In The White Queen, young woman is plucked from obscurity and suddenly thrust into the biggest spotlight possible. Now the center of attention for an entire nation, she must navigate her way through an entirely new level of existence, hoping the lofty social structure she finds herself in doesn’t swallow her soul.
This describes Elizabeth Woodville, the title character of Starz’s handsome 10-part period drama based on the novel by Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl), but it could also on some level describe the actress who plays her, Rebecca Ferguson.
The 29-year-old actress has mainly worked in smaller projects and soap operas in her native Sweden, yet she’s poised to break into the big time not only with The White Queen, but after having scored roles in such upcoming high-profile projects as Ridley Scott’s series The Vatican and next summer’s surefire blockbuster Hercules: The Thracian Wars, where she co-stars with action icon Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
It was a whirlwind journey from the start for Ferguson, who says, “I was given the part on a Tuesday and we moved on Thursday.” That didn’t give her much time to bone up on the historical period her character lived in, the 15th century Wars of the Roses, in which the Houses of Lancaster and York battled for the right to rule England. The three decades of conflicts eventually led to the rise of the Tudors, and included in their annals such luminaries as Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III.
“I was familiar with the idea of the Wars of the Roses, but not much, to be honest,” says Ferguson, whose mother is English. “I knew about Philippa Gregory, but I had not read the books, so when I was thrown into this … I had two days to gather books and information, as much as I could.”
Once on-set, Gregory — who also serves as an executive producer — proved to be an invaluable resource for Ferguson, making herself available to answer the leading lady’s many questions.
“First of all, she’s brilliant and she knows so much about this,” Ferguson says. “Not only the information that you have in the book, she’s so well read and she’s just this fount of knowledge. It’s interesting having these conversations based on the female perspective as well. And she’s funny! I had a day out with her in Manchester and we were just roaring with laughter the whole time.”
Gregory’s story follows the widowed mother of two Elizabeth, a Lancastrian who quickly captures the heart of the young York king Edward IV (Max Irons). Their fervor for each other is so great that Edward marries Elizabeth in secret, making the commoner his new queen. This is more than just a garden-variety scandal, however, as it ignites the fury of Lord Warwick (James Frain), Edward’s most trusted friend and adviser who fancies himself a kingmaker. He had plans for Edward to marry someone else, and he does not take kindly to the king’s newfound independent streak.
Also looming large is Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta (Janet McTeer), who proves adept at the scheming required to survive the royal life. The Woodville women also believe they are descendants of Melusina, a mythical water goddess whose lineage instills in them the power to have visions of the future.
“We fight even today for things that they fought for then,” Ferguson says. “It’s family, it’s love, it’s passion, it’s religion, it’s beliefs, it’s power, it’s safety. However the stakes are so high at the flip of a coin you’re thrown off the throne and you can be killed. But with the throne comes safety. … The things they would do to save their heirs to the throne are unbelievable. ”
Despite the scope of the story, and of the epic production that surrounded her every day for six months in Bruges, Belgium, Ferguson says she was able to stay connected to her character through the most basic way.
“I relate to her a lot, but I think mostly because I am the mother of a child,” Ferguson says. “That relationship is the strongest bond you can have. The things that she has to do, I hopefully won’t have to do for my son, Isaac. With that said, I would do anything for his safety. That’s what this is all about. It’s the battles that the women fight for their children.”
The White Queen debuted in June overseas, where it has been a ratings powerhouse for the BBC. Everyone involved is hoping this bodes well for the stateside presentation, which will include more steamy scenes than its British counterpart.
Asked if she’s ready for the sudden fame that could come with the series, Ferguson claims to have not given it much thought.
“If it happens, it happens,” she says. “I guess people might recognize me more, and I guess you just do with it as you wish. I don’t know. I never really think about it. … No one will recognize me with [my natural] brown hair. They’ll be looking for the long blonde.”
The White Queen premieres Saturday, Aug. 10, on Starz.
Photo: © 2014 Tonto Films and Television Limited