Catherina Sforza (Gina McKee) comes up with yet another scheme against… (Tamas Kende/Showtime )
It's a testament to the acting ability of Gina McKee that even when she doesn't appear in an episode of "The Borgias," her character, Catherina Sforza, looms large in the storytelling.
The head of the Sforza clan of Milan, Catherina is the most powerful rival of Pope Alexander VI (Jeremy Irons) in Rome. As played by McKee, she's a cool, cunning and vengeful tactician with a drive that surpasses many men in 15th century Italy.
"It's lovely to have an opportunity, particularly with a historical character, to play a woman with such individuality and strength," McKee said during a recent phone conversation from her home outside of London. "She was a politician and a warrior. She fought for her people and her family—not always entirely for those reasons, but often.
"She was very unique in that respect. There are not that many people that we can look to in history who followed her lead or that have come before her."
Catherina has defeated the papal army, attempted to assassinate the pope by delivering a plague-infected gift to the Vatican; arranged the imprisonment of his daughter, Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger); and in the June 2 episode, "Tears of Blood," attempted to derail the Pope's Jubilee celebration and kill his son, Cesare (Francois Arnaud).
While McKee hasn't had much screen time in the last few episodes of the series, which airs at 9 p.m. Sundays on Showtime, her character's actions drive the story forward to a probably showdown with Cesare and his army in the Season 3 finale set for June 16.
One could use the word "driven" to describe McKee as well. Probably best known in America for her role as Julia Roberts' wheelchair-bound sister-in-law in "Notting Hill," the 49-year-old actress is one of the most well-respected actresses working in British film, TV and theatrical productions today.
It's an unlikely place for the coal miner's daughter who grew up 300 miles from London, but McKee was bitten by the acting bug at 13 when she attended teen drama workshops. One of the productions was seen by a TV producer who cast her in a children's series called "Quest of Eagles." From the age of 15, she traveled to London for three summers to attend classes at the National Youth Theatre. Yet at age 17, she was rejected by three different drama schools.
"One of them said, 'Come back next year when you're 18.' But by then I'd got another job and I was working," she said. "And that was that."
McKee and I talked more about how she thinks Catherina passes her time (when not onscreen), working with animals and how not to screw up and epic scene.
When Catherina meets up with her "little pack of wolves" in "The Wolf and the Lamb," she says she wants to bring them together against the Borgias. And one of them says, "Under you, a woman?" And I had to laugh because I thought, has he not been paying attention? She's tough!
[Laughs.] Put it this way, fear doesn't control her, that's for sure. And I think she's probably been brought up, certainly the Catherina that we portray, she's been brought up not to adhere to any fears, to be a warrior, to fight for her rights, her family, her line, her lineage.
Did you know a lot about her before you started the show?
Not before, no. In Season 