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Nicholas Galitzine, Tony Curran on Epic Deaths

Nicholas Galitzine, Tony Curran on Epic Deaths

[This story contains spoilers from the series finale of Mary & George.]

Nicholas Galitzine likens the story of George Villiers — the dashing Duke of Buckingham he plays in Mary & George, based on the real-life lover of King James I of England — to that of Icarus, the Greek mythological character whose unbridled ego and ambition led to his untimely end.

Across seven episodes of the bawdy and soapy Starz period drama, George transforms, under the tutelage of his cunning mother Mary Villiers (Julianne Moore), from a callow young adult into the de facto ruler of England, who uses his close connection to the mercurial monarch (Tony Curran) to advance his own political agenda.

In the series finale, George’s insatiable lust for power reaches a point of no return. After negotiations break down in the proposed marriage between James’ son, Prince Charles (Samuel Blenkin), and Infanta Maria Anna of Spain over Charles’ refusal to convert from Protestantism to Catholicism, George threatens to “destroy” Spain’s chief negotiator for refusing to go back to the table. “[The Royal family] don’t give me anything,” he says. “I am the power. I am the King. I am England. And your insults will be repaid … on my life.”

On the way back to England, George hatches a plan with Charles to tell James that they “escaped Spain’s foul endeavors as heroes.” But the news that his lover and son failed to broker peace with the Spaniards is too much to bear for the seriously ill James. Mary, who had a falling out with George and has now wormed her way into James’ inner circle, confronts her son about the role he played in allowing the murder of her lover, Sandie (Niamh Algar), for which George feels no remorse.

In an attempt to get back in James’ good graces, George builds an open-air bedroom for the king in the woods, where they have sex. “George really did build that for James in Epping Forest,” creator, writer and executive producer D.C. Moore tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It happened at a different time historically, but I was like, ‘I’m having that!’ It speaks to James’ love of the outdoors and his love of being king, so it was a double whammy on that level.”

Post-coitus, George convinces James to allow him to address the Parliament in London. What James fails to realize is that George uses that opportunity to stoke fear in the hearts of government officials and lie about what really happened abroad. “I will not recount every moment in Madrid, nor wallow in pride at helping the Prince escape dark Spanish clutches, away in a land where we were tormented by the promise of the Infanta’s hand,” George says in a rousing speech, effectively declaring war on Spain. “But no, it was a cruel trick, prison dressed as diplomacy. Debasements sought on us by men who do not truly understand what binds Englishmen: Faith. Love. Strength. We were once a conquering nation. We have bloodied the Spanish in battle before. And we should once again!”

Upon hearing that war is imminent, Mary pays a visit to James in his open-air bedroom, revealing that she heard George’s sexual liaisons with Spaniards are what stalled the talks with the Infanta. Believing that he cannot undo what his lover has done, James, in a fit of rage, sets fire to his outdoor palace. “From this moment forth, the Duke of Buckingham is stripped of all his titles and positions,” James tells a shell-shocked Mary and George, with the fire burning in front of them. “And soon, at an hour I choose, on gallows I build … he’ll hang for treason against me and my Crown. The King has spoken! I have spoken! Under God’s eye and mine, George will die.”

“If you look at the real story of James and George, George murdered his dreams of peace,” explains Moore. “James called himself Rex Pacificus, the king of peace, and George’s passions destroyed that, and the whole country about 10, 20 years after this [point], erupts in civil war. The seeds of that civil war, which are the most brutal thing that ever happened on English soil other than the Black Death, are because of what happened with George and James, and then Charles I after [James died]. So I feel like we are seeing the peaceful kingdom collapse in that episode.”

After James collapses from smoke inhalation in the woods, George carries him back into the palace, with Mary trailing behind them. When the Villiers realize that either James or Charles will hang George for treason, George decides to take matters into his own hands, suffocating the king on his bed with his bare hands. Although he admits that the show took some creative liberties when depicting the end of King James I’s life, Moore believes that “the murder, the cry for war, and how George manipulates the mechanisms of power is true to the spirit of the age.”

