Laura Carmichael has a knack for playing put-upon women.
The British actress, who rose to fame playing hapless middle sister Lady Edith on the cultural phenomenon Downton Abbey, is doubling down on portraying women of the past who can’t seem to win no matter how hard they try.
In The Spanish Princess, the new Starz series drawn from the works of historical-fiction author Philippa Gregory, Carmichael is Lady Margaret Pole, a cousin to Henry VIII and frequent pawn in the dangerous court intrigue that continues after the dust from the Wars of the Roses has settled. She takes over the role from Rebecca Benson, who portrayed a younger version of the real-life figure in The White Princess.
Though Carmichael says she didn’t necessarily see the similarities between Maggie Pole and Lady Edith when signing on to the project, she admits they’re there. “#PoorEdith, now it’s going to be #PoorLadyPole,” she jokes. “I don’t personally compare them, but the sort of stories that I like and the acting style I like is to try and show how people do struggle on even when things are hard.
“It’s more interesting and more realistic that you just watch people soldier on when things are incredibly scary or painful,” she adds. “You feel like you can capture these moments when they are vulnerable, but in their life, they’re just carrying on.”
In advance of the series’ May 5 premiere, EW sat down with Carmichael to talk about what keeps drawing her to period pieces, why she found a kindred spirit in Maggie Pole, and the unbearable hotness of playing a Tudor.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is the latest series inspired by the novels of Philippa Gregory. Before signing on, were you a fan of hers or the previous series, The White Princess and The White Queen?
LAURA CARMICHAEL: I had seen the previous series. I hadn’t read the books. I’d known the series. [I’d] known of her, of course, because she’s prolific. I love her perspective — looking at history from a different point of view, and something you think you know, but telling it from these female voices and really unraveling their story.
I know a lot of it is what you’re offered, but you certainly seem to flourish in period pieces. Is there something you particularly enjoy about that work? Why do you think it’s a good fit for you?
I’ve always loved it. Even when I was a kid, it’s the stuff that I loved. It feels like a very romantic world to be in. In that way, it did feel like something I had always dreamt of doing. It was a very romantic idea of the world of acting. At the same time, I’m always just driven by what is the good script and what are the stories I want to tell.
Were you familiar at all with Maggie Pole before, whether through Shakespeare, history class, etc.? What was your perception of her?
I had watched The White Princess, so I’d seen her, but no, not in a serious way. I didn’t know what was going to happen in her life. She’s a fascinating woman because she had such a varied experience of being in the royal family. She was a Plantagenet. She was destined to be near the throne, and ended up being married off to someone of much lower status than her. But she really loves her husband and having this wonderful family, and that becomes the most important thing. I feel like you can relate to [that] because that’s at the forefront — to keep her family safe. It comes from the experience of watching all of her family be murdered.
You said at the TCAs you read the novel The Constant Princess before beginning filming, but can you tell us more about your research process beyond that? How much is there out there on Margaret Pole — letters, writings, etc.?
There was a letter from much later in her life from when she was writing to Henry VIII saying, “Please don’t kill me,” which is unbearable to read, really. She was in her 70s when he had her executed. The internet’s this wonderful thing now in terms of pulling up articles to read and timelines of her life. I went to the Tower, which is where she was executed. So that’s amazing. Being in the actual places is so exciting.
When you went to the Tower did you get a private tour?
Do you know I didn’t? I just walked around. It’s really worth a visit. It’s terrifying to imagine. I guess we are kind of obsessed with this period of history because it was very bloody, and there’s something kind of fascinating with the ease with which they casually had people executed.
Was there something you discovered about her, either through your research or just your own character work, that really surprised you?
She is always stuck in a bit of a hard place because she wants so much to care for her family. She has quite a strong moral compass, and yet she has to serve the Queen, who she has completely lost her relationship with. It’s not that I found it so surprising, but I did feel constantly there were these twists and turns of where it was going to lead. The difficulty with her and Lizzie, [the Queen of England and her cousin] is they hate each other and love each other. It’s based on a lot of pain.
Both Maggie and Edith could very easily be pushovers or milquetoast characters, but you imbue them with this quiet strength. Is that something that was really important to you in terms of honoring these characters?
I guess so. I don’t really think of them in that way. They’re people who have gone through such incredible trauma, and it’s my job to show how it affects someone. But in the nature of their stories, they are carrying on regardless, and i I just think that’s interesting because it’s what people do.
You filmed in many real historical locations. Did you have a favorite or a particular eerie or historical anecdote?
We had so many locations. I’ve never done a job with so many on-site locations. Every day we were going somewhere new. The one I remember the best and loved so much was Wells Cathedral. Because it’s so beautiful, really stunning on the inside. [We took] the pews out [too be historically accurate]. That just changes the feel of it, because it does certainly feel familiar but different. It’s that thing that makes you go, “Gosh, this is an ancient building,” and we were there for weddings and funerals.
What about the costumes? You have these ornate sleeves and hoods. Did you enjoy them?
They were very heavy. The Spanish garments that were designed for warmer climates had a sort of lightness to them and a color to them, whereas members of the English court, it was heavy, quite dark, furs and such long garments. I couldn’t believe the traveling coats and things when they’d be on a horse. There was just so much material; it sort of covered the tail of the horse. I can’t figure out how it’s practical. I guess it’s warm and it keeps you dry, but it’s like wearing a tent.
If you had to pick, would you choose your Downton Abbey clothes?
I probably would, yeah. Because the others are so impractical. The warmth of the clothes I should have enjoyed, but it was such a hot summer that we really resented them. The fact that they would have more furs and more layers to go riding, it was like, “Oh my God, we’re going to die.”
Growing up, was history a favorite subject in school?
I guess I didn’t love school, but I did really love history. I had a great history teacher, and she really got me excited me about learning people’s stories. Such an important part of us appreciating the past is by telling stories that we can relate to, telling it from a perspective that makes sense to us. That’s enticing. If people want to go and pick up a book, and find out exactly how old Henry VIII was when Catherine of Aragon arrived or all of the details, then that’s great. Isn’t that wonderful that they want to know more and be specific? But I think you get people interested by putting the viewer as if they were in their shoes, and drama does that.
What was the most challenging thing about making this series?
Probably the heat, which is very strange to say about filming in the U.K. But it was a very hot time to be a Tudor. I kept saying, “It’s too hot to be a Tudor today.” There was no alternative to many layers.
One of Britain’s chief exports is this history. I meet some Brits that are happy with that, and some find it frustrating and mired in a rose-colored view of the past. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
I can definitely flip between. I sometimes feel we’ve exported a very ancient image of ourselves, which is not that great. It’s not a groovy history. We were really horrendous. But there’s also a lot to be proud of and a lot that we’ve maintained that is amazing. It’s very interesting what people associate with being an Anglophile.… I do feel excited about [it] in terms of an export thing, because of the epic history. I don’t think the British take themselves very seriously now. I certainly think with the actors I’ve worked with, you take your job very seriously, you care about it, but you’re also willing to laugh at yourself and know that it’s for fun. I feel like I learned that from working on Downton and working with these amazing legends, who are kind and interested and curious and silly and fun. I’ve completely gone off topic, but that’s something I think is quite a British thing that I hope comes along with all of the nostalgia. Whether it’s Monty Python or Dame Judi Dench or Maggie Smith giggling, which they do.