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Becoming Elizabeth's Romola Garai And Executive Producers Talk Mary Tudor's 'Bloody' Legacy And 'Terrible Position'

Romola Garai as Mary Tudor in Becoming Elizabeth
(Image credit: Starz)

The first season of Becoming Elizabeth is over following an intense finale. King Edward’s time is quickly running out, Elizabeth is still underestimated by the powers in court, and Mary’s status as next in Henry VIII's line of succession is far from secure due to her Catholic faith in a Protestant realm. History guarantees that Elizabeth will eventually become the famous Queen Elizabeth I, but time hasn’t been quite so kind to the real Mary Tudor's legacy. Actress Romola Garai, creator/writer/executive producer Anya Reiss, and executive producer George Ormond spoke about the woman who is popularly known as “Bloody Mary” and her terrible position. 

The cast and executive producers of Becoming Elizabeth spoke with CinemaBlend about the series and its historical roots ahead of its premiere. Mary Tudor’s journey after eight episodes cast her in a different light than any viewers who knew her as “Bloody Mary” might have expected. Romola Garai, who played Mary for the Starz series, shared how her character challenges expectations:

I think there's been a regrowth in interest around her as a historical figure for a number of years. Partly because her legacy suffered so greatly because of her attempt to restore Catholicism in England, and then obviously subsequently like 500 years of history attempting to characterize that attempt as a kind of bloody massacre. I think she was a really interesting woman. I think she was definitely not the kind of terrible leader that we were led to believe. There was violence in her reign, but no more or less than there was in Henry the VIII's or Elizabeth's herself, actually, arguably. Anya's creation of her as a character, I think, is coming on the back of a lot of really interesting historical research and a kind of growth and interest in exploring her as a historical figure and her reign in general.

The Starz show may be called Becoming Elizabeth and star Alicia von Rittberg as the future monarch, but the first season dedicated plenty of screentime to establish who Romola Garai’s version of Mary is at her core, how much England means to her, and what she is willing to endure for her faith. History remembers the real Mary Tudor as both the first reigning queen of England and the monarch who was willing to shed blood to restore Catholicism. As Garai pointed out, violence ran in the Tudor family, with Henry VIII before Mary and Elizabeth after her. 

Anya Reiss, who created Becoming Elizabeth and wrote most of the first season’s eight episodes, told the story of this generation of the Tudors in a very different way than has been done for television before. She shared her approach to bringing Mary to the small screen without portraying her as a tyrant opposite a heroic Elizabeth. Reiss said:

She seems to be a massively underexplored character in media, and she's always written as just the bad one who came before Elizabeth. And I think no one's ever kind of addressed her as her own person and her own reign and her own life experience and part of our history. She's always been a foil. So I think it wasn't a conscious decision of going like, 'Oh, we'll do the opposite to what's always been shown.' It was a conscious decision to treat her as a real person with her own story to be told.

Becoming Elizabeth certainly didn’t race through the historical record to get from Henry VIII’s death to crowning Queen Elizabeth I in just eight episodes, and Mary still needs a turn on the throne before Elizabeth ascends. The first season set her up to believe she'd become queen after Edward's death (which seems to be approaching quickly), although history buffs know that it won’t be as simple as the brother dying and his older sister taking the crown. If there’s a second season, it seems safe to say that the show will continue exploring Mary as more than Elizabeth’s foil. 

At the same time, Becoming Elizabeth’s Mary Tudor has been in an even more precarious position than her half sister thanks to her refusal to give up her Catholic faith and convert. Executive producer George Ormond summed up Mary’s situation at the start of the series pretty perfectly and elaborated:

She's in a terrible position, isn't she? I think what is amazing about what Anya has done with the show is everybody's human. They're all flawed. Elizabeth, Mary, and Edward are all very, very high status characters who don't quite have the power that they feel they need to have to be able to do what they want to do in their world. So Mary is an adult, who's a Catholic, who when her younger brother becomes king, age nine, he's a Protestant fanatic. And he starts telling her that she's got to convert to Protestantism, and it puts her in an impossible position. And I think Anya dramatizes her story and her humanity, the way she tries to keep close to her brother and keep her sibling relationship alive and steer this path keeping her faith.

Will viewers see more of Romola Garai as Mary Tudor to perhaps take the throne to become Queen Mary I? Unfortunately, Becoming Elizabeth hasn’t officially been renewed for a second season just yet. Starz (opens in new tab) has been the home of a couple of other series about English royals that only ran for a single season, with The White Queen and The White Princess

The Spanish Princess about Mary Tudor's ill-fated mother did run for two seasons, so hopefully Becoming Elizabeth ends up as a multi-season series as well. After all, even if it’s not an exact telling of history (although certainly closer than Starz’s best-known ongoing period drama in Outlander), the plot is only going to continue thickening once King Edward dies with only women with royal blood as his potential successors. (Actress Bella Ramsey spoke about the importance of the female point-of-view for the show.)

For now, you can revisit Becoming Elizabeth (and lots of other options) streaming with a Starz subscription. For some more viewing options during the wait for news of a Season 2, check out our 2022 TV premiere schedule!

Laura Hurley
Senior Content Producer

Laura turned a lifelong love of television into a valid reason to write and think about TV on a daily basis. She's not a doctor, lawyer, or detective, but watches a lot of them in primetime. Resident of One Chicago, the galaxy far, far away, and Northeast Ohio. Will not time travel, but will sneak references to The X-Files into daily conversation.