“Mary and George really did send the doctors out of the room,” executive producer Liza Marshall says. “They were on their own in the room with James when he died, so no one really knows what happened.”

Moore agrees that the identity of King James I’s killer — or killers? — is “murky” at best. Benjamin Woolley’s book, The King’s Assassin, which serves as the source material for the limited series, “has got its clear case: It was probably Mary and George in some way together,” he says. “In reality, it probably happened in a slightly different way.”

A few years later, George meets a similarly tragic fate: He is stabbed to death by John Felton, a disgruntled army officer who served under him in the siege of La Rochelle and wanted to get revenge on him for causing the deaths of his friends and fellow soldiers.

In a recent conversation with THR, Galitzine and Curran discuss their approach to playing their respective characters and their tumultuous onscreen relationship — and the experience of shooting their epic death scenes.

Nicholas Galitzine as George Villiers in Mary and George.

Courtesy of STARZ


It’s remarkable how open the members of King James I’s English court were about their sexuality, because they would look for spouses while clearly seeking some kind of release elsewhere. What did you both find most surprising about the Jacobean era?

TONY CURRAN The open sexual sensuality of these characters. Of course, my character was a king, and if you are the king, you do what you bloody well please. (Laughs.) I think King James expressed his desires for other men in a very open and candid manner, [maybe] because it was after 40 years of Elizabethan rule. [Elizabeth I] was the barren queen. She didn’t have any heirs. I read that there were more Shakespearean plays written under James’ Jacobean rule than there were under Elizabethan rule. The Jacobean period was a very vibrant, alive time, and I think a lot of that has to do with King James’ influence.

NICHOLAS GALITZINE I think there’s this misconception that everyone was extremely uptight, and we are very used to seeing media portraying these period pieces as being very uptight as well. I love the fact that we can shed a light on the true context of the era. I think it makes for a much more interesting piece of work as well. 

CURRAN It’s almost like you see it, and you think, Oh, obviously, it’s historical fiction. [But] a lot of it is based on fact as well. Men are with men, women are with women, men are with women, vice versa. But it’s like, Oh, we behave like that. Is it a taboo to have sexual, sensual desires? I don’t think it is, frankly. Certainly, King James didn’t think it was either. Obviously, he was a monarch, and he was a very powerful individual. If he felt an urge to do something … then he felt it strongly. But I don’t think it was just based on a sexual, lustful nature. With George and James, it became something of a friendship, of a respect, of a tender love affair, maybe in some ways to fill a hole that was always there with James.

So much of this story is George learning to step into his power. Nick, how did you want to mark that progression in your character across these seven episodes?

GALITZINE It was incredibly gratifying to explore an arc so large. And for me, it was in the physicality. I tried to add a level of nuance between pre-France George being very unrefined, with the help of costume and makeup, rounder hair, plainer clothes. He comes back [from France in episode 1], and there’s an edge, a directness, and a charisma to him that he didn’t quite have before. And then as he ascends to power, seeing him with his long hair and bejeweled with these opulent clothes and seeing the picture of vanity manifesting within him, I love to compare him to The Picture of Dorian Gray, in a way, of engaging in all the bodily delights.

CURRAN There’s hubris.

GALITZINE Exactly. It’s very much the story of Icarus in a way, but I’m so pleased with how we charted that progression. The filming schedule was so long, and we ended up filming the portion in France right at the end of production, which, to me, was this huge gap that was missing because that is George’s genesis in a way. We had times where we’re filming episodes 4 and 7, and 1 and 6, in the same day.

CURRAN It’s interesting you mentioned that. It must’ve been like everything that you’ve consumed, divulged and immersed yourself in with the character, you almost had to unlearn it for the beginning, which we shot at the end. But I think you did it quite well. How was the fencing? Was it rapier? A foil?

GALITZINE Yeah, something like that. Every skill that I had to learn in the thing, I had two hours the day before shooting, so the fact that we even got it … I’m lucky that George is supposed to be not very good and unrefined and a bit awkward when he is doing that as well, so it worked out for the past. (Laughs.)

