"The representation of Black people in period dramas isn't really a thing," actress Stephanie Levi-John says, succinctly summarizing the state of diversity in the genre.
Yes, there are recent exceptions to that rule. The recent Dev Patel-fronted Personal History of David Copperfield comes to mind, as does the 2019 Les Misérables miniseries starring David Oyelowo as Javert. And certain sub-genres, like those about people of color fighting for justice or enslaved people in the antebellum American South, center diverse casts. But for British period dramas set in a certain era, lily-white is the default, so much so that Levi-John wasn't aware there were Black people in Tudor England before taking on the role Lina in Starz's The Spanish Princess. Like most of the show's characters, Catalina de Cardonnes (a.k.a. Lina) is based on a very real person, and learning about her dramatically shifted Levi-John's perspective.
"It's wonderful to make it a thing and to make people question history and their presence within it. Prior to getting the show, I didn't even realize there was a presence of Black people and people of color in England at that time. Now, I don't know if it was just portrayals that I'd seen or if I just thought, okay, well we just weren't around. It really inspired me to learn more about my history. I am a Black British woman of Afro-Caribbean descent," the actress says.
And her research for the role made her look at that era in a different way. "There are articles of people of color coming here from all over the world, coming here to study. They were scholars, people who came here to learn and to trade. And so it's crazy to think that our presence wasn't here. It was probably a small amount of people, but the presence was still here."
While Lina's race does impact her story, the role isn't defined by it; she's a fully formed character with her own complicated motivations. "I take great pride in playing Lina because she's not subservient. She definitely has her place within this court. She is one of the bricks that build the foundation of Catherine's journey of being in England, coming from Spain and being in England. And she's one of the things that reminds Catherine of being at home," Levi-John says. "It's truly a gift to be able to play a woman who is powerful and has her place within this story."
Below, Levi-John shares a bit more about Lina's role this season, reflects on the feminist nature of the series, and reveals what it was like to film that birth scene.
It’s surprising that this story takes place so long ago, but there are so many parallels to today. How do you think it will be received in this current moment?
I think we often watch period dramas to escape and to go back in time and think about things that happened back then. But the thing that's the most interesting is that a lot of the things that happened back then are still happening today. A lot of the key themes that we deal with in the show are a constant factor of life now. It feels like history is constantly repeating itself.
And I think that's what makes the things that happened to the people in the show feel very human, because these emotions and these feelings and these situations continuously happen. I'd like to think that the viewers will really relate to a lot, especially this time around with theme of motherhood. And friendship has been a continuing theme throughout, as has what it means to have a healthy relationship. The relationships between Lina and Oviedo and Catherine and Henry: they're comparing and contrasting with one another, and it just boils it all down to: how does one find peace? I think with Lina, especially this time around, she goes on that quest to find what peace means for her.
You all wrapped filming right as the coronavirus was hitting Europe. What was that like? What has this period been like for you?
It's been weird. I'm not going to lie. What even is 2020? What has happened? The buildup to lockdown happened during the last part of filming the show, and there was a lot of speculation, and having your temperature tested. Just looking back with hindsight, I'm so happy that we managed to get this show done when we did because it gives us a lot to look forward to. Especially during this year where it feels like plans have gone out the window, it's been nice to have something to look forward to.
There’s a repeated quote this season about war and childbirth. Why do you think it's important to keep telling stories about pregnancy and childbirth and infertility on TV?
I think it's important to continue to talk about it because the more we talk about it the less it's a taboo, the less it's this unspoken thing. Because we're dealing with things like motherhood and childbirth [on The Spanish Princess this season], it really opened up the channels for me to have these open and frank and candid discussions with people in my everyday life because I don't have children myself. I don't know what that whole transformation in life is about. It was really, really interesting to speak to women and people who have been trying to have children and haven't been able to have children; who have had miscarriages; people who went through the whole pregnancy, but it was terrible; people who had a great pregnancy—and to hear how it affected their relationships with people and relationships with their bodies.
The more that we talk about it, the more that we, as women, will start to embrace this incredible body and the mind and the spirit that comes along with it. A lot of things that happen to women affect everyone, and I think that's something that we show in the show, and I think it’s really important.
What was it like filming Lina's birth scene?
Filming that scene was, it was a lot because... I just have to give it to women. I mean, wow. I was knackered, and I was filming that for maybe a couple of hours. There are women who would go through labor for 72 plus hours. Where do you find that strength to do that? I just really hope that I've done it justice, and that women watch it and can relate to the pain and the battle that is childbirth.
Would you describe The Spanish Princess as a feminist show?
Yeah. I think it definitely has a lot of feminist themes. I think what it does is it really gives a voice to the voiceless. When we think about history, a lot of history is told through the eyes of men. And so what The Spanish Princess does is it flips that on its head. There were other people involved in this too, who were also going through their own struggles, who were also trying to live life. And what The Spanish Princess does is that it really brings all of those themes to the forefront.
It's really sad to me how Catherine of Aragon is seen. She's just the first wife who couldn't give him a son. That was a living, breathing, human being who had dreams and aspirations and tried to fight for what was right, and that's been deduced down to the fact that she couldn't give him a son. So what the show does is it finally gives her a voice, and it finally gives the women in court a voice, and their voices are powerful. I think it's really apt that we can have those voices speak now, in a time where the freedom of speech is something that is embraced and encouraged. But I would class it as a feminist show in many ways, and something I'm very, very proud to be a part of.
What do you have in common with Lina?
I take my relationships very seriously, and I class myself as a good friend and a loyal friend. I like to think that Lina and I have that in common. One thing that I've learnt from Lina is: she wants a life of peace. She just wants to live a simple life, and I too want that. I feel very grateful that I get to do what I love, but ultimately it's the simple things in life that are very important to me: friendships, a nice pair of pajamas, being with people, eating a nice meal. It's the simple things in life.
I think Lina, especially in part two, you really see that all she wants is peace. And all I want is peace. I want the people around me to be happy and peaceful. I want to live a simple life where I get to do what I love, come home and be with the people who have supported me from day one, and have a nice pizza and take a nice bath.
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