It's a testament to the acting ability of Gina McKee that even when she doesn't appear in an episode of "The Borgias," her character, Catherina Sforza, looms large in the storytelling.
The head of the Sforza clan of Milan, Catherina is the most powerful rival of Pope Alexander VI (Jeremy Irons) in Rome. As played by McKee, she's a cool, cunning and vengeful tactician with a drive that surpasses many men in 15th century Italy.
"It's lovely to have an opportunity, particularly with a historical character, to play a woman with such individuality and strength," McKee said during a recent phone conversation from her home outside of London. "She was a politician and a warrior. She fought for her people and her family—not always entirely for those reasons, but often.
"She was very unique in that respect. There are not that many people that we can look to in history who followed her lead or that have come before her."
Catherina has defeated the papal army, attempted to assassinate the pope by delivering a plague-infected gift to the Vatican; arranged the imprisonment of his daughter, Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger); and in the June 2 episode, "Tears of Blood," attempted to derail the Pope's Jubilee celebration and kill his son, Cesare (Francois Arnaud).
While McKee hasn't had much screen time in the last few episodes of the series, which airs at 9 p.m. Sundays on Showtime, her character's actions drive the story forward to a probably showdown with Cesare and his army in the Season 3 finale set for June 16.
One could use the word "driven" to describe McKee as well. Probably best known in America for her role as Julia Roberts' wheelchair-bound sister-in-law in "Notting Hill," the 49-year-old actress is one of the most well-respected actresses working in British film, TV and theatrical productions today.
It's an unlikely place for the coal miner's daughter who grew up 300 miles from London, but McKee was bitten by the acting bug at 13 when she attended teen drama workshops. One of the productions was seen by a TV producer who cast her in a children's series called "Quest of Eagles." From the age of 15, she traveled to London for three summers to attend classes at the National Youth Theatre. Yet at age 17, she was rejected by three different drama schools.
"One of them said, 'Come back next year when you're 18.' But by then I'd got another job and I was working," she said. "And that was that."
McKee and I talked more about how she thinks Catherina passes her time (when not onscreen), working with animals and how not to screw up and epic scene.
When Catherina meets up with her "little pack of wolves" in "The Wolf and the Lamb," she says she wants to bring them together against the Borgias. And one of them says, "Under you, a woman?" And I had to laugh because I thought, has he not been paying attention? She's tough!
[Laughs.] Put it this way, fear doesn't control her, that's for sure. And I think she's probably been brought up, certainly the Catherina that we portray, she's been brought up not to adhere to any fears, to be a warrior, to fight for her rights, her family, her line, her lineage.
Did you know a lot about her before you started the show?
Not before, no. In Season 1, as you probably know, Catherina was hardly in it. They had said they will take the storyline further later, if we go to Season 2. So I started to find out more and more about her. And there were a few contradictions in terms of the historical accounts of her. But the essence of her comes across. And so I started to read various things about her and became intrigued. Because as research models go, it's actually a really lovely project to have, because the more you learn the more intriguing it becomes. And so since I began it I started to get into the history of it more and more.
Since "The Borgias" started I have become such a nerd for Renaissance Italy and papal history. It's great fun, you're right.
Well, it is because it's something that anybody who has gotten into historical events and the learning about the people behind the events ... knows that we kind of feel separated by the years but when you start to get to know the personalities and the reasons behind why people make decisions or do certain things, for example, it brings you very close because it kind of feels so familiar often to things that we experience in contemporary life. I've just been given another book about Catherina called "The Tigress of Forli: The Life of Catherina Sforza," which I'm looking forward to getting into, that was written by an American woman named Elizabeth Lev.
When you first were approached for the role what made you decide to take it?
I was interested to work with Neil Jordan, although I didn't actually get to work with Neil until Season 3. And the possibility of him directing some of the episodes ... was an attraction. Also, I was doing a production of "King Lear," and in terms of the timing of the shooting fit in well. So it was just really the possibility of future episodes. So it's sort of one of those things where you think, "OK if this is a nice seed to plant, let's see if we could put some water on it and let this one grow." That was the vibe. It's as simple as that really.
I wanted to ask about working with Francois and Jeremy. You've have a lot of the guys that you worked with in the past, you had a lot of big names and I wanted to see how those two stack up?
It's funny because in the three seasons I think I've only had two encounters, and they're quite brief, with Jeremy. So I haven't really had a great deal of time with him.
But with Francoise, of course I have, and it's fabulous. He's such a nice guy and really easy to work with. And I like him a lot. I respect him. He's a really nice guy. He's so easy to be around and good fun. And respectful and intelligent, he's really good.
In "Siblings," Catherina comes to Rome for the wedding and she bows to the Pope (only because she chose to do so). I am just kind of in awe of the scope of that whole set and the grandness of you coming in on the horse. Does it feel as epic when you're filming as it looks onscreen?
