When we first meet Catherine de’ Medici in Starz‘s The Serpent Queen, she is seemingly at the height of her legendary power. Samantha Morton plays her as mastermind tyrant, impressing upon the young serving maid Rahima (Sennia Nanua) the importance of fighting back and outwitting your enemies. She is the titular “Serpent Queen,” a woman whose cunning ways and connection to magic has ensured that she thrives while her rivals flounder. But for the last three weeks, the version of Catherine we’ve been following in her narrated flashbacks has been played by Liv Hill. This week, Catherine will jump ahead in her own story — House of the Dragon style — and Morton will take over the performance.
The Serpent Queen is a story working on two levels. First, it’s an intriguing court drama set in the aftermath of Catherine’s younger son’s death. Young Mary, Queen of Scots (Antonia Clarke) is attempting to recoup her position of power in the French court after her husband’s death. Standing in her way is mother-in-law Queen Catherine.
The second storyline is Catherine’s own biography in her own words, as it is being presented to a credulous Rahima. This is where we learn to feel sympathy for the queen as we watch her survive betrayal after betrayal, heartache after heartache, and threat after threat. In this storyline, Catherine is madly in love with her husband, Henry (Alex Heath as a teen, Lee Ingleby as an adult). The problem is he is bewitched by his long-time mistress Diane de Poitier (Ludivine Sagnier).
As Catherine, Morton is almost playing two characters, the imposing tyrant and underdog heroine. When Decider caught up with Morton, she was adamant about Catherine and Henry’s love and the much-older Diane’s predatory nature. Morton also mused about what it was like watching another actress tackle Mary, Queen of Scots — as Morton played the royal opposite Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age — why she wanted to remain coy about Catherine’s ever-evolving relationship with Rahima.
DECIDER: Was there anything in your research that was kind of an “aha moment” to help you understand why Catherine was the way she was?
SAMANTHA MORTON: I don’t think there was an “aha” moment. I think that just in a very empathetic way, reading about her story, learning about her childhood and her journey was something that was compelling enough for me to want to play her and want to understand my interpretation and bring her to life. I’m sure you know about her life then and not just from the show but she’s – it’s a very incredible story and there is so much there to get my teeth into, that there is so many little things where I’m like, “That’s fascinating” or “That’s brilliant.” Just so many.
When we first meet her, we see her through the eyes of Rahima and their relationship is very complex. I’ve only seen the first six but I know that there is ulterior motives going on. But Catherine keeps saying to Rahima that they’re the same, they’re very similar. What it is about Rahima that she initially kind of gloms onto and feels kinship with?
I think that’s an interesting question. That’s one for Justin [Haythe], the writer, and I think the idea of working in storytelling is a way to be able to tell the story of Catherine’s life. Otherwise it would be very traditional. You start from the beginning and then we hand it over to this other person. So without giving away any spoilers, it’s very important that Catherine takes Rahima under her wing.
Another relationship that I thought was really fascinating was Catherine and Mary, Queen of Scots. We see them kind of as rivals in the present and Mary is kind of a pawn in one scene or so. How did you read that relationship and what was it like working with Antonia Clarke?
Well, Antonia is extraordinary. So I think, you know, that level of talent is always great to work with because every day is extraordinary and exciting and I’d never seen an interpretation of Mary done that way. You know I’ve played Mary myself and it was very interesting. But I also think that you know it isn’t just a game of playing people off against each other. This is a game of survival and we really were looking at the times they were living in: civil war and the wars that were happening and the people that were dying.
But then, interestingly, you have this mother-in-law and this daughter-in-law and their relationship, but also, you know, Mary, Queen of Scots was like a daughter to Catherine because she grew up in her court. So that was also an interesting way to play it.
Obviously the most complex relationship is between Diane and Catherine. They’re rivals but sometimes do we get an idea that there is sort of an affection or a kind of respect there. How did you read that relationship and what was it like working with Ludivine?
Ludivine is incredible. Again just such a talented team of actors to work with. I personally felt that — obviously times are different then — but that Ludivine’s character was a pedophile and so I just had a huge amount of hate for Diane. It wasn’t rivalry, I hated her. And that wasn’t rivalry because she had my man or that we were equal in some way. She was an old lady that kissed my husband when he was a child and gave him the Holy Roman Emperor where him and his brother were raped continually, it’s implied.
So to me I see her as a sex trafficker and I see her as a pedophile. I see her as a very very dark character. If anyone is a villain of the piece, I say it is Diane de Poitiers. Diane might say that it’s for survival. But if you look at the age difference between them, that wasn’t even okay then. That was frowned upon then, by the court and everyone around.
I talked to Liv Hill about why Catherine initially falls for Henry. Can you explain why she never gives up on the hope that he could love her back?
Because he does love her. Because he does! He genuinely loves her back. But he’s in a very strange relationship with an abuser. And that was the 1500s. We now know today that a young child of thirteen-years-old is in a relationship with a man in his forties and the child doesn’t want to leave the man, we know it’s cause they’ve been coerced or they’re in a very abusive, co-dependent relationship. But this is historical drama and we say, “Well she was this sexy ‘whatever.’ She’s giving him everything he wants.” No, she’s an abuser!
So I think that Catherine never gives up because she knows that he is being psychologically manipulated and controlled by somebody who doesn’t want to lose their power.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.