If your attention was elsewhere rather than on Princess Augusta in the first episode of Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, you’ll be forgiven. Perhaps by the second episode, though, you started to perk up to her presence. Halfway through the Netflix series, you were probably aligned with many viewers for loathing the mother of King George, who doesn’t seem to have a kind bone in her body. And by the end of the show, you may have been asking yourself just what you would do in her situation, and how far you might go for the sake of your family.
If all that isn’t going through your head, maybe, for Game of Thrones fans at least, you’re just excited to see Catelyn Stark on-screen again! Though Michelle Fairley’s portrayal of Queen Charlotte’s Princess Augusta is a far cry from Catelyn’s memorable, brutal murder at the Red Wedding in season three of GOT. Rather, Fairley now graces the screen with as much astute aplomb and confidence-withering austerity as is needed for a dowager princess whose only goal is to further her family’s royal lineage.
Even though Queen Charlotte is, much like Bridgerton, only inspired by history, Princess Augusta is one of the show’s characters more closely aligned with the actual history of King George III, who, after becoming king at a young age after the death of his father, was closely watched and counseled by his mother. “It was a case of trying to make her as real as possible within the bones that Shonda put down on paper,” says Fairley of her interpretation of the princess. “[I researched her] to give her context and to find out what her life was to use that as a basis, [but] it’s drama, after all — it’s entertaining; it’s a ripping, good old tale.”
Though Fairley, a native of Northern Ireland, is most well known as Catelyn Stark, she has been acting in television and film for more than 30 years and says that theater will always remain her most beloved medium, having played the stages of the West End for even longer. She has made a name for herself on American TV with a recurring role starting in 2013 on USA Network’s Suits and then landed a part in Fox’s 24: Live Another Day. Recently, she’s been co-starring as yet another ruthless mother in the Sky Atlantic crime drama Gangs of London, which is set for an upcoming third season.
We get to chat with Fairley about getting into the role of Princess Augusta, getting into the costumes of Princess Augusta, and the multifaceted complexity of a woman who has been put in impossible positions her whole life.
VALENTINA VALENTINI: Did you know much about the real-life Princess Augusta before taking on the character?
MICHELLE FAIRLEY: Not at all. I think I knew what “dowager” meant, but that was about it. I knew who King George was, of course, because most everyone has heard about the “mad King George” and all of that. But in terms of his mother, if I’m honest, I knew nothing. But learning about her has been absolutely fascinating. She has parallels with Charlotte in that she was a woman who was expected to reproduce and provide heirs, and that was it — that was her job. She wasn’t expected to have anything else to do except marry well and produce heirs to maintain her position in society. And she did. She gave birth to something like nine children. She also knew that the man she married, Frederick, had loads of mistresses, and she just had to let those things go by. That was what happened at court. And because Frederick was a king in waiting, she needed to produce a boy so that he could then be king.
She nearly died during her first pregnancy, you know. Because the relationship between her husband and his father, King George II, was so acrimonious, Frederick didn’t want her to give birth at court, so he stuck her in a carriage to get her back to their home so that she could give birth without them being around King George II, and it nearly killed her in the process. So, she’s a very strong woman. Once her husband died, she realized that she had to fight to get her children to remain heirs to the throne and to achieve their birthright because the relationship between her father-in-law was so bad. She went to him and pleaded for help, and she played the game very cleverly.
VV: And we see her still trying to play the game in this show too.
MF: It’s always challenging playing people like that because they’re very easily seen as the bad guy. And she’s not the bad guy; it’s just the way she was brought up. It was the way she had to live her life because the royal court is all about gameplay.
VV: But she really can be tough — I’m thinking of that scene when she demands that Agatha stop crying.
MF: Yeah, but she’s cruel to be kind. She had to go through a hell of a lot worse, so it’s like, “Come on, suck it up. You want to be involved in this? Then get your act together. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” Because nobody gave her any shoulders to cry on; her family farmed her off when she was whatever age to marry somebody she’d never met, like Charlotte and Agatha. And she didn’t speak the language, either, like Charlotte. It was all part of what she had to learn to make it, to survive. Augusta is not a one-faceted human being; she’s a very multilayered character with a lot of balls to juggle in the air. So, give her time to understand her plight.
VV: What made you want to play Princess Augusta?
MF: I had empathy for her. I absolutely had empathy for her. I understood her situation.
And also, let’s be honest, these are the sorts of roles that are the most fun to play.
VV: They certainly seem to be. And Shonda Rhimes is so good at giving older women characters complexity and deep emotional backgrounds.
MF: Shonda is such an intelligent, creative woman, and she knows that these roles need to be complicated because life is complicated, existence is complicated, and particularly in that world, it’s incredibly complicated and stressful for women. Just because your son is king does not mean that life is going to be easy.
VV: Do you have a process for getting into character?
MF: It’s a multilayered thing and doesn’t happen easily. It’s about immersion into the research on the character and using that rehearsal time to get into it. It’s also the costumes, hair, and makeup — they all add backbone and flesh to the characters. Lyn [Paolo] is an amazing designer and was fabulous to work with. The thing about Augusta is she’s old school, she’s a dowager princess, she has a position to uphold, so her clothes didn’t have the youthful slant that a lot of the younger characters did. That’s because the society that she hails from is more restrictive, and her outlook on life is more restrictive as well. It’s more about the old way of doing things — she isn’t out there pushing boundaries.
VV: Having been a part of two high-profile series now, how do you feel about navigating the press and prestige of it all?
MF: It’s part of the job today. You have to accept it.
VV: Oh, dear! That makes it sound kind of terrible!
MF: Well, not everybody enjoys it. It can be fun, but it can be repetitive. Let’s be honest — you know exactly what’s going on here. It’s the whole process with practically every job that you do now as an actor. And it’s great for the show if it gets the ratings and if it gets people interested. Bridgerton has such a huge fan base, you just hope that they will tune in to this and enjoy it as well. I think what Shonda has done is incredible — she’s given more life to the characters in Bridgerton because she’s given them their backstory, and she’s given the viewer more information so that there’s a greater understanding of what these women, in particular, have gone through, how they have achieved their place.
VV: Can we dip into your career in the theater a bit? I read that it was your first love.
MF: I started off in theater, and that’s my blueprint. What I personally love about theater is the intensity of the rehearsal period. Those four or five intense weeks with an ensemble. And then it changes when you put it in front of an audience. Your understanding of the role and the play increases every time you perform that piece. And there are times, even, when I’ll finish a night, and I’ll be walking down the street and think to myself, “Oh, that’s what that means!” or “S--t! I should have said it that way!” I just love the continual process of it all, the continual learning. It’s a privilege to do that every night onstage for an audience.
VV: The last play you did was Julius Caesar at London’s Bridge Theatre in 2018. So, it’s been a while. Are you looking to get back into it?
MF: I’d love to do more theater. Absolutely. Sometimes you wait for it to come to you, and sometimes you actively say, “I would love to do a play.” But it’s not easy nowadays. There are so many other actors out there vying for the jobs. Sometimes people can make it happen themselves, but it depends. I’m a great believer of “If it’s for you, it won’t go by you.”
Valentina Valentini is a London-based entertainment, travel, and food writer and is also a senior contributor to Shondaland. Elsewhere, she has written for Vanity Fair, Vulture, Variety, Thrillist, Heated, and The Washington Post. Her personal essays can be read in the Los Angeles Times and Longreads, and her tangents and general complaints can be seen on Twitter at @ByValentinaV.
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