Move over, Catelyn Stark: Lady Margaret has arrived
Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) is no stranger to period drama costumes or the clash of great houses — you might have heard of a disagreement or two in a land named Westeros — and now she’s back playing a different game of thrones, this time in 15th century England as the formidable Lady Margaret, mother to King Henry VII, in the Starz series The White Princess.
A sequel to BBC’s 2013 series The White Queen, which, like The White Princess, was adapted from a Philippa Gregory historical novel, the eight-episode follow-up concludes the story of England’s War of the Roses and chronicles the rise of the House of Tudor through the strained marriage of Princess Elizabeth of York (Jodie Comer) and King Henry Tudor (Jacob Collins-Levy).
She may not be the titular character, but Fairley’s Lady Margaret is a conniving and skillful force to be reckoned with among a cast of similarly savvy women; the men may be Kings and Lords, but the women plot and pull the strings on this show.
EW talked to Fairley about female ambition, power plays, and her character’s parallels with Catelyn Stark.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you first read the script, what was the most compelling part, the character or the story?
MICHELLE FAIRLEY: Lady Margaret was an incredible woman in history — what she achieved and what she did. I admire the stand that she took for women at that time to have power and to have longevity. They had to marry well and they had to use that marriage as well and she knew that and used it. She was a very clever woman.
She’s obviously very ambitious, but is it for her son or for herself?
She’s a very religious person and she believes in the power of God. She sees her son’s rule as her vocation so, therefore, believes that she’s on the side of the just and deserved. Her child was in line to the throne and that was denied him, so she had to set about claiming his birthright. It’s a double-edged sword: It’s about her son getting what’s his and also Margaret achieving it. That’s why, when her son becomes King, she, rightly, gives herself the title My Lady the King’s Mother.
Does she really believe in the religious aspect of it, or does she just do what she wants and uses God as an excuse?
Margaret was a woman who was willing to use her religion; she was prepared to do anything to get what she wanted and justify it with God’s will. She uses religion when she needs to, but ostensibly she is a religious person. Margaret believes she’s on the side of good and whatever she does is sanctioned by the higher power.
Ah, that’s such a dangerous line to walk.
The relationships between parents and their children play a big part in the story. How do you rate Lady Margaret as a mother to King Henry? So much of her advice and influence ends up hurting him.
Well, Henry was taken away from her when he was very young. So there’s a distance between them even now they’re together. They’ve only communicated through letters for the majority of his life while he was living in exile in Wales and then in France, so there is a separation between mother and son. His uncle Jasper brought him up mostly. Margaret is very aware of the fact that there’s a division and she’s desperately trying to make that work.
It seems like she’s grown cold because she’s been kept away from those she loves so much and not been able to form emotional attachments to her child or the man she loves, Jasper (Vincent Regan).
Yes, absolutely. So, now, getting her son on the throne is what makes her happy; she sees that as her duty. Women, at that point, were not powerful on their own; they got it through marriage that was their protection, but Margaret decided once her second-to-last husband died, she would re-enter court and get close to the royal family so that she could see what they were doing and maneuver and manipulate to put her son, Henry, on the throne.
She’s so conniving but so clever. It really is a story dominated by women who use men as pawns in their games.
Yes, they have to be prepared constantly. They have no choice.
Speaking of clever women, this isn’t the first fiercely loyal mother to a son in a powerful position you’ve played. Do you draw any comparisons with Catelyn Stark or see any parallels?
Yes, Margaret and Catelyn are both powerful women. They’re both mothers who are dedicated to their children — to say the least — and they both believe they’re on the side of good. I’ve played other women who are dedicated and believe they’re on the right side but are also psychos or mentally deranged. It’s a whole package when you decide to take on a job. It’s not just the script; it’s what can you bring to a really interesting role? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a strong character, but there has to be a hook somewhere in order for you to feel you can give it strength. People might say, “Why do you want to play the same character again, another strong woman?” but there’s a different angle to it every time. And there’s even strength in weakness too.
Lizzie makes a comment to Margaret about having experienced tragedy and Margaret responds, “I have no tragedy.” Is her main tragedy just being born a woman at that time?
Yes. Because of her position, she was unable to be with Jasper and bring up her son; those that she loves are always at a distance from her.
But she drives Jasper away as well.
You make sacrifices to obtain what you have in life and the thing about her relationship with Jasper is that, unfortunately for Margaret, its time has passed. She’s a woman who is prepared to sacrifice her life and her happiness for her son. She is selfless in that respect, but she’s also self-motivated.
That character conflict is a great reason to tune in. What else will draw viewers in?
It’s definitely for anyone who’s interested in history and in strong women, but it’s also a story about family, love, betrayal and, of course, power.
See Fairley in action in an exclusive clip above. The White Princess premieres on Sunday, April 16 at 8 p.m. ET on Starz.