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Victoria’s Jenna Coleman on Playing the ‘Passionate’ and ‘Stubborn’ Queen

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The newest monarchical British drama to make its way Stateside is Victoria, currently airing on Masterpiece on PBS, which chronicles the first few years of Queen Victoria’s six-decade reign. The short-statured queen, portrayed with vitality by Jenna Coleman (perhaps best known to Americans as a Doctor Who companion), brings forth a slightly different royal depiction than American audiences have previously seen, with Victoria’s stubbornness and inexperience front and center as she ascends the throne at the age of 18. Get ready for scandals galore! Vulture recently called Coleman to discuss the peculiar challenges of period dramas, how she gets herself into the 19th-century psyche, and whether she’d want to play an elderly Victoria.

I’ll start by admitting I had to brush up on my Victorian history before watching the show. I couldn’t believe how insane Queen Victoria’s early years were!
Oh God, yeah.

I appreciated that the show really emphasized how immature Victoria was in her first few years as queen, because it’s safe to say most people share a common vision of her being this strict, widowed woman for most of her life.
Definitely. Victoria was famous for being a passionate queen, so to speak. It was a real revelation to me what a lust for life she had and how romantic she was in lots of ways. When she became queen at the age of 18, at that point she had never been in a room with a man on her own before, and now she had to govern the nation. She had never even slept in a bedroom by herself because her mother was so controlling. She even wasn’t allowed to walk downstairs without holding somebody’s hand. So the day she became queen effectively was like being set free.

What kind of research gave you the best insight into Victoria’s private life?
I had access to the diaries, which was great. I’ve read so many biographies, but I’m always looking for certain details which give me access to her character and her psychology. Her diaries are so methodological in a lot of ways. You can find out what she ate for breakfast and what time she did this and what time she rose and what time she did everything. The detail is crazy. What I love as well is how she emphasizes in capitals and underlines things, because you can imagine her writing these things down. When she really likes something, she’ll write in huge letters and underline it. So I used the diaries and I used sections of biographies, but what was also really good was what her contemporaries said about her. Lord Melbourne, for example, had a couple of comments. A really good one was: Once the Queen thinks that she is right, when she’s set her mind about something, there is no unearthly power that will ever make her go round, she will only go forward. Her common trait was this stubbornness, being very obstinate and immovable in her views once they were made up, which is quite interesting.

Also, she sketched and had done watercolors since she was about 5 or 6 years old. You can see what she used to draw and what interested her from a really young age, and that probably gave me the best sense of her psyche. It’s been totally untouched. Nobody has been able to distort her views with her own eyes and her hands. It’s unfiltered in every way so they’re really, really interesting.

That’s really cool, where are those paintings displayed? Kensington?
Everywhere, technically! You can see them online, you can see them in books. When she was younger, a lot of her work involves this preoccupation with the ballet and the theater, and the most dramatic scenes that she’s seen at the opera. For someone who’s perhaps living in a bit of a regime, these passionate kinds of outbursts really appealed to her — in opera, for example. When she was 16 years old, she drew a self-portrait. And then as she got older, her paintings became much more about landscapes and open spaces. I can’t remember which author said this, but they commented on how so much of Victoria’s work wasn’t to do with state or jewels. There’s a simplicity there. There was a frankness and an honesty and an unpretentiousness with her. I feel like if you could make her laugh, she would be loyal to you for her whole life.

How important was it to enhance Victoria’s behind-closed-doors scenes with your own ideas?
That’s the hard thing with prep, and especially playing somebody who’s real. You’ve got so much to take on. I think, in my case, it’s prepping as much as you can and trying to understand the essence and the energy of somebody, so when you’re on set you can store everything else away and just play the scene and live in the moment with the person that you’re working with. I think it’s more about trying to learn about the essence of Victoria and then trying to carry that through the scripts. There was something else, another lovely little detail that I learned: She once wrote in her diaries of a day when she was walking with Lord Melbourne, the prime minister. They were talking about state and some sort of political business, and then she stopped and told Lord M of her wish of “going to have a roll in the grass.” You can just imagine them on a walk together and her turning to him as queen and saying: Actually, all I want to do in my beautiful dress is just go roll in the grass and have fun. I found it very charming. And human.

