You can feel it, even over a wobbly video connection. Samantha Morton sits, back straight, eye contact firmly held, intent in every word. You can feel it, a fire in her, held tight.
It’s a quality built into her new character, the Queen of France Catherine de Medici, in Starzplay’s delicious new show, The Serpent Queen. “I had this sense that Catherine was almost like a very old-fashioned Don, like Don Corleone,” says Morton, speaking, I should add, before Elizabeth II’s death last week. “There was no messing with her. She had a stillness about her that was incredibly frightening.”
There’s certainly no trace of a bog-standard female villain – all high-pitched emotions and murderous hysteria (“Because they associate female villains with hormones,” Morton points out). But the trafficked child bride who grew into a formidable leader feels like familiar skin for Morton to wear. Catherine joins a long list of singular women she’s inhabited. Women who’ve killed. Who’ve been exploited. Who had to fight. Who chose to. They’re, well, complicated.
“I just like a role I can get my teeth into, that’s different from something I’ve done before,” says Morton of the thread of commonality binding her characters together. “Myra Hindley is very different from Mary Queen of Scots.” She played Moors Murderer Hindley, branded by the press “the most evil woman in Britain”, in the 2006 film Longford, and Mary Queen of Scots, ill-fated rival to Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth I, a year later in Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
“I’m a real character actress in the old-fashioned way,” she continues. “I grew up looking at Tim Roth and Gary Oldman thinking, I love the roles they’re given, how do I have a career like that?”
She has, in fact, had a career just like that, starting with ITV’s Soldier Soldier in 1991, before breaking through in Band of Gold four years later when she was just 16. Over the next two-and-a-half decades, she built a career of substance across quality television (Jane Eyre, The Walking Dead), indie films (Control, Morvern Callar) and the odd blockbuster (Minority Report, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them).
This isn’t the first period piece that Morton has starred in – see 2017’s Harlots – but it’s perhaps surprising that she’s done another when she feels as she does about (most of) them. “I find a lot of television fake and distant,” she says. “In regards to costume dramas, I just see that I’m watching a costume drama.”
But Morton was pulled in by Catherine, by the book the series is based on (Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France by Leonie Frieda), and by creator Justin Haythe’s sympathetic script, which plotted how the powerful matriarch was built, bone by bone.
“Justin wants to demystify it, and just say, look at how this human being was treated. I mean, I’ve got a 14-year-old child, and I couldn’t imagine anything like this happening to them [getting married]. I mean, it still happens to this day. It’s not owning your own life, not having autonomy in that way.”
The overturn of the Roe case in America has certainly brought issues of bodily autonomy and state interference into sharper focus, and it’s something the filmmakers didn’t flinch from. “In the times we’re living in – certainly in the United States of America, and sadly, moving forward that way in this country potentially – what I found really brave for the showrunners is they weren’t afraid to highlight how she didn’t have control over her own body,” says Morton. “And that she didn’t have any say in any aspect of the things that happened to her; that she was just the vessel.”
Television has become a more progressive medium and having worked in the industry for three decades, Morton has seen first-hand the seismic shifts.
The Serpent Queen had two female directors (Ingrid Jungermann and Stacie Passon) and there was a “heavy female presence on set”, which is certainly progress from the days when women rarely extended beyond the hair and make-up trailer.
Morton has previously been labelled “difficult” for having opinions and voicing them on set. Are those days behind us? Behind her?
“It’s a completely different world we’re living in now,” she says. “But still… I’ve worked with some formidable male actors. And when they put their hand up and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea here’ or ‘Maybe we could look at it this way,’ it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, they’ve spoken!’ It’s almost like God opened his mouth.
“And then sometimes when myself or a female colleague would say, ‘Maybe can we just…’ they’re like, ‘Wait, what?’. Not so much on The Serpent Queen, but I still have that a lot. Regardless of being a successful director, or an actor, or a writer, it doesn’t matter.”
Morton has certainly earnt her right to speak up on creative matters – her directorial debut The Unloved won two Baftas and brought in two million viewers when it aired on Channel 4 in 2009 (a record for a single episode of drama). It told the story of an 11-year-old girl growing up in care, as Morton herself had. To her surprise, she only received one offer to make a film immediately afterwards, and then from Channel 4, which had commissioned a second film, tumbleweed.
“It was very sad,” she says. “I wrote it, and then they didn’t want to read it and they didn’t want to know. They wouldn’t even read it, even though the first film did as well as it did. “There’s something weird in that. And it’s because the young man that’s sitting there interviewing me and deciding whether or not he’s going to give me the money to make the film doesn’t know as much about film as me and can’t remember what The Unloved was about.”
It’s not just British film that has a way to go, Morton makes clear. In Hollywood, “they think the business is superheroes and action films and a token gesture of giving a young woman a chance to put a catsuit on and fight some baddies. But in regards to drama, we’re a long way from the 40s, where there were some great roles for women. And I think that they forget who’s paying for the cinema tickets and who’s paying the bills in these households on the streaming.”
Morton’s passion and that controlled fire comes from her real-life experiences and the job that you sense she doesn’t consider just a job, but a calling. One that can change worlds and lives. When Morton reads scripts, she says she asks herself: “How can I give more to this? Is it fully rounded? Or is there – without sounding pretentious – a message here? Is there some way of educating the audience? I love telling stories.
“And I also love listening and reading and finding out about people that we may not know about, bringing their stories to the forefront and, you know, walk a mile in my shoes… ”
She is currently an advocate for the World Health Organisation in their campaign to end violence towards children. “I think that we have to look at society as a whole,” she says citing the closure of Sure Start Centres, zero-hours contracts, punishing those unable to work (“My mother was dying of lung cancer and she was still fighting for her disablement money, because they said she was fit to work,” she says) and workers needing to take multiple jobs to support their families.
“I think there’s an absolute arrogance from the powers that be thinking, ‘Oh, we just need to manage our money better or budget differently’,” she says.
“I’m lucky. I’m privileged. I’m not remotely on the breadline. But I know a lot of people that are and I know what’s happening. And it’s a bigger problem than just interventions with social workers in so-called problem families. With every article we read, there are many, many [more] young people and children that die, either through suicide, murder, or abuse on the streets, that don’t make it to the papers or in the regional press. So, I think that, yeah telling the stories through film and television, hopefully we can make a change.”
It’s the fire that she holds tight. She controls it, channels it, makes us all feel it.
The Serpent Queen is out now on Starzplay