By Claire Bueno
With the death of Henry VIII proclaimed a new and unsettling political climate looms. Edward VI his son and heir apparent inherits the thrown, leaving his sisters Mary and Elizabeth with uncertain futures. And so inspires a new drama Becoming Elizabeth premiering on Starz and Amazon Prime, 12th June as we delve deeper into the life of Elizabeth I before she became the Queen of England.
It was my good fortune to interview actor Ekow Quartey who portrays the mysterious Spanish ambassador Pedro in the eight part series, which definitely questions Elizabeth’s unofficial title of the Virgin Queen?!
Becoming Elizabeth, as a spectator I can understand why an actor you would want to be a part of this project, but for you reading the script it must have been a page turner?
Funnily enough when I got sent the audition sides, obviously all just for Pedro, I don’t think I initially got to see many of the scenes, but even just the Pedro scenes, the way they’re written, there is so much detail written by Anya Reece, who is the lead writer. For some it may be very wordy, but I think for most, if you give it the time, the detail of characters, the detail of imagination, description, story, what she pulls out of history and how she fleshes out characters we all know, it is very powerful and captivating. Characters like Mary (the future Queen Mary I), we just think, ‘Totally crazy. Burned everyone’, and as for the future Queen Elizabeth I, things like ‘power’ and ‘majesty’ come to mind. Anya has tried to stay as historically accurate as possible and so, with Pedro, she is fleshing out what we know about this real person in history. I was in the read-through, literally nose up to the screen, just going, ‘Oh my goodness’ (Laughs). What she and the other writers have created is utterly, utterly incredible.
And what I really liked about the Pedro character, is that he is really mysterious, did you see him like that? And if so, does that allow you to have more nuance with the character and play with him a bit more?
I think so. It’s funny because the scripts were coming out as we were filming (laughs), so even some things were new to me. But he’s mysterious in that he is a mercenary, he’s a killer, you pay him and he’ll fight for you. He won’t tell you everything he believes because potentially he’ll be fighting for something that goes against his ethics. But that also adds to the mystery of him because he starts to question that mystery, he starts to think, hang on, where do my principles lie? I think he’s really principled and loyal, though he is happy for you to pay for him to fight. He probably comes across mysterious because he’s like, ‘What’s going on?!’ (Laughs). Especially at the beginning of the season it starts very, very much like ‘who is Pedro?’ and ‘what are his beliefs?’ and ‘where has he pitched his flag?’ and this continues through the season. I call it one of the most
complicated chess matches, but there’s more than two sides, there’s three, four, five, then someone else comes in. Pedro is having to quickly learn two key things – politics being one and the other, that life is a game of chess. People are constantly setting themselves up, so he sits back and closely watches and observes, until he feels he has mastered the game.
Funnily enough chess was something that I wrote down as part of my notes because the political climate is really precarious. It really is Machiavellian, you don’t know who to trust, and I think that adds to the intrigue and the drama and you really feel at that particular time, it literally could be off with your head couldn’t it?
It is the most cutthroat time, I wouldn’t say in the whole of history, but I learned about this part of history whilst doing this show, and like I said, in the read-throughs going, ‘They did what? What happened? And you’re sure this is truth?’, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I’d say 95%’. Obviously, there’s entertainment license though. For Pedro, as bad as it is, there is a simplicity to war, it is me against you, fight, fight, fight, fight. At least during those times it was, it is even more complicated now, but still, it’s fight, fight, fight, fight, I win, I’m alive, you’re dead, you lose (laughs). And for a time, Pedro doesn’t have to think about anything else – until he is introduced at court that is. And all of a sudden, he is exposed to a completely different side of Lord Somerset, someone he thought of as a good friend. He has previously thought of Somerset as a great soldier – one of the reasons Pedro respects him – but now, suddenly, Pedro observes him as a ruthless court manipulator, playing games and twisting things to his own advantage. And that’s the biggest thing for Elizabeth, she is growing around all of this, and I’ll be very specific here in saying MEN playing games, as a young woman, she is growing up thinking, ‘Where do I sit in this world controlled by men?’. And so, those who are the best at navigating the tricky court politics are not the ones wearing their heart’s on their sleeves.
And obviously it’s about Elizabeth I and how she becomes who she is. But the show also comes to question her unofficial title as the Virgin Queen. Was that interesting to delve into because we have this perception of Elizabeth I, that she didn’t bring people close, but we see a different side to that, and as you say the writers have explored what they can, whilst being as historically accurate as possible.