What did you find most challenging, or even interesting, about this dual role of Victoria’s public and private lives?
So much was interesting to me. I had the logistics of the public stuff, for example, I’ll bring up her coronation day. I read up on historical reports. We all know the queen was very composed, but there was more to the story than that — if you read other reports, apparently what really happened on that day was the ring was on the wrong finger and it got stuck and it was a mess. And then the big crown didn’t fit and it was wobbling because it was too big for her head. Can you imagine? [Laughs.] Challenge-wise, I suppose it’s trying to find the mask that she wears and how she inhabits the role. When you do shut the doors, you know you can really just see her. You have to be constantly moving between her public and private lives.

Despite the efforts of Victoria’s mother and John Conroy, she still managed to emerge as this strong proto-feminist who was quick to assert her dominance to everyone around her. Where do you think that strength came from?
I’m reading a new biography at the moment about when she was young — one of her ladies in waiting described her as having “veins of iron.” I love that. That stubbornness, that strength, that willpower, everything was in her when she was younger. Having grown up with so many people trying to control her, I think it silently grew and grew and grew within her and she became so strong. Without that upbringing, she would have been a completely different monarch. Also, without that strength I think she may have signed a regency, which is what Conroy tried to get her to do when she was very ill when she was 16. If she had, I think the course of history would’ve been entirely different because she was unbelievably stubborn. It’s such a flaw, but also her greatest asset, and it’s seen consistently through her reign.

Do you think her mom and Conroy had any genuinely good intentions with the Kensington System, or was it just a sad ploy to get power?
I think Conroy has a lot more self-interest. But perhaps her mother … I mean, her mom couldn’t speak English very well, and was very alone at court throughout her whole life. And then Conroy came along and she slowly became to rely upon him in a way that made her almost blind to her own daughter’s needs. She was controlled and happy to be, and in doing that she lost sight of her daughter. So resentment grew and grew. It’s a really complex dynamic between Victoria and her mom, and it’s something that they didn’t really resolve until much later in their lives. Victoria moved to the other end of the palace instantly! There was a lot of resentment there.

I couldn’t believe she ended up forgiving her mom for it. I would’ve … not done that. At all. Sorry, mom!
[Laughs.] I think that’s why she’s really interesting, especially because at the end of this series you really feel the push and pull. She grew up without a father, and she becomes a young girl who just wants her mom to tell her what to do, and then the moment she feels remotely controlled again, she can’t handle it.

One of the season’s driving narratives is the ambiguous relationship between Victoria and Lord M. Do you think there was a legit romance behind their intense bond?
I think it was more of an obsession and also the “idea” of love. What’s so wonderful about Lord M and Victoria’s relationship is that it was the prime minister and the queen. It was dear friends. She was 18; he was technically 56 at the time. They made each other laugh. They were like father and daughter in many, many ways. You really can’t quite put a label on it, other than it’s two people who really connect and charm each other through mutual likes and interests. They had a really profound love, but what that love technically was is unclear. Interestingly, Baron Stockmar said they were half lovers even if they weren’t conscious of it. In her early diaries, almost every other sentence was like Lord M said this today or Lord M is going here tomorrow. I think he was the first person who didn’t try to manipulate her and didn’t try to control her. He really gave her a voice so the trust between them was genuine and two-way. They went through a lot together. He was the person who guided her and shaped her and trained her for the first couple of years on the throne.

What can you divulge about season two, in terms of the historical events or the plots it tackles? Have you begun filming?
We begin filming in two weeks! We’re going to start just after the birth of the first child and see Victoria trying to balance being a mother, wife, and a queen. You also will see big power battles between Victoria and Albert politically and romantically; it’s a really passionate relationship.

As the seasons go by, it’s undeniable that Victoria has to age. Are you going to stay on in the role with prosthetics?
I think that would be … we’re discussing how and what to do. If the appetite is there, if the story is there in abundance, you could tell her entire life story. I mean, there’s so much historically speaking that happens in the Victorian era, with the invention of photography and the railway coming, and it’s a really interesting time politically and historically and socially. So, it’s there to be told. Potentially somebody would come given a certain time, but in terms of how we pace that and when that would happen, it ought to be worked out.

Would you want to portray Victoria through her entire adult life? Even if it means dealing with those pain-in-the-ass prosthetics?
[Laughs.] There’s something about it which absolutely appeals, but I mean — I don’t know how feasible that is, really.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jenna Coleman on Victoria and Playing the Queen