarchy information. Benjamin wrote the book, and it’s pretty much all factual. Our story is based on the book, so I basically talked to him in January last year. I sat down with a pen, paper, and we had a Zoom call. For about two hours, I just dived into his cerebral passages and asked him questions about King James, about the Villiers, and about that incredible period of history.

Did this research and talking with Benjamin influence your portrayal of King James or change your opinion of him?
Tony Curran: No. I mean, it’s interesting. You hear about Henry VIII and the first Queen Elizabeth, who was on the throne for 40 years, whom King James succeeded. I don’t know if I’ve seen that much on TV or written about King James. But talking to him about it was really compelling. He would look at photographs, and he would go, “Look at him sitting on that seat with his crown and scepter.” He was asking me, “What do you think about it?” And I said, “Well, he looks like he’d rather be somewhere else.” There’s the old adage, heavy sleeps the head that wears the crown. There’s a term that he gave me that I stole and it’s “King James was nourished in fear.” He was kidnapped when he was 13 for a year. His father, Lord Darnley, was assassinated. He was blown up. His mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, was exiled from Scotland and executed by Queen Elizabeth. You might see he had a bit of trauma as a child. I think that definitely informed his approach to life and the very marrow of the person he became. He did so many amazing things, little-known things. The King James Bible, of course, which you might find in hotels around the world. He translated that. Jamestown, of course, was the first British colony in the Americas.

He wasn’t fond of a witch. He wrote this book on it called Daemonologie. There’s a story that King James went over to Denmark to get his wife, the Queen of Denmark. Twice she tried to come over and twice there were terrible storms. She couldn’t make it so he had to go and fetch her, if you will. He blamed it on these three women. Alas, I think they may have been hung or burnt at the stake, but there are three witches at the beginning of Macbeth and apparently William Shakespeare based it on King James’ execution of these three women. There was 20 years of peace with France and Spain. Unlike Queen Elizabeth before him, he wasn’t a warmongering king. He would rather go and see a playwright, write, go hunting. I’m interested to see what people think. And, of course, there is his sexuality as well. That’s another aspect of him. There’s a lot of depth to this man, and it’s a very compelling time of history as well.

Kings and queens have always had favorites. King James was an intelligent man. Do you think he was aware of the ulterior motives people had in getting close to him?
Tony Curran: That’s a very good question. Yeah, most definitely, because he was very guarded. Paranoia will destroy you, but I think his paranoia was a sort of defense mechanism. Everybody always wants to take the power from him, but at the same time, he trusted people. There was Esme, Lord Lennox, who was one of his first great loves when he was a young man. Lord Lennox was older. Robert Carr and, obviously, George Villiers. He became the Duke of Buckingham, but I think he found solace in these relationships. There are some moments in the show where he wants to disappear sometimes. Someone once said that if you can’t find meaning in life, you’ll find distraction. I think he distracted himself with falling in love with sensual pleasures. I think people do that today, don’t they? I think his drug of choice was the passions that he had for for these relationships with these men. He did have 7 children. I mean, Queen Anne was actually pregnant 10 times. Three of them survived. His son, King Charles, became king after him. I think he felt the pressure of coming from Scotland and becoming a king of England. I think he used to walk about his palace with his doubler stuffed with padding because he was scared and apprehensive that people might stab him. I think he’s quite a compelling figure that we haven’t seen, so I hope people connect with him in some way.

To bounce off that, in these passionate relationships, there’s still a power dynamic. But when you strip everything away — metaphorically and physically — it’s a very primal thing. There’s an intimacy in the bedroom that he maybe doesn’t have outside of it. 
Tony Curran: That’s a good way to put it. He closed parliament for 6 years. Politically, he would only open parliament when he needed to raise taxes because he was broke. He was fond of the finer things in life. He liked jewelry. His dog was actually called Jewel. He did love a fine piece of cloth, and I think he spent a lot of his money on that.

You have to work closely with Nicholas Galitzine. What was that like establishing that very intimate relationship between James and George?
Tony Curran: That was interesting. Before I actually met Nick, I was in London, and he was doing reshoots. We actually started texting each other. I think I sent him the book just as a little “hi, how you doing?” He was like, “You expect me to read this? I’ve got two jobs right now.” Anyway, I’m sure he got to it at some point, but I think we started having a bit of levity together joking on text. He’s a total pro, and we got on very well. I guess we’re friends now. I don’t know what he’ll say about me, but I like him. I think sometimes, not just in acting but in life in general, if you’re in a workplace and you’re both focused and good at your job whatever you do, it does help if you have some sort of chemistry. I guess Oliver Hermanus, who cast us, maybe he felt we could get on. We definitely had a bit of chemistry and humor, which I think is a big part of it. I think the performance Nick gives in this is really beautiful and very powerful. I had a great time with him. He’s lovely.

Being the king, James could have his choice of lovers. What do you think James sees in George that intrigues him?
Tony Curran: I think he wasn’t bad-looking. He is quite dishy. I think we actually shot a scene in The Charterhouse in London, and it’s apparently where James and George saw each other for the first time, so that was kind of weird and gave me a few goosebumps. I think his mother shaped him with his music, his languages, and he was a very talented horseman. But I think he was very handsome, and James was attracted to that. I think he definitely fell for him deeply. There are letters that I’ve read where James would open his heart out to him, talking to him through his quill, if you will. I think there was a real closeness and trust. After a while, George Villiers did very much become one of the most powerful men in England. James was sort of just like, you take the power. You make the decisions. He entrusted him. Sometimes it didn’t go too well when he sort of gave George carte blanche to make political decisions. I think you’ll see in the show that he maybe regretted giving him as much power as he did. But I think when it came to loving him, I think he felt that very deeply.

Tony Curran
Tony Curran at the 2023 BAFTA Scotland Awards. (Euan Cherry/BAFTA/Getty Images for BAFTA)

There has been some discourse about James’ death and whether or not he could have been poisoned by George. Is that something the show will explore?
Tony Curran: Probably. That’s a terrible answer. Probably. I mean, if you’re basing a show on a novel called The King’s Assassin… I mean, he had dysentery, gout, he drank a lot, and had all these terrible ailments at the time that maybe nowadays we’d have a better idea of taking care of with medicine. But at the time, he obviously didn’t. It’s definitely up for conjecture whether or not he was assassinated. But whether or not that happens on our show, you might have to watch it.

You mentioned how much James loved George. But could it have been his downfall? The idea that power corrupts is a really interesting aspect of their relationship to explore. 
Tony Curran: I love what you said there. I love that term: power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. It can eat you up. His [George’s] relationship with his mother and getting away from the apron strings and becoming his own man, I think you’ll find that relationship and that triangle of power… once he gets to the king, how does that relationship affect the relationship with his mother?