Marie Antoinette was misunderstood, stars of new PBS series say

Edward Settle
Edward Settle

LOS ANGELES – If there had been social media in the 18th century, Marie Antoinette would have had a big target on her back.

“She’s definitely a misunderstood person,” says Emilia Schule, the actress who plays her in an upcoming PBS miniseries, “Marie Antoinette.” “People nowadays see her by what’s been framed by the revolution, by all those rumors that were supposed to destroy and harm her.”

“Let them eat cake”? She never said that. Nor was she the vain, spoiled spendthrift her adversaries wanted others to believe.

“When she was 16, Marie Antoinette was dispatched to Versailles to marry Louis, the dauphin of France,” says Producer Claude Chelli. “Her only (purpose) was to consummate the marriage and deliver the next heir. But Louis preferred hunting to kissing his wife. Instead of being forced to conform, Marie Antoinette turned Versailles upside down to live life on her own terms.”

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In other words, she was a big influencer.

To play the role, Schule spent hours in wardrobe fittings. When they laced her into a corset, she got sick. Still, “it does help to get you into character,” she admits. “As soon as you’re in that corset, you really feel you’re in a cage and you have to adapt to a new way of existence.”

Before starting the limited series, Schule looked at countless books and tried to get a sense of the woman. Because they varied so wildly, “I had to distance myself and find my own Marie Antoinette.”

Relying on the series’ script, she realized the queen was “much more modern” than those around her. “She was fighting to preserve her freedom, her privacy. She really embodies our views today of equality, individuality, self-determination. It was these modern qualities that actually enabled her enemies to destroy and undermine her.”

Louis, meanwhile, was so shy he barely spoke.

“I put myself in his shoes as a 15-year-old,” says Louis Cunningham, the actor chosen to play him. “Your parents both died, your brother died, you’re going to be king of this country you don’t know much about and the pressure that is put on you is enormous. Especially the pressure in the bedroom.”

Because he had only done school plays and a brief role in “Bridgerton,” Cunningham relied on Schule to help him through filming. “Emilia is one of the most insanely talented people I’ve ever met in my life,” he says. “If I was lost, stressed, nervous or just didn’t know how something works, she’d help me out. She made everything vibrant and exciting and fresh and energetic.”

Like Schule, Cunningham found great support in the clothing he wears. Although viewers won’t be able to see, there are nature scenes on his buttons – “little details that would help you understand a bit of who he is. Everything was hand-made for us. It was a dream.”

To process scenes, writer Deborah Davis included descriptions before the  dialogue. “In the first three or four episodes, Louis barely speaks,” Cunningham says. “The slightly unconventional love story that Deborah created between two young people is something that is new. They have to become friends before anything else.”

To show the world through Marie’s eyes, directors used handheld cameras. They got close to the actors and followed them wherever they went.

Marie, Chelli says, wasn’t prepared to be a queen. “Same thing with Louis. They had to discover it by themselves.”

To lend authenticity to the project, scenes were filmed in Versailles with an international cast.

“Strangely, you kind of get used to the beauty of all these chateaus and those perfect hedges and gardens because we were really living it,” Schule says.

“These places are so enormous that you do end up feeling quite small at times,” Cunningham says. “We kind of got lost in our little bubble of working.”

The palace’s rooms, both say, were often for show. “They were actually sleeping in the small rooms behind them,” Schule says.

And, because the series is slated to run three years, the actors didn’t have to think about facing the guillotine. “There were a couple of tiny things that foreshadow what’s to come,” Schule says.”But they were blissfully unaware of the reality of life.”

While walking through the lavish halls, both Schule and Cunningham wondered how truthful the paintings of Marie and Louis were.

“You never know,” Cunningham says. “They had their portraits painted…it could be like 18th century Photoshop.”

“Marie Antoinette” premieres March 19 on PBS.

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