The historical drama Becoming Elizabeth is set to premiere in India later this week. The Starz original series will stream in India on Lionsgate Play and it focuses on the formative years of Queen Elizabeth I. The monarch has been depicted in films and shows countless times but what makes the show different is that it shows Elizabeth as a teenager, before she sat on the throne. And more importantly, it also shows how she was groomed and sexually abused by the 39-year-old Baron Thomas Seymour as a 14-year-old. Alicia von Rittberg, who plays the young Elizabeth on the show, spoke exclusively with Hindustan Times about the show, playing Elizabeth, and why hers is a relevant story in the 21st century. Also read: The Crown: First pics from season 4 show Emma Connor as Princess Diana
This is a character that has been played by some of the most accomplished actresses in history. How did you make sure you were doing something different and not repeating what Helen Mirren or Bette Davis or others have done before you?
I was very lucky in the sense that it is about her early years and all of the other brilliant actresses who have portrayed her, played her during her reign. So I felt very safe to show a young girl growing up, rather than the Queen. Therefore, I didn’t feel like there is a comparison with what others did. Otherwise, I would have been so scared.
When the story begins, Elizabeth is 14. How do you get into the mind space of someone that age and from that time, being almost twice that age yourself?
We tried to focus on the fact that she was a young, very lonely girl who grew up an orphan. We let her be that without getting caught up in the fact that she was in line to the throne. We almost took that out and concentrated on the young girl in her and that’s what made me fall in love with the script. I felt like I’m not reading another dusty period piece about royalty but actually something about the people. But yes, I did wonder how the hell am I going to play a 14-year old. I was working with a movement coach and she told me when you were younger, you didn’t have 3000 things in mind but concentrated on one thing. That focus gives you the energy of a child. It was wonderful once I understand that.
This is a story that talks about Princess Elizabeth and not the Queen. So obviously, it talks about the sexual abuse through grooming that she faced. How important was depicting that part of her life through her eyes, in a sensitive manner?
That is one of the main reasons why this story has to be told. And I think the way Anya Reiss (the showrunner) wrote it was so sensitive and smart because you do feel in the beginning how good everything is for her. He is such a charming guy and you understand how she falls for him. But that’s exactly the problem. That’s why it’s so smart because you see it through Elizabeth’s eyes. You, as the audience, fall in love while Elizabeth is falling in love and that’s the only way that can be shown. Why it’s so shocking is because it creeps in until it’s basically too late. You get to a point where you wake up, when she wakes up and wonders, ‘how could I not see this, how did I fall for this awful character?’ If we manage to show the audience that, then we are successful in making them understand how grooming happens.
What I find striking is that this the story of what a young girl went through at the hands of a man in power. And that’s still relevant, very contemporary. It is replayed hundreds and thousands of times even today.
I think it’s a super relevant story. I find it shocking to think that this is 500 years ago and sometimes, we are still not a single step further. Still, women in politics are super rare; still grooming and inequality are so big and so little talked about. People romanticise it and don’t realise how subtle it is, which is why it is so dangerous.
Portraying a survivor, who has been through something this harrowing, can often be triggering for the actor as well. Did you face any difficulties enacting those scenes?
Yes, we had a situation where we were talking about Thomas’ feelings for her. Anya (Reiss, the show’s creator) and Tom (Cullen, who plays Thomas Seymour) said he is taking advantage of her and how disgusting it is. And I said: ‘No, but he loves her’. And I remember how Anya and Tom’s jaws just dropped and they looked at me amazed. They said, ‘do you understand what you just said’. And that made me realise how deeply I had dived into the character. I had to understand I almost became that person, trying to justify that man. It was scary. So, it does take some time to get out of it.
Created by Anya Reiss, Becoming Elizabeth is an eight-part series that begins streaming on Lionsgate Play in India from August 26. It premiered in the US in June to much critical acclaim.