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Samantha Morton on The Serpent Queen, In America, Minority Report, Morvern Callar, and much more

With her leading turn in Starz's latest royal drama, as well as upcoming ones in The Whale and She Said, the beloved actor walks us through her storied career
Left and right: Samantha Morton in The Serpent Queen (Photo: Starz) and Morvern Callar (Screenshot: Amazon Freevee); center: Morton during San Diego Comic-Con in July 2022 (Photo: Irvin Rivera/Getty Images for IMDb)
Left and right: Samantha Morton in The Serpent Queen (Photo: Starz) and Morvern Callar (Screenshot: Amazon Freevee); center: Morton during San Diego Comic-Con in July 2022 (Photo: Irvin Rivera/Getty Images for IMDb)
Graphic: Libby McGuire
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Over the last 25 years, Samantha Morton has become—not to sound hyperbolic, but it’s true—one of the most versatile actors of her generation. After beginning her career in the U.K. as a teenager in shows (Band Of Gold) and made-for-TV movies (Jane Eyre, Emma), Morton broke into films, appearing largely in indies (Morvern Callar, Jesus’ Son) and the occasional blockbuster (Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, opposite Tom Cruise; Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them). Along the way, she’s garnered Oscar nominations for her performances in Woody Allen’s Sweet And Lowdown and Jim Sheridan’s In America and made her directorial debut in The Unloved, the semi-autobiographical film about growing up in the British care system that earned her a BAFTA in 2010.

Now, Morton is enjoying a long-awaited resurgence. In recent years, she has returned to television, playing Alpha in The Walking Dead and Margaret Wells in Harlots. And this year alone, she revived her Walking Dead character in Tales Of The Walking Dead, took the lead in the heartwarming indie Save The Cinema, and channeled Catherine de Medici for the current Starz series The Serpent Queen. And later in 2022, she’ll star opposite Brendan Fraser and Sadie Sink in Darren Aronofsky’s festival-circuit Oscar contender The Whale and appear alongside Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan in She Said, a film about The New York Times breaking the Harvey Weinstein story.

On a recent Zoom from London, Morton spoke with The A.V. Club about sexism in the industry, Lynne Ramsay’s genius, her return to TV, why sets need a code of conduct, and more.

The Serpent Queen (2022)—“Catherine de Medici”

The Serpent Queen | Official Trailer | STARZ

The A.V. Club: How much did you know about Catherine de Medici’s complicated history going into this project? What kinds of conversations did you have with showrunner Justin Haythe about creating a new take on her story?

Samantha Morton: I think they’ve been done in France, but I wasn’t aware of another show either in America or the U.K. about Catherine de Medici. I was really sad that I didn’t know much about Catherine before I researched the show and read the script, because she’s extraordinary. And I very quickly realized that her life has permeated pop culture for a very very long time. She’s influenced [everything from] Disney films to fashion: the poisoned apple in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, the mirror that the wicked queen looks into, wearing black in mourning; she was the first person to wear high heels ... There are just so many aspects of her life that were everywhere, that were kind of hiding in plain sight. The minute you know about her, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, that’s why that was that way.”

She was an incredible mathematician, astrologer, and astronomer. She called on the greatest minds at the time artistically and academically to help her rule. For her, tolerance was the key to communicating with the Protestants and the Catholics. It wasn’t just this kind of tyrant who was like, “It’s my way or the highway.” She was really about understanding everybody’s viewpoints and what they needed and how to make everybody happy with it.

Initially, before I was cast, Justin wanted to talk about my take on the role: What was I gonna do? How did I perceive it? And I equally wanted to go, “Well, why do a bunch of guys want to make a show about this queen?” It’s a docudrama [with] historical facts as far as we can tell, and I was interested in that.

