The Virgin Queen
The Virgin Queen
Starts on BBC ONE on Sunday 22 January at 9.00pm
Joanne Whalley plays Queen Mary Tudor
"No one really knows about her," says Joanne Whalley – no unknown herself, but one of Britain's most recognisable actresses since her breakthrough as Christine Keeler in Scandal some 15 years ago.
"You say, 'I'm playing Queen Mary' and they go, 'Oh, Mary Queen of Scots?' and you go 'No! Mary Tudor!' – and they don't know who she is. She is completely overshadowed by Elizabeth – as she was in their time."
Those who do admit to some knowledge tend to have a vague notion of a ruthless Bloody Mary wreaking terrible vengeance on the nation's Protestants, but, insists Joanne, she wasn't really that bad.
"Obviously I will say that because I'm playing her!" she laughs, adding that to avoid a caricature Mary she tried her best to understand where she was coming from.
"I know she has a terrible reputation as Bloody Mary but she didn't have an easy time of it. She had a terribly unhappy childhood; she has an unhappy marriage, a nightmare half-sister and religious trouble, so she has a full plate!"
Although she imprisons Elizabeth, Mary wrestles with her conscience and refuses to execute her without clear evidence of betrayal, despite having no reason to care about her half-sister.
"Elizabeth's mother (Anne Boleyn) replaced Mary's mother in the favour of the king; Mary's mother was sent away to live in exile and Mary wasn't allowed to see her, and she was forced to wait upon Elizabeth's mother," explains Joanne.
"So there's a lot of history in their relationship and her paranoia, her fears, are all very based in reality. She could have had Elizabeth killed, really, but didn't – she was not an unkind person.
"There are various reports of her showing this much more kind, benign side of her personality, but given the times that she was in, that bit wasn't allowed to shine through very often."
And in fact had little chance to, given Mary's personal circumstances.
"I think it's so tragic that after such a miserable and difficult journey to becoming Queen [plotters tried to install Lady Jane Grey as monarch upon Edward's death] it turns out very differently than she had imagined," says Joanne.
"One of the keys to that is her relationship with her husband, Philip of Spain. She was hoping for a real marriage, she thinks how wonderful to have a companion – and there was nothing. They had no relationship at all really, which is a huge disappointment to her."
All they really seemed to share was their Catholic religion and the desire to overturn the years of Protestant rule instigated by Mary's father, Henry VIII - which led to the religious persecution that earned Mary her gruesome nickname.
"She was very devout and she believed absolutely that she was putting things to rights with the country and in the eyes of God," says Joanne.
"Crazy as it is, there is some sympathy to be drawn – she was completely devoted; in her life and her work, everything, she believed she was doing the right thing.
"Her only moments of joy and pleasure were in her more devout, communing-with-God moments, because day-to-day life was pretty tough on her. She was very alone and very conflicted about how to deal with things. I feel sorry for her."
The great tragedy of Mary's death was that she thought she was pregnant, which she had longed to be.
Explains Joanne: "She was desperate to produce an heir to maintain the Catholic line and she wanted to have a child with her husband, but it wasn't a pregnancy – she had a kind of phantom pregnancy, some sort of growth."
For Joanne, that dramatic deathbed scene was her first in The Virgin Queen.
"I just came in and screamed my head off!" she laughs. "It was actually quite exhausting."
Also somewhat energy-sapping, Joanne discovered, are the royal robes.
"Just the weight of one of the skirts is enough for me - it's so unbelievable what you have to carry around! And the corsets… and then you have bodices laced on top…
"I have the hoops and skirts and the velvet and big fur and I'm up to here with the neck thing and the head dress – it's a lot of costume. No wonder in those days they fainted every five minutes!
"But I just love when you get to wear costumes and be from another time, it's just so interesting. Period costumes are great because you put all that on and immediately you feel transported."
She certainly looks every inch the Tudor monarch in her finery – until she slips on a pair of large, Jackie O sunglasses, possibly a souvenir from playing the former First Lady a few years ago for an American TV mini series.
She has been based in Los Angeles for over ten years – her two children with former husband Val Kilmer were born there – but Manchester-born Joanne still enjoys working in the UK and leapt at the chance to be part of The Virgin Queen.
"It's great to be in England doing something so English," she comments. "It's a great story, a great read, and I'd seen Anne-Marie [Duff] in Shameless – because I don't live here I'm not completely up to date on everything, but I'd seen Shameless for sure – and I think she's going to be incredible in this. I'm a big fan of hers so that was a huge plus."
Slipping off her sunglasses, she rises regally and excuses herself. "I just have to go and prepare a few orders for execution," she smiles drolly.