Alicia von Rittberg’s Elizabethan Education

To embody the Virgin Queen on Starz’s new series Becoming Elizabeth, the actress traveled far outside her comfort zone.

by Max Gao

A portrait of Alicia von Rittberg
Photograph by Nick Thompson. Photo treatment by Ashley Peña.

When Alicia von Rittberg first received the audition for Becoming Elizabeth, a new Starz drama that chronicles the early life of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the German-born actress didn’t believe she was in the running for the titular role. In fact, she thought producers had made a mistake when they asked her to send in a self tape. “I knew it wasn’t a joke, but I was like, ‘Okay, this is never gonna happen. I’m just gonna do it for the fun of it,’” von Rittberg tells W over Zoom.

Even after completing her first live audition, in which she struggled with her command of the English accent and found herself sweating profusely, von Rittberg had effectively taken herself out of the running, believing she didn’t have what it took to embody the young woman who would become known as the Virgin Queen and final ruler of the Tudor dynasty.

“Then I got the call for the test screening, and that’s the first time I actually met everyone and realized how little they questioned the fact that I am German,” says von Rittberg, who is also a countess in her native Germany by birth. “They were just like, ‘Well, we think you can do it. You’re going to have some dialect coaching, and we’re not worried at all.’ That really helped me to believe in myself, and I think that’s when I realized it could happen. When I got the part, it was still absolutely surreal.”

Created by Anya Reiss, Becoming Elizabeth (which premiered on June 12, with a new episode airing every Sunday) picks up in the wake of King Henry VIII’s untimely death in 1547, setting into motion a dangerous scramble for power when his three orphaned children—Elizabeth, Mary (Romola Garai) and Edward (Oliver Zetterström)—find themselves being used as pawns in a game between the power-hungry nobles vying for control of the country.

The leading role marks a first in an English-language production for von Rittberg, who has built up a steady number of credits across film and television in Germany but is, perhaps, best known internationally for her role in the Brad Pitt-starring war film Fury. Born and raised in Munich, von Rittberg loved to sing and dance—so much so that she thought she wanted to be a pop star one day. When she was 11, she took a two-week acting course during her summer holiday and fell in love with the craft (even if she didn’t get the first part she auditioned for as a child).

While she admits she might have focused more on acting than her studies as a teenager, von Rittberg, a self-described “analytical” person who always enjoyed math classes, wondered whether she was missing out on an opportunity to broaden her horizons—so she decided to major in corporate management and economics at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany. After making a short appearance in Fury, she found an agent and expressed a desire to gradually cross over into international productions, leading the first season of the German television series Charité (streaming on Netflix) and appearing in the National Geographic anthology series Genius, as well as the biographical film Resistance.

Once she was cast in Becoming Elizabeth, von Rittberg knew she would have her work cut out for her to embody the iconic monarch. She brushed up on her knowledge of Ancient Greek and learned how to ride a horse, write calligraphy, play the virginals and dance the volta—all skills she acquired during a crash course in “princess school.” And while she knew she would be joining the ranks of Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Cate Blanchett, all of whom have portrayed older versions of the Tudor queen, von Rittberg took comfort in knowing that she was creating her own version of Elizabeth at a younger age—down to her accent and the way she moves through the world.

“You have to give it so much time that it just becomes something natural,” says von Rittberg, who worked closely with a dialect coach and still speaks with an English twang in her voice. “I did start to work with a movement coach half a year before, and then stopped probably three months before and just did small things, like how to turn in that much fabric and such heavy clothes, how to move fast, or be more [or less] focused as a 14-year-old.”

The world that was built around Elizabeth, which was recreated to be as historically accurate as possible and only “lit by natural light and candles,” left little to the imagination and allowed all of the actors to get “completely lost” in the world, von Rittberg says. “I wore six layers of costume every day, and the cinematographer Adolpho Veloso, who is brilliant, shot 360 degrees: If something interesting happened in the opposite direction of the shot, he would pan around. There was no ‘I’m gonna take a second off and just zone out,’ because you could be in a shot at any minute.”

Following the death of her father and the ascension of her 9-year-old, half-brother Edward to the throne, Elizabeth moves in with her widowed stepmother, Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine), who quickly marries the devilishly charming Thomas Seymour (Tom Cullen)—a man rumored to have engaged in flirtatious and possibly sexual behavior with the real-life Elizabeth while living under the same roof. That relationship is carefully reexamined through a modern lens by Reiss, who told reporters in a February press conference that she wanted to tackle issues of “consent and gender imbalance and power imbalance within relationships.”

The fact that Elizabeth falls head over heels for Thomas, without realizing that he was manipulating her, speaks to her natural desire to be loved and cared for in a cutthroat environment. “I think that’s all she wanted, because she was so lonely, it was such a dangerous world, and there was so much duty and pressure,” von Rittberg says. “She just wanted to experience love and be a normal young woman who has needs. She was blindsided and didn’t see the danger behind it. Even as an audience, you completely fall for that guy.”

Before she landed the role, von Rittberg did a chemistry read with Cullen, who had already been cast as Thomas. “From the moment we stood in front of the camera together—and actually the first conversation we had before that was about Oktoberfest—I was like, ‘Yes, I want to work with you!,’” von Rittberg recalls with a laugh. “He was just so charming, and he’s such a beautiful being. He just put all his charm on the screen.”

The cat-and-mouse dynamic between Elizabeth and Thomas was a subject of much discussion during the production of the eight-episode first season—to the point that even von Rittberg became invested in the power play. “We discussed a scene that was yet to be written or filmed, and [Cullen] said, ‘Well, how much is real, and how much is he pretending?’ And I, without listening, was like, ‘Well, it’s real! Obviously, he loves her!’ That’s exactly how much he fooled her. You just want to believe that person; you just want to like him,” von Rittberg says. “I heard [Cullen] say [Thomas] thought this is his world, and that’s the only way he was able to play that role; that was just something very powerful that young Elizabeth probably felt drawn to.”

But Thomas isn’t the only one who Elizabeth is willing to confide in. After finding herself embroiled in the sociopolitical and sexual politics of the English court, Elizabeth turns to Robert Dudley (Jamie Blackley), one of her oldest friends and “the closest thing to the person she can trust.” But the fact that Elizabeth only sees Robert as a best friend “makes that relationship difficult as well, because maybe he would like the relationship to be something else,” von Rittberg teases.

Becoming Elizabeth, at its core, is about the half-sibling rivalry between Elizabeth, her older sister Mary, and her younger brother Edward. It’s essentially Succession for the remaining lineage of the Tudor family, with the siblings forced to reconcile the love they have for each other with their own growing desire for power. “What was just so important to us was there is always love and there is history together. With her and her sister, it was bloody difficult, but they fell in and out of favor together, they were raised in a similar way, they grew up together and were aligned to the throne,” von Rittberg says, adding that the show leans into the gray areas of the era by oscillating “between love and hate” and showing “there is no hero [or] villain.”

“For Elizabeth to observe and learn, rather than jump to certain conclusions, sides or opinions, made her the brilliant queen she was—that ability to take herself back and choose her fights wisely,” von Rittberg says. “She knew the only way she could actually keep her head is by choosing wisely whom to go with and who to follow—being agile, and allowing herself to change that opinion as well.”