We have a brilliant production team, it has to be said. ... So when we do those big scenes, obviously it takes great a deal of organization. And everybody's fantastic. ... So after all of that organization and great setup you don't want to mess up. [Laughs.] You come in on the horse, you get off here, you walk up there. So there's this big epic thing going on and you don't want to be the one who falls over or gets the horse to freak out or anything like that.
So those scenes are always, for me, about basics—concentrate, remember what you been taught. ... I always try not to think about the amount of organization that's gone into it just before we turn over, just so it doesn't bother me if I mess up.
That sort of answers my question: While you're on the horse and come in do you ever catch yourself thinking, "Wow this is pretty cool, this is a cool job I have here?"
Not while I was shooting. But every now and then you just have this objective moment. You think, "God this is incredible." Whenever I've worked with animals I've always had a brilliant time—I love it, absolutely love it. And so I'm always thrilled to bits whenever I have to work with creatures and animals.
And the people, the stunt team and the people who are on our team of teaching how to ride and helping us are staggeringly good. And the horse that I ride is brilliantly trained. Basically the horse knows what it's doing. I just have to sit there and look appropriate. ... This beautiful girl looks after her; it's her horse, she is so impeccable about getting it to do the right thing. And it's like when you get into an amazing car and you just think, "Oh my God this is such a powerful, amazing car." It's that kind of vibe. It's like this sort of racing cars of horses.
So I just feel incredibly privileged. I just think, "God, I'm the luckiest woman alive here. This is fab."
Of course you have it a little harder then Francois and the other guys because you have to wear those big dresses while you're on the horse.
Yeah, if you have to get on and off the horse in vision, you have to put quite a bit of pre-thought into it with all the garments and the layers of cloth. It takes a little bit of flair, I can tell you. [Laughs.]
Catherina's not onscreen a lot of the time, but I often wonder what's she up to when she isn't. Do you ever build a little history of the kinds of things she does when she's not on the screen?
I suppose, yes I have done that because I tend to do it always. But I think Catherina certainly is into falconry and her birds. And I think that her hunting with birds is probably is something that gives her enormous satisfaction. And that would take up some of her time.
I think the thing about her is she is smart. And I imagine that she is often, in her way, holding council to find out what is happening in the different regions of Italy and in Europe. She will be up-to-date with all the latest information in terms of politics and what's happening amongst the world dynasties, etc. etc. Which armies are where? She's a strategist so she would know that information. And if she didn't know it she would find out.
I think that gaining that information for her is something that she does because it obviously has political precedence in order to maintain her position. But I think she would do anyway because she's interested and it's something that isn't a chore to her. It's in her DNA. I think she would spend a great deal of time probably practicing combat, sword fencing, things like that. I think that's something that would fill her time, and also she would enjoy the sport in that. I think she would find that very appealing.
So she's not into trying new recipes and stuff like that?
[Laughs.] Well, in various accounts for her people used to say she was into spells and making potions. And some people liken this to some kind of witchcraft, where the reality is probably that she was making beauty products and experimenting with lotions and potions in order to maintain skin and things like that. But I think the mischievous side of her would probably find amusing and maybe even useful that people thought that about her.
But she's certainly got a vanity and I think she would spend time on maintaining her appearance, too. Those are some of the things that I guess she fills her time with.
We see her a lot with the falcon. Did you get special training?
That's right. Oh gosh, that was great. That was such a pleasure. Yeah I loved that. It was really very simple the training for that. Essentially just a couple of do's and don'ts, but essentially they do it all and you just have to look like you know what you doing. You can do the same action with that particular bird a certain number of times and then the bird will be basically full because they work for food. There like actors, really. [Laughs.] So you know that you got a certain timeframe before the bird is just going to say, "No, actually I'm not hungry anymore." But beyond that you just have a couple of do's and don'ts and that's quite straightforward.
How did being turned down by three drama schools effect you?
It's a very individual thing. Prior to that I was been working at as a teenager. And I had to doing things like National Youth Theater of Great Britain. I was also involved, since I was 13, in the Youth Drama Workshop where I used to live. And I used to go to lots of ... workshops and classes. I think you kind of find your own route. I think it's not such a bad thing that I was turned down because it made me find the strength and the discipline to go off and learn skills under my own steam. I think having that discipline is very useful tool to have so early on, you know? It certainly didn't do me any harm. And I think sometimes people recognize things in you. And I think maybe they recognize at that age that I wouldn't settle down for three years. I think they were probably right.
I was doing a little research and I saw this website dedicated to you and the quote on there said, "This woman is flawless." And there was a photo of you as Catherina.
Oh wow. That's really lovely. [Laughs.] Thank you that's very, that's very—I'm actually, I think I'm blushing.
Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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