Tony Curran with Galitzine and Julianne Moore in Mary and George.

Courtesy of STARZ

Tony, over the course of this series, the audience gets little kernels of backstory about James. He was notably raised by men, and, as you’ve described him, he has almost been “nourished in fear.” He has this constant need to be reminded of other people’s love, and he is prone to big mood swings. Where do you think that mercurial nature comes from? And why does he constantly question George’s love and fidelity, even after they have established their relationship?

CURRAN That’s a very good question, actually. I think a lot of his need, his insecurity, his desire to be told [what’s happening], or to have a confidant or someone there that he needs affection from, is the lack of a matriarchal figure in his life. [His mother] Mary Queen of Scots was executed when he was 13 months old, and he was brought up by all these regents — these very sort of Calvinistic [men]. Maybe these men weren’t very in touch with their emotional side.

As a young man, young woman, young person, if you don’t have that nurturing sensibility or tenderness from a parent — matriarchal, patriarchal, whatever it may be — then I think there could be a sort of gaping hole within some people. For James, it certainly was there. Obviously, he had a relationship with Esmé Stewart, Lord Lennox, when he was a teenager. [Lord Lennox] was a much older man, and I think [James] does cling onto characters like Mary Villiers and people that he thinks he can trust.

He’s obviously got a lot of paranoia as well about witchcraft. He wrote a book called Daemonologie. [Laughs.] Twice, Queen Anne tried to come over from Denmark, and there were these terrible storms. He blamed those storms on these three women who apparently were burned at the stake or hung. A certain William Shakespeare got the idea from these three women for the beginning of the Scottish play Macbeth: “When shall we three meet again?” So there was a real paranoia about his state of mind as well. I think that bred that need and desire to have someone there to care for him and to love, because everybody wanted a piece of him.

GALITZINE He’s manipulated a lot of times.

CURRAN Yeah, he was.

GALITZINE George wants something from him. [His lover before George] Somerset [played by Laurie Davidson] wants something —

CURRAN And I want something from George. Robert Somerset, Robert Carr, Mary Villiers wanted something from him. If you’re getting near to the king, you can ascend within the society, and the incredible rise of Mary and George Villiers was unchallenged, really. [That’s] the historical significance of a lowly aristocratic individual like Mary Villiers. She had no autonomy. Her husband died. The only outlet she had was her sons, but her rise within society using her son, using King James, was nothing short of incredible.

George and James’ relationship certainly starts off as transactional. But as George begins to use James to ascend in society, there is clearly a need for love and companionship that the other is able to satisfy for a while. Can you give me any examples of one-on-one scenes where you felt a clear shift in the character or the relationship?

GALITZINE I think episode four is a really big one. James becomes a lot more emotionally porous, and George sees this sort of wild nature. They’re going up to Scotland, and James becomes very unpredictable. This is right at the beginning of George and James’ relationship, and then getting through that, I feel like James then taking him under his wing and he’s kind of given license to —

CURRAN Express himself and have more control. 

GALITZINE Exactly. And then maybe that level of expression becomes a bad thing because George forgets himself, and George thinks he’s got more power than he really does. 

CURRAN He gets a little cocky in a sense.

GALITZINE It’s always all been tethered to James and his power.

CURRAN So I think that’s kudos to [D.C. Moore] and his lovely scripts. The two of them, George and James, it is like a married relationship or a couple. I’m like, “Oh, you’re cheating on me? Oh, I’ve seen you with those young boys.” He throws back at me, “Well, I’ve seen you with young men flirting away!” It’s very human, married couple behavior. [Laughs.]

But then as the story progresses, it gets more urgent and more severe. Ultimately, what happens in episode seven, [what George does by inciting the war without James’ permission] is basically a complete and utter betrayal within James’ eyes. … I feel like [George’s] loyalty is gone. It’s burning down; that mirrors the palace burning behind us, because his disloyalty has become ultimate and I think it breaks James’s heart.

This may be a bit of a silly question, but prior to Mary & George, had either of you ever died on-camera before?

