Interview with Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Elizabeth Woodville in new BBC One drama, The White Queen.
Tell us how you were cast as The White Queen
It was an absolute emotional rollercoaster. It was my first casting in London, and I was sent straight into a chemistry test with Max Irons. I walked in with all my nerves but we just clicked and it was amazing chemistry between us straight away – which helped to get rid of half the fear.
More auditions followed and I thought I must forget about the role. I thought I should pull my act together and went for a seven-hour hike (I live in Sweden), leaving my phone behind for the first time since the last audition (as I had even been sleeping with it!). When I came back from my walk I had around 15 missed calls and texts from my agent – saying “where are you – we need to fly you to London tomorrow”. So I jumped on a plane.
I was flown back for the fourth and final audition on August Bank Holiday Monday – it was between me and one other girl… and we were both staying in different hotels waiting to hear. I did not sleep. My agent called at 0715hrs the next morning. I said “don’t say anything, just give me the news” and he said “it’s yours”.
Twenty minutes later my producer Gina Cronk was in the lobby. I remember running down in my pyjamas and asked for a couple minutes. I went back upstairs and thought, “I just need to put my high heels on and then I will feel a bit more in control and powerful” – and the job started from there. I went in to have costume fittings and to have my hair coloured blonde. Gina then tells me we are going to “a little read through”. So we arrive and Gina then turns to me and says “I told you it was a small read through, but it is actually with everyone – so whatever you do, don’t fall down!” – all the cast, producers, production team and BBC were waiting for me to start reading the script together! That night I flew home to Sweden and two days later I moved to London to practice horse riding and then we started filming in Belgium on the Monday. So a crazy week!
What character do you play?
I play Elizabeth Woodville of the House of Lancaster. Elizabeth was recently widowed with two young sons by her Lancastrian husband, who was killed by the Yorkists. She is now in a position where she has to humbly beg the Yorkist King Edward IV for the return of her confiscated land. The first word that comes to mind to describe Elizabeth is ‘strength’. She is a passionate woman who was supposedly the most beautiful woman (Queen) of England. The White Queen is telling a love story that turns into a political thriller and what we see in Elizabeth at the beginning is the naivety of a young woman which does change through the series as she falls in love with a boy, who happens to be the King of England. We then follow her and the choices she has to make to remain loyal to her children, family and husband.
As you are from Sweden did you know the English history?
I had always wanted to do a period drama. My mother is English and I was brought up watching English period dramas with Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren and thinking “gosh, if only I could just have a little role”. I hadn’t heard of Elizabeth, and all of a sudden I’m playing the character of someone who was not born and raised in royalty, but was brought in and left to find her own way of surviving. It was a very interesting character to play.
I didn’t know the details of the War of the Roses, just that it was white versus red. It isn’t really our history; I guess we’re quite centralized in our own history.
Did you have time to do any research?
I did struggle to do as much research as I would have liked as I started filming within the week of being cast. Amazingly, production sent me Elizabeth Woodville’s history on two pages of A4. Also Philippa Gregory and Emma Frost were so kind and said that I could email them about anything. My family and friends also went into overdrive giving me all the information they could about Elizabeth but I couldn’t take on too much at once.
Did you enjoy filming in Belgium?
Bruges was just the most incredible place. We could film 360° around the city and everything was authentic. I just loved the architecture. When I walk around I like to explore the history of the buildings, as it tells you so much about the character of the city. Even if you’re not in costume and just out, the cobbled streets make you feel part of the history, part-owning the environment.
Did you have a favourite location?
I loved Grafton Manor (Kasteel van Oostkerke, Spegelsweg), Elizabeth’s home, which was the most amazing castle with moats around it and swans swimming. The whole manor looked so English from the bricks to the greenery surrounding it.
Is there a scene which made you think you had ‘found Elizabeth’?
I wouldn’t say there was just one scene, since she does change a lot throughout the series, but there is a scene where she distinctly shifts. In episode one, Elizabeth enters Westminster and has to be introduced to King Edward’s mother Cecily, played by the wonderful Caroline Goodall, who just steals the scene! I enter with my family and she is sitting on the throne with her people around her, and the visual depiction of the hierarchy is just spot on. The change in Elizabeth then happens later on in the series, when she is on the throne, with her people around her, and this time she has to put someone in their place. I just remember thinking how should I be feeling – how did Cecily feel before, and there it was, a switch for Elizabeth to find enormous strength.
What did you like best about period costumes, hair and make-up?
I loved all of it. Every morning putting on these fantastic dresses and long, luscious hair, and then walking onto these stunning sets was just wonderful. As a memento I was given my locket and a lovely linen shawl that I wore for a scene with King Edward in the conservatory from episode one.
Through the series you age from 27 to 42. What was that like?
I was so happy to find out I was going to age – what a challenge. I didn’t really think about it again though, until it happened, at which point I thought “how do I now do this, how do you age both body and thought?” It was fun researching around it and my first thought was “I want to turn into my mother” I wanted to be Elizabeth but with Jacquetta and the power Janet McTeer put into her character.
Also Karen Bryan Dawson (Make-up Designer & Hair) did the most wonderful job and without her I wouldn’t have been able to see myself aging and be able to act how I did.
You got on incredibly well with Janet McTeer, didn’t you?
We absolutely did. It was a lovely working relationship, we played mother and daughter and I would find myself calling her “mama” off set. She had a break in filming, and when she came back we had pyjama parties!
Do you have a story about filming The White Queen?
In episode one I had a scene with King Edward (Max Irons). I had to grab his dagger from his belt, which was very sharp. So the stunt coordinator taught me how to hold the knife, but what we hadn’t discussed were the little studs on Max’s belt! So in the kerfuffle and me trying to grab the knife correctly, there is blood pouring down my leg caused by the studs – I thought wasn’t it his knife I was supposed to be worrying about! And to this day I still have the scar – a lasting memory.
Sundays, BBC One at 9pm.