So often in cinema, men are in the powerful roles. Obviously, we think about Napoleon, we think about Churchill, we think about Theodore Roosevelt. We think about all these powerful rulers or leaders of armies or mathematicians or Nobel Prize winners, and they’re often men. They’re celebrated, they’re talked [about] throughout history, and she just hasn’t been. A lot of the times when you see powerful women—and obviously we can “camp” them up or whatever like a soap opera—they are often [considered] hysterical or too emotional, or they make decisions based on very bizarre, thin feelings rather than being clever, planning ahead, or seeing the bigger picture.

Samantha Morton in The Serpent Queen
The Serpent Queen
Photo: Starz

I have this sense of looking at American cinema and liking films by [Francis Ford] Coppola and [Martin] Scorsese, and thinking about the Italian men in those films and how behind every Italian man, there’s a great mumma, there’s a grandma that they revere. There’s a mother that they really, really look up to, and I wanted to do that. I wanted to play the role in a way that not everything [she thinks] was readable—almost like Don Corleone in The Godfather—because she’s Italian, she had 10 children and she loved her family. So that was my take on it, and Justin really liked that. We were both on the same page about where her power came from and how she used it. [We spoke about] her vulnerabilities and when and if she showed those vulnerabilities and to whom she would show them.

The Walking Dead (2019-2020)—“Alpha”

AVC: You’ve called Alpha “a role of a lifetime,” and The Walking Dead was your first time working on an American TV show. Did you ever have any reservations about taking on such an iconic villain?

SM: When The Walking Dead came through, and I was offered it and I spoke to [showrunner] Angela [Kang], there were a lot of conversations within my team about doing a show where you’re arriving in season nine. “You’re not there with the fanfare at the beginning, [so] what’s in it for you?” And I just read the role and I looked at the comic books, and I was like, “This is just insane. It’s amazing. If three people see it, so what? I get to do that every day. I get to act in those scenes!”

And that’s what it is about for me. It’s about how I feel at the end of the day, if I feel fulfilled and creatively challenged, and that I’d achieved something [new] in my repertoire. It’s like another string to my bow or a muscle I didn’t know I had. So I was really honored they trusted that role with me because in the comic books, she is very iconic. [Executive producer and special make-up effects supervisor] Greg Nicotero helped me develop her in the very early episodes.

It was really hard, but I really loved the idea of working in American television because I hadn’t done that before. [People] would say, “It’s really tough! The hours are really long!” I was like, “Bring it on. If I can do Band Of Gold in 1994, I’ve got it.” And now I’m doing more television: The Serpent Queen, The Burning Girls [a Paramount+ drama with Bridgerton’s Ruby Stokes]. And they are taking their time. The scripts are very well-written, the directors have their prep, they’re doing it properly. It doesn’t feel rushed, so I’m very blessed.

Tales Of The Walking Dead (2022)—“Dee”

TWD SDCC Trailer: Tales of the Walking Dead | New Series Premieres August 14

AVC: And you recently returned to the Walking Dead universe and had a chance to explore who Alpha was before she became Alpha. What do you think that prequel ultimately reveals about who she became towards the end of her life? Do you think audiences still see her as a villain? 

SM: It’s interesting you say that because, when we were shooting, The Walking Dead is obviously always from the perspective that Alpha is a villain. You never see her as a victim, but they killed the Whisperers first. They took Lydia; they kidnapped my child. There’s always gonna be another side to something, whether we like it or not. Everybody’s got their version of events, and historically, it’s quite complex to deal with victors and protagonists and things like that.

So I was excited when [executive producer] Scott M. Gimple contacted me to say that they were wanting to do a story about Alpha and who she was before. When you look at season nine and the episode where Lydia is held captive at Hilltop, and she’s talking about her memories of her mum and being at the beginning of it all happening, they’re all from her perspective. You’ve never seen [Alpha’s] perspective. And we know this now with the pandemic [about] what being locked away can do to the brain and the memory, and it’s very, very interesting.

