In August 1485, King Richard III was killed in battle, defeated by Henry Tudor just two years after ascending to the throne. The Battle of Bosworth Field was the final major confrontation in the War of the Roses, the English civil war that pitted the Lancasters (Henry’s side) against the Yorks (Richard’s side), resulting in more than a century of Tudor reign in England.
Into this uncertain political time comes The White Princess, the new eight-part Starz miniseries premiering Sunday based on Philippa Gregory’s novel. The spiritual and chronological sequel to the BBC miniseries The White Queen, also written by Emma Frost, the Starz series explores the life of Elizabeth of York, the niece—and, in the series, the lover—of Richard III and, soon, the wife of Henry VII.
Some have likened the series to Game of Thrones—GOT‘s Michelle Fairley even stars as the queen mother, Margaret Beaufort, as much an antithesis of Catelyn Stark as you might be able to find onscreen. The central figure, though, is Elizabeth, who is played by the 24-year-old Liverpudlian actress Jodie Comer. Lizzie, as she’s known to those closest to her, is a bit of a sullen young woman at the outset of the series, resentful of her arranged marriage and none too pleased to be a pawn in the political maneuverings of the York and Tudor families. (The series is named for the white rose, the symbol of the house of York, not the lack of diversity in its cast.)
The White Princess is Comer’s first American screen credit, but the English actress has been working semi-professionally for nearly a decade, beginning with a BBC radio play while she was still in secondary school. As a child, the daughter of a physiotherapist for English Premier League team Everton and a transportation administrator attended local youth theater classes; when she was 13, she performed in the Liverpool Drama Festival, placing first in her category. In her monologue, told from the perspective of a young girl, she recounted the Hillsborough Disaster, the crush of fans at a Liverpool football match in 1989 that killed 96, including her character’s father.
“That was the first time I realized I could tune into my emotions,” Comer told me recently in New York. She performed the monologue again at a school talent show; her drama teacher took note, putting Comer up for the radio play. From there, she signed with an agent, and the jobs started trickling in while she was still finishing high school: recurring parts on BBC series like the British legal drama Justice; the mysteries Remember Me and Doctor Foster; the crime drama Thirteen; and the E4 series My Mad Fat Diary. After The White Princess, which wrapped shooting in November, she heads back to the U.K. (Comer still lives with her parents and brother in Liverpool) for the second season of Doctor Foster and the upcoming Morrissey biopic England Is Mine.
Comer was immediately drawn to The White Princess. “For an era when women were expected to conform, these women are totally in charge of the show,” Comer said. “To read a piece of material from a period drama told from the woman’s perspective is just so unique.”
Though Elizabeth is, in many ways, a victim of circumstance, she does her best within a system designed to subjugate women. Early in the first episode, Henry summons Elizabeth to his chambers, telling her he’ll only marry her if she first proves “fertile.“
“Only if I will have you,” she snarls.
“You think you have a choice? You think you have free will?” Henry responds.
Rather than resisting, Lizzie hikes up her skirt and tells him to get it over with. This doesn’t mitigate his responsibility for what comes next—this is still clearly an assault—yet she’s able to slightly flip the script, reclaiming some of her agency. It was this scene that audiences reacted to at a screening Comer had attended several nights before we met. “They were kind of applauding her and her humiliating him and her regaining control of what was a helpless situation,” she said.
Because history is written by the winners—and, in the 15th century, the winners tended to be men—far more has been documented of Henry’s inner life than Elizabeth’s. But this has allowed Comer—as well as co-stars Suki Waterhouse (who plays Elizabeth’s sister Cecily), and Essie Davis (who plays her mother, the dowager queen Elizabeth)—ample room to fill in their characters. Period dramas are of course a rite of passage for young British actresses, and there was something inevitable about Comer’s participation in The White Princess: She grew up admiring performances like Keira Knightley’s in Atonement, and the transformative power of set design and costuming transfixed her. But as she proves in The White Princess, even 15th-century monarchs can be fresh and contemporary.
“You can go back in time in this world,” Comer said, “but the human psyche hasn’t changed at all.”
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