GALITZINE No, actually!

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CURRAN That’s all I do for a living.

GALITZINE Is it really?

CURRAN Oh yeah. I’ve always been killed. (Laughs.)

GALITZINE Are you this generation’s Sean Bean? Because famously, he’s died in everything.

CURRAN Yeah, I died in Gladiator. I died in so many different jobs. Flight of the Phoenix — I got shot. I saved Hugh Laurie’s life. He’s never thanked me since.

GALITZINE (Laughs.) It’s fun!

Moore as Mary Villiers in Mary and George.

Courtesy of STARZ

What do you both remember from those days of shooting the end of your characters’ lives? What did you want to convey in their final moments?

CURRAN As he was trying to kill me, I injured him, as an actor, actually, with this ring. [Takes off his pinky ring.] This was the ring that I wore.

GALITZINE Wait, that was the ring?!

CURRAN That’s the ring. This is the ring that I wore that I stole from [costume designer] Annie Symons. No, she gave it to me for the London premiere, but this was the ring when he’s trying to suffocate me.

The way we did that, because it was late one night, and I think Julianne was wrapped, we shot it [with just the two of us], and it was a very intense scene to shoot. It was very heavy. Nick’s incredible in it, and I’m obviously trying to breathe. [James is] fighting for his life, and it’s also the disbelief that he’s actually trying to kill me.

But then the next morning, after we’d shot it, Julianne came in to shoot her coverage, and I think we just didn’t rehearse. We just said, “Should we just go for it?” The camera was between us, shooting through us, onto her. I think her reaction is pretty brutal. They used her first take because it was quite [brutal]. And then we said “cut,” because I had to hold my breath for a few seconds, and I was like, “Please say cut before I actually die.” [Laughs.] And when they said “cut,” Julie was like, “Oh my God, are you guys okay?!” It was funny because it was such a brutal ending.

My brother Paul, the other day, watched it, and I said, “Did you watch it?” He goes, “I watched it all. I couldn’t actually believe what Nick did to you.” And I said, “You mean George?” And he went, “Nick/George, whatever. [Galitzine laughs.] I couldn’t actually believe he killed you because I thought he cared about you.” And I was like, “Oh, my big brother’s so invested in the show!”

GALITZINE Well, listen, George equally gets his comeuppance a few years later. That was a lot of fun. I wish I’d have had a blood pouch or something like that —

CURRAN Oh my God, it was brutal. 

GALITZINE Famously, the great Christopher Lee, who was in the SAS, had a legitimate past as a soldier. Peter Jackson of The Lord of the Rings was saying when Saruman was going to get stabbed, he wanted him to scream. [Lee] said, “Well, I know what it’s like when someone is stabbed, and it’s an exhale of air. There is no sound.” I tried to think of that in my [death] scene.

CURRAN Oh, that was cool. [Turns to Galitzine.] Can I ask as well? [There’s] that wonderful moment when I fall in the fire and then I say, “You’ll die for this and that you’ll hang for this.” Obviously, you took [matters] into your hands by killing me. There’s that great moment when [Mary] is looking at you. Obviously, you did kill James, but do you think I would’ve hung you for what you did? 

GALITZINE Oh, God. I mean, that’s what that moment was between Mary and George. As James is lying in bed, I sensed no doubt in his voice. It’s hard because I think as we were talking about before, James has been so manipulated and betrayed — and this is the ultimate betrayal from someone he cared about so deeply. I believe George cared about James. And I think there’s a lovely moment after he kills you where George is sort of looking out the window, and I feel like you can almost see the last part of his humanity just gone.

CURRAN Nick portrays it so beautifully because he’s ending someone’s life, a man’s life, his lover’s life, his father figure’s life, a king’s life. But in many ways, what’s conveying in Nick’s face is … a part of him is dying as well. His soul is dying, actually, by doing this, and I think you can tell there’s no joy in this sort of homicide. It’s almost like part of him is dying inside.

All episodes of Mary & George are now streaming on the Starz app.

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