So it was great to see things from Dee’s perspective of surviving, and also Dee’s background. Dee comes from a very troubled background where she’s had to survive an abusive marriage. She was abused by her father from a very young age, so she’s been forced to be quite brutal to protect herself and defend herself. And therefore, she does have PTSD; she’s not totally well. Then, when the apocalypse happens, she goes slightly [crazy]. [Laughs] So I don’t think she’s just a villain in that way. There’s kind of a method in her madness, and hopefully the audience can see how she became Alpha. For Dee, she was always kind of suffocated by being Dee, and then this happens and she can be this warrior. She can be Alpha and protect her people and protect her daughter.

Band of Gold (1995-1996)—“Tracy Richards”

AVC: Let’s shift to earlier in your career. How did you start?

SM: I grew up doing British television, from when I was very, very young. I think I was 11 when I did a kind of educational television and I played an alien, and I just was fascinated [with the craft] from then on. So I’d done a huge amount of television before I went into film. I made my first film as an actress at 16, and film was where I felt at home. While I had done what I felt was some great television, Band Of Gold was watched by 20 million people a week, and I couldn’t walk down the street on a Sunday afternoon after Band Of Gold had played the week before because I was mobbed, and I hated it. I hated being that famous at home; I didn’t like it at all.

So I moved to New York when I was 19. And for me, it was about wanting to get into arthouse cinema and work in areas where everybody wasn’t so rushed. The television that I did back then, you’re talking about [shooting] 10 pages a day. The hours were crazy—you’re working from 5 to 6 a.m. till about 9 to 10 at night, and that’s not including your travel or hair and make-up. You’re doing a six-day week; you don’t see your family for months; you don’t see your friends. I was a kid, and I was like, “I don’t want that life. I wanted to be an actor, but I didn’t want that. There’s no balance.” So the decision to go into cinema was that we would have more time to explore the characters. The camera was able to not just do coverage, and directors could make emotional and creative choices rather than just having [to do] a tick-box exercise.

The Last Panthers (2015-2016)—“Naomi Franckom”

The Last Panthers Trailer

AVC: So keeping that love of cinema in mind, what made you want to return to television?

SM: Films didn’t quite dry up, but they were just not making as many. I’d be attached to a project for a very, very long time, working with the directors quite closely, I’d be very excited, and then all of a sudden I’d get a phone call, “We’re so sorry. We have to cast Nicole Kidman.” I’d be like, “She’s incredible, of course. But this is really sad.” Or [they’d go], “Sorry, we’ve now gone to Cate Blanchett.”

And I get it; that’s the business. There have been roles that I haven’t done that other actresses have done, and famously Kate Winslet was supposed to play the role in In America, and I’m so grateful to her that she pulled out, so it swings around. But I did realize at that age that it’s really, really tough, and I have three children, I have a mortgage, and I want to work, and everybody’s going back to making television. So I was nervous, but I was like, “Well, if it’s good writing and really interesting directors, then I’ll give it a go.”

And there was a show called The Last Panthers, and Johan Renck directed all of [the episodes], and the company was called Warp Films, and they make incredible films and incredible music. They’re very, very respectable and people who I respect creatively [in terms of] what they stand for and their authenticity. And Jack Thorne wrote this [miniseries], and I was playing somebody that had fought in the war in Yugoslavia in the ’90s, so the role was incredible, and the research I got to do and the time they took to make six episodes of television felt like I was making a movie. I did that, and I had a great time.

Emma (1996)—“Harriet Smith”
The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling (1997)—“Sophia Western”
Jane Eyre (1997)—“Jane Eyre”
Harlots (2017-2019)—“Margaret Wells”

Harlots: Series Trailer (Official) • A Hulu Original

AVC: Given that you didn’t go to drama school, what were some of your biggest takeaways from those early experiences on professional sets in the U.K.? And what are some things you wish you had been told about how the industry worked? 

