Fidelity to facts might seem to dictate that characters in royal-obsessed British costume dramas be uniformly white, even if their personal lives get extensive TV makeovers.
But as the creators of Starz’s ‘The Spanish Princess’ discovered, the answer isn’t to invent diversity — it’s to resist overlooking it. In telling the story of Catherine of Aragon as a young woman, they made a point of bringing people of colour out of historical obscurity and into focus.
That created a role and a challenge for British actress Stephanie Levi-John, 30, who is of African-Caribbean descent. She plays Catalina (“Lina”) de Cardonnes, a black lady-in-waiting to Catherine in Spain and then England, where the princess (played by Charlotte Hope) is destined to become queen as the future Henry VIII’s first of six wives.
Lina and another historical black character, one of Catherine’s soldiers, are only briefly mentioned in documents of the period, requiring the actors and producers to flesh them out in the eight-episode drama drawn from the novels of Philippa Gregory.
In a phone interview from her native London, Levi-John discussed the part and who inspired her to pursue acting (hint: it wasn’t Will Smith).
Your grandfather worked as a musician in Sierra Leone and your sister sang opera, but you’re the first actor in the family. How did you decide on the career?
When I was about 8 or 9, a childhood friend of mine had been scouted to appear at the National Theatre in a play, so I went along with her mum to watch her. It was kind of like a light bulb moment at such a young age: This is exactly what I will do for the rest of my life, purely because someone who looks like me (ethnically) on stage is doing something that I knew I would enjoy. It felt like, “OK, if she can do it, then hopefully I can do it, too.”
Did you see black characters on screen as an English youngster?
I grew up in the ‘90s, early 2000s, and we had ‘Sister, Sister,’ we had ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’. So I was seeing examples of people of colour on TV, but it was, “They’re American. I love the show, but it feels really disconnected because I’m in London and Will Smith is over there in America.”
What training did you receive?
I went to Identity School of Acting, where [founder] Femi Oguns created a platform for actors of colour to get into the industry. I didn’t know how I’d be able to navigate myself into this industry, and that gave me the foundation to build a career. But I call myself “work experience girl,” because I walk into every job open and receptive to learn, because every job is different. I’m constantly learning about myself and things that work for me.
How did you approach playing Lina, given the scant information about her?
There was a wealth of stuff in the script that allowed me to place Lina historically in that time to figure out the ins-and-outs of her character. But a lot of it is thinking, what would I be like at that time? How do I imagine how she stood, how she would carry herself? Because it is a story about otherness and being different and coming from one place and trying to resettle in another. It happens today.
It took a lot of imagination and “what if.” But more than anything, I wanted to treat the memory of this woman, who was a line in a history book, with the utmost respect and dignity. She’s not subservient. She is a woman with emotion. I just want to stay true to that. I did not want to make her a caricature, I wanted to make her as human as possible.
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‘The Spanish Princess’ streams in the UAE on StarzPlay.