STORTFORD star James Frain will light up the screen tonight (Sunday, June 16) with a key role in BBC One’s latest blockbuster series, The White Queen.
The adaptation of Phillipa Gregory’s best-selling novels into a 10-part epic begins with the War of the Roses and promises “love, seduction, deception and murder” as three women – Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort and Anne Neville – manipulate the struggle for power in one of England’s most turbulent times.
Frain stars as Lord Warwick, the kingmaker pivotal to the plot, and the historical backdrop is familiar territory for the actor who featured in the Oscar-winning film Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett and captivated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic with his portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in TV series The Tudors.
The 45-year-old’s CV so far is a testament to his versatility. Since his first film part in Shadowlands (top right) in 1993, he has become a stalwart of some of America’s best-known TV series, with roles in 24, Numb3rs, Law and Order Criminal Intent, Law and Order SVU, Fringe, Californication, two of the CSI franchises, FlashForward, The Mentalist and, most recently, in True Blood (below left) and Grimm.
He is also featuring in Disney’s soon-to-be-released The Lone Ranger film after parts in movies as varied as TRON: Legacy, Loch Ness, with Ted Danson, and Hilary and Jackie, in which he portrayed composer and conductor Daniel Barenboim.
Frain’s part in The White Queen was a rare chance to leave Hollywood and return to Europe, with locations in Belgium doubling as the 15th-century English countryside for filming.
He said: “Bruges is a beautiful medieval city almost untouched by time. If you like jazz you will be well catered for. If you like chocolate and beer you will be in heaven. I had a great time.”
He seized the chance to play the ruthless and manipulative Warwick, describing him as “a warrior in an age of warfare – and the classic Alpha male”.
“Born into great wealth, he is the most powerful man in the kingdom. He is a kind of father figure to Edward IV and is instrumental in putting him on the throne. In return for that gift of power he expects the gratitude and obedience of a son. When Edward acts without his consent, he becomes blind with fury and never recovers from the loss.
“It’s easy to judge him by the standards of our time, but it was a very, very different world from our own. By the standards of his time his actions are logical, even necessary, and he enjoyed a wide base of support until the end.”
Frain relished the opportunity to play another historical character in a period drama: “I enjoy the research, finding out how our world came to be. It always gives a fresh perspective to our own time, which to us feels modern, but will seem antiquated and bizarre to generations to come.
“I read enough history to make sense of what the parameters of the world were – and to make sense of the convoluted family trees! I did just enough to reassure me that I understood the period and left the rest to imagination.
“It was fascinating to see how different the history was from the Shakespearean versions, written under a Tudor monarchy with a vested interest in having the history presented from their point of view.
“There was no unifying national identity, no standing army, no police force. It was a collection of feudal warlords with competing interests for the absolute power of the throne. The king had to request his knights lend him their forces and raise their armies if he wanted to, say, invade France. To hold on to power it was crucial to maintain good relations with as many powerful knights as possible and to isolate your enemies. In the 1460s this was complicated by the absence of a direct male heir to the throne. This caused a division of interests, which resulted in decades of brutal civil war between relatives.” He saw a modern parallel. “Popularity is a vital element of power. Today’s monarchs must still court the favour of the people,” he said.
While not quite a hero, Warwick’s all-action attitude was a great draw and Frain said his most memorable scene was Warwick’s final battle “because it meant getting down and dirty with swords, mud and blood”.
The equestrian skills the role required were a challenge. “They started me off on a very impressive-looking black stallion, but on the first day of horse work with him we had problems with him being too ‘hot’ for the mares. He was completely distracted and sadly had to be swapped for a less frisky stunt horse,” he said. “I had just been trained in Western-style horse riding for The Lone Ranger and it was strange to have to relearn from scratch the commands for English-style riding.
“I’d never fought with a broad sword in full armour before. There’s nothing I can say about that except that it’s every bit as fun as you imagine it would be!”