SM: First of all, I went to a place called the Central Junior TV Workshop, so I did have elements of training. I did live presenting television as well; I presented a wildlife program with these other children on live telly. I was a professional dancer for a while, so I did all kinds of different aspects of entertainment as a kid when you just wanted to perform. The kind of style of acting that we were taught was very naturalistic. It was about building a character from within and finding the truth of the character. [There were] huge amounts of improvisation. We were encouraged to write our own short films and edit them, and we had an incredible rehearsal space where we’d put these shows on and worked for each other, and it was an amazing environment to be in. From 11 to 12 to 16, I was in and out of that environment, so I did have training, it just wasn’t [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] or [London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art]. And in fact, it probably would have ruined me to go to drama school because they traditionally break you down and build you up again. That’s what I’ve heard, and I didn’t need breaking down at all. If anything, I just had so many ideas and [needed] to contain them.

I learned, really, as a young person back then, that I was to be quiet. When I was doing Band Of Gold, I was playing a 14-year-old child trafficking victim, so I had a lot of very, very heavy sex scenes to do with older actors. Sometimes, they were supporting actors—as in extras—and I wasn’t protected. I was told I was difficult if I didn’t want to take my bra off; I was told that I was difficult if I was late to set. And I was sometimes late to set because I had my period and I was trying to hide the tampon string, so I was treated horrifically at that time by male directors, male producers, and it was awful. I became very outspoken when I was very young, because I come from a very working-class background where I had to fight for myself. I kind of got a reputation of being difficult when I would just say, “No.”

I remember doing a movie for a director in Israel, and this director one day, with his big megaphone like a tennis umpire, in front of the whole crew, said, “Take off your bra. I want to see your nipples.” I was a bit older then, and I had a child at that point, and I just burst into tears. I said, “No. Don’t talk to me like that. That is not how you talk to me.” And what do I get? “She’s difficult.”

So what I would say to my younger self is to find an advocate, find somebody you trust. I was 16 years old then. How do I know how to articulate and be constructive in my asking for help, rather than being emotional in my response to the requirements that were asked of me as a child? It was really tough, and I learned how to protect myself and to protect other actors.

When I went to do Harlots years later, we had a lot of actresses having to do nudity. I was trying to protect them, even though now we have female directors, female producers. We still have male first ADs who were treating the actresses horrifically. We’ve come so far, but the training for the crew members has to change. Anybody can [work in] costume, make-up, hair, camera, electrics. You work on a few film sets and then you get employed, but there’s not a code of conduct that we’re taught, even [for] me.

AVC: What do you think can be done to address these issues?

SM: It hasn’t happened yet, and I think SAG, hopefully, will change and bring something in. I think Equity, our union in the U.K., should think about a code of conduct for every single crew member and cast member that’s inherent in our contracts where we treat people with respect and dignity. There’s a system in place to protect young people from unwanted sexual comments, or bullying, or exposure to things that they shouldn’t be exposed to, like cigarette smoking.

On a U.K. set, if you’re shooting an exterior, the crew are all having cigarettes all day outside. I have to breathe that in. And if I say I’m asthmatic and I’ve had double pneumonia and septicemia, which is true—and I’m really vulnerable and I was shielding in the first lockdown—I’m considered “tricky” because I don’t want people to smoke cigarettes. I think that should be a human right. You’re not meant to be able to smoke at work, but people do.

I think the term “actress” often is associated with being a diva or being tricky rather than a co-worker and a worker that has rights. We should treat each other with respect and treat each other as we would like to be treated ourselves.

Sweet And Lowdown (1999)—“Hattie”

Sweet and Lowdown 1999 trailer

AVC: Hattie in Sweet And Lowdown has been credited with reviving silent-film techniques, but she did so much more than that. She was really expressive with her body language, and the role earned you your first Oscar nomination. How did playing that character change the way you look at acting?

SM: When I read the script, I thought Hattie was such a chatterbox. Even though she’s mute, if she could talk, she would be like [mimics fast-talking person with her hands]. She was just full of innocence and love and light, and Woody [Allen] had asked me to watch the Marx Brothers movies, and he said, “Look at Harpo [Marx]. Just look at Harpo.” So I had this great note from a great director, and the environment on that set with Sean Penn and everybody was so much fun and it was light, and I was really empowered.

