Catherine of Aragon was a real woman — a Spanish princess, a Queen of England, wife of Henry VIII and mother of Mary I.
And yet, Charlotte Hope, who is portraying Catherine in Starz new series The Spanish Princess took inspiration from a fictional character, Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara, when finding her way into the character. “This woman starts as a 17-year-old girl and she’s this vibrant, Scarlett O’Hara kind of passionate woman,” says Hope. “That’s a gift to any actress.”
Hope says Catherine, as portrayed here and inspired by the Philippa Gregory novel The Constant Princess, is a dream role for her. “I’ve been desperate to get to act every day and to play a really whole character and for her to be confusing, and not always likable,” she elaborates. “And strong, but also vulnerable. She had every facet; it was a really magic thing.”
Not that Hope necessarily assumed that all going in — at least, not before she saw the scripts. Like so many, she grew up thinking Catherine of Aragon was a rather dull, overly pious woman. “I always knew Henry’s story and Anne Boleyn’s story, but Catherine had always been a side note and portrayed as this dowdy, barren wife. That was it really — it was before you get to the exciting, sexy story with Anne Boleyn.”
“Most of the version of Tudor history we know is through the eyes of Henry VIII,” she adds. “The wives are always a side note to that. So, getting to tell a predominantly female version of that story is so exciting to me because I’ve never seen it flipped like that.”
Hope says Catherine was “always surprising” her, but most particularly, in the way the famous princess of Aragon is viewed in different parts of the world. She presumed Catherine’s reputation was generally the same worldwide, but she learned from her co-star Alicia Borrachero, who portrays Catherine’s mother Queen Isabella of Castile, that Catherine is viewed much differently in Spain.
“Catherine’s reputation is that she’s this incredibly courageous, brave woman,” explains Hope. “It’s interesting to me to be like, ‘Ok, those are two really opposing memories of a woman.’ It’s exciting to get to go and look at that different perspective and explore a different version of a person I think I know.”
Hope says the series creators Emma Frost and Matthew Graham really gave her the freedom and the scripts to allow her to delve into that fully. With their blessing and their words, she was able to explore the various intersections between these portrayals of Catherine as pious, capricious, brave, and more. “It was really important to me that I got to play a female character that wasn’t likable,” Hope stresses. “That’s a real gift and testament to Emma and Matthew’s writing and their belief in the subject matter that they were willing to risk that…[Emma] was like, ‘Don’t worry if she comes across as entitled or stubborn.'”
Part of that came from within Hope’s natural affinity for Catherine. “I’ve never connected with a part so much,” she says. “I read her and I was like, ‘Oh I have to play this woman.’ I just knew her. So often with acting, we’re trying to create a role or play the part. I was like, ‘No, I know exactly who she is and I have her in me.'”
As someone who studied Spanish at Oxford University and grew up with Catherine’s naturally Gaelic coloring, it’s no surprise Hope felt a strong link to Catherine. And it’s something Frost and Graham felt as well — Hope was the first person they auditioned for the part and despite a worldwide casting search, they couldn’t shake the impression she left.
“Catherine of Aragon, at least based on the portraits, is striking because she is descended from John of Gaunt,” explains Graham. “She carries this very Celtic look, this English look about her, which is very unusual. Charlotte Hope auditioned for us and already had this striking physical resemblance to our version of Catherine. To the most acknowledged portrait. And brought this amazing acting talent.”
“We very painstakingly looked at who was out there, but she was perfect,” adds Frost, stressing they weren’t determined to be beholden to casting actors who strongly resembled portraiture. “She was the best actor for the role. She embodies both the strength and the vulnerability of Catherine. And she does have an uncanny physical similarity to that wonderful portrait of Catherine of Aragon with her pale skin and red hair.”
For Hope, the next part of the equation was spending some time in the places that shaped Catherine. Shooting began at the Alhambra, the palace where Catherine spent much of her girlhood in Spain. “I was literally in the place where Catherine had started as a young girl, and that was amazing because I really got a sense of where she lives and where she was coming from and how different that was to rainy, cold England,” she muses. “That gave a really nice context, so when we came back to England, we knew where we’d come from.”
And beginning May 5 on Starz, viewers can also see where Catherine of Aragon started it all.