I could only say this from my point of view because Anya’s level of research and her team is phenomenal. I think especially with history, it is always written by the victor isn’t it and I often think, people will write about Elizabeth I it in ways that make it seem like she didn’t even have emotions. She had no wants, no desires, and look at who she became as a result. And I think people are far more complicated than that. And all of those things can exist at the same time. And it would be very, very interesting for a young woman surrounded by powerful men at the time. And also women were sent to marry to rise up through the hierarchy. So, to not imagine that these women had loves, lusts, desires whilst they were just being handed off, seems unlikely. I mean, as we know, all Henry VIII wanted was a boy! But his legacy is ultimately carried on by women. And so, the writers have cleverly portrayed this unique time in history through the lens of a young woman who has wants, needs and desires of her own, and is trying to figure out her own place in the scheme of things. Ultimately, at least this is how I see it, perhaps we are shown a more truthful version of a young Elizabeth.
Yeah I think we are living in times where everything is about representation and diversity and strong female characters. What I think this show nails is that it doesn’t matter who your character is, they’re all very well written and for you as actors you can’t ask for more than that really can you?
You’re about to see some of the strongest and well written women I hope, you’ll see in a very, very long time. Jessica Raine as Catherine Parr, Romola Garai as Mary, Alicia von Rittberg as Elizabeth, and so many men in the cast, but those three women are the core, as well as Alexandra Gilbreath as Kat Ashley. It is also an all-female writing team! It’s like I said, you have these read-throughs and it’s funny seeing the men play politics whilst it feels like the women actually understand it (laughs). As an actor, you find your character from the words that are written, and sometimes this can be found in historical information about them, but with this show, I was able to garner everything I needed to know from the incredible script that was in front of me. The writers gave it incredible detail, giving me a very clear image of who Pedro was and how they wanted him to come across. This was so helpful, especially in scenes where there weren’t scripted lines and only action – I still know exactly what to do and who I should be as a character. Of course, sometimes you have to make it up as you go along, (laughs), but that usually leads to some good improv!
I know that you come from a theatre background and you know theatre is a medium where you have to project to an audience, where television is much more restrained and contained because less is more for TV, it’s more technical. For people who are interested in the craft of acting, how have you transitioned from being a theatre actor to be an actor for screen?
When I have been fortunate to work on screen, having crews, directors who are really patient is really helpful. I think I define it as theatre is live storytelling, so is screen, but it’s a live conversation with us the cast and the audience. I have been fortunate to perform at the Globe and that’s the most live; literally (laughs). You can literally see everyone, which is petrifying the first time it ever happened, seeing everyone’s faces looking at you, thinking ‘ok, entertain us!’ (Laughs). And you’re like, ‘OK. Err give me a second’.
But with live performance it’s a conversation, it might not b be the same each time. You have that process of being in a rehearsal room, all working together in your four, five, six, however many weeks you have to hone the story, led by a director to get to the point of thinking, ok, this is how we are going to present it. But screen is like laser precision. You portray so much from what we’re thinking, how we actually feel from what’s going on behind the eyes. I remember a teacher he called it the leap frog technique. I’m still trying to figure it out, but the idea is you see the information on lily pad one, you hop to lily pad five to absorb it, then you hop back to three to process it. It was the best advice - I hope I’m not giving away his secrets (laughs). But that’s what we do as humans and I think sometimes the trick with screen, at least as I’m still trying to learn, it is knowing what your character is thinking and really sitting into it, because it does shuffle. You have to close off the camera, there’s so many technicalities, hitting a mark, not looking down the lens, that’s a big one (laughs), they don’t like that one (laughs). But I’ve done quite a bit of comedy, this is my first period drama on screen, being able to be relaxed enough within it and have that conversation, you’re not pushing it, you’re really sitting into it and letting it breathe.
And it’s an exciting time for you because you have another great project that you’re filming at the moment?
Yeah, I’m really fortunate to be doing an F. Gary Gray film, with filming taking place in Belfast. I feel so fortunate the experiences I’m getting to have. I struggle sometimes to take stock and keep in mind what’s happened, and how it happened and because obviously there is still a job to do. When I was younger, I have friends who were like ‘Oh my God, that’s so exciting, oh my God’. And before I’d be like, ‘No wait. I’ve got the audition, I need to do a good enough job, to get the job itself!’. And then they would say, ‘You’ve got a recall that’s amazing!’ and I would say, ‘No, no, no. I still need to get the job now’. And finally (hopefully) – ‘Oh my God, you got the actual job!’ and ‘Oh now I have to actually DO the job’ (Laughs). I have this habit of always feeling the stresses of it. But in the last year I’ve definitely tried to learn, especially after the pandemic to go, ‘My goodness, I’m so fortunate to be doing what I am doing, what a gift’. I’m really looking forward to filming, it should be really fun.
Ekow Quartey stars in Becoming Elizabeth
available from 12th June, Sundays on StarzPlay and Amazon Prime
Photographer: Eddie Blagbrough Styling: Ben Browne Grooming: Nadia Altinbas
Production Stills: © 2020 Starz Entertainment
With special thanks to JadeEast PR