There were no big egos knocking about, it was just an incredible environment, and it made me realize how it could be. That’s how sets can be. And then when I went on to do the Steven Spielberg one [Minority Report], I was working with gentlemen. [I felt] respect for the human beings who treated me with dignity and kindness, and he got the best out of me. If you treat people well, you will get the best from them. And what I learned from that time was the joy of working on a film set where people have time to get it right, and they are respected. I’ll remember [the environment] for the rest of my life. It was a very, very special time.

AVC: How has your approach to selecting projects changed since that movie?

SM: Well, then I was 21, and I had a lot of scripts coming through my door, a lot of offers to go to things like the Met [Gala] or be in different magazines. [But] the minute I turned 30, that just stopped. People are not that interested in you, as a woman. I think when you’re a man and you age, whether you’re a musician or you’re an actor, you age with this kind of dignity and this gravitas [and belief] that you’re wise. But for women, we’re just not relevant anymore in the same way. That has to change.

W Magazine has just done a big thing—I just looked at it online—where they have these supermodels now in their fifties. You think about Isabella Rossellini, you look at Diane Krueger—we’re older women, but we have lots to say and we have learned a huge amount. We can give back. It’s this idea that your shelf life is gone and you’re not clever, you’re not—excuse my language—fuckable. It’s really, really bad.

In certain cultures, older women are really respected for all sorts of reasons. I think in the Western cultures, certainly in the U.K., it’s like you’re an old hag or you’re not relevant. Hopefully, society is gonna change in regards to the U.K. and in America, because youth is amazing, but it’s tricky and it’s not everything. They don’t have all the dollars. [Laughs] So that’s what’s changed. I just feel so fortunate to be working and so privileged when I’ve got so many of my friends, who are brilliant actresses, that aren’t working. There just aren’t [many] roles written for them, and it’s awful.

In America (2002)“Sarah Sullivan”

In America - Trailer - (2002) - HQ

AVC: Let’s talk a little bit about In America, which earned you another Oscar nomination. What was it about the immigrant-family story that grabbed your attention?

SM: My grandfather’s Polish, came to the U.K. and didn’t speak any English, and my grandmother was Irish, so that automatically felt personal. That’s my history, that’s my DNA. I loved working in Ireland. I was a huge Jim Sheridan fan; he’s incredible. So when I went and read for that [role] and met Jim, I just hoped I’d get it, and I got it. Just that story breaks me every time.

I think that when you’re telling stories and there’s elements of truth or it’s based on truth, or you find a thread that permeates society where people go, “I recognize that,” that needs to be said. You not only have your own power that you’re bringing to it, but you galvanize the audience, you’re taking the audience on that journey with you, and they’re either rooting for you or they’re really wanting to know what’s happening. So I felt that was a film that needed to be made, and in a way, we even need to make it today.

Those kinds of stories need to be made every few years where we’re looking at immigrants. We have a problem in the U.K. right now where they’re sending people away, like, “You can’t come here. You’re not welcome. Don’t get on your boats. You’re gonna kill yourself.” And it’s like, “Well, why are they fleeing?” Okay, it’s not just economic migrants; we’re looking at people fleeing for their lives. And we’ve got terrible situations globally in regard to this situation, so I felt really honored and proud to play that role and be part of that family, because it was a family environment.

Morvern Callar (2002)—“Morvern Callar”

Morvern Callar (2002) Official UK Trailer

AVC: You’ve spoken in past interviews about how director Lynne Ramsay spoke to you like a collaborator when you worked together on Morvern Callar. What did she teach you about filmmaking that has stayed with you and informed the way you act or direct?

SM: I have to say, first and foremost, Lynne Ramsay is a genius, and I don’t use that [term] lightly. I see her as a genius in the [same] way I talk about Francis Bacon. Lynne doesn’t approach filmmaking like anybody else. One day, Lynne should write a book because it would be extraordinary. I don’t give away her secrets—I’ve worked with Lynne twice—but I love her work and she’s so unbelievably special. Lynne is a cinematographer and a photographer, so she understands light in the way that a lot of directors don’t.

A lot of TV directors, just to go back to television for a second, allow their cinematographers or their operators to make decisions. They work with the actors a little bit, and then they turn around to the DOP or the operator and they go, “What do you think?” They don’t even look through viewfinders anymore. It’s utterly heartbreaking. Whereas when you work with a film director, they collaborate with their DOPs. Certainly, when I made my first film, I knew what size I wanted; I knew the shot. But it’s almost like television directors are more stage managers. They’re more kind of bringing everybody together to get coverage for the editor, so you could do the same shot three times—one on a tracking, one with a dolly, one on a steady cam, one on a handheld—and they’re all the same. You’ve just taken three hours to do something that if you had the right decision-making skills, you would have known, “I need this, and then I need to come back here, and then what is she looking at? I need a shot of the eyes.” They don’t have those skills.

Lynne has a shorthand and an understanding of human behavior and a gut instinct for the magic of cinema, the magic of things that happen. She can see things in scenes that no one else can see. Her scripts are extraordinary. They’re like something you’ve never read before—you could make a film about the writing of the film, or you could make a film about your interpretation of the script. I can’t think of anybody like her.

AVC: Are you like her as a filmmaker?

SM: I’m not like her as a filmmaker. I’m not boring, but my films so far are autobiographical, so they’re based on memory, so I’m going back to what I see and hear in my head about how I’m gonna shoot it. But if I’m ever in a situation where people aren’t trusting me, [I’ll use what she taught me]. She’s so radical, so clever.

The Unloved (2009)—co-writer/director
I Am… (2019)—“Kirsty”

TRAILER | I Am | New Series | Watch on All 4

AVC: How has writing your own stories helped you to recognize the importance of using art to hold up a mirror to society?

SM: For me personally, it’s the only way I know how to communicate. People have said to me, “Why don’t you make a documentary about your childhood?” And I say, “Well, that’s all well and good, but I’m not a documentary filmmaker.” I know how to tell stories, and I know how to tell them in a visual format. Music is so powerful and that affects me so greatly, so I need music to permeate the story as well and to move people. I feel I’ve been in front of a camera for more of my life than not, so that’s how I know how to communicate.

Minority Report (2002)—“Agatha Lively”

Minority Report (2002) Official Trailer #1 - Tom Cruise Sci-Fi Action Movie

AVC: This year marks the 20-year anniversary of Minority Report, but its themes of technological surveillance and invasion of privacy feel more relevant than ever. Could you tell at the time that you were going to be part of such a prescient moment in pop culture?

SM: Yeah, Steven [Spielberg] was really clever and he had “futurologists” on set. Everything in that film pretty much was something that was capable of being made.

AVC: What do you think that film says about the state of today’s world?

SM: You have to go back to the source material [by Philip K. Dick]. Sci-fi writers are absolutely extraordinary. You think about when that book was written. It’s a very, very famous sci-fi book. That’s what’s extraordinary there. Sorry, no disrespect to Steven and Tom [Cruise]—they were incredible—and I think Steven’s vision for that film was extraordinary, but the source material is also really extraordinary as well.

When you think about what [Stanley] Kubrick did before technology had advanced to the stage that it had advanced to, that blows my mind. You hadn’t had the photographs from space that you have today. But yet you look at the film [and go], “How did he know some of that stuff? How did he make it look like that too?” So that blows my mind.

But also, I think what’s great about Minority Report is [now] you look at Stranger Things and [there’s] the character who is very heavily influenced by Minority Report’s Agatha. I love the fact that you can watch a commercial on the telly now, and they’re kind of doing the Minority Report thing, talking about car insurance. [Laughs] And I’m like, “Go on, Steven!” He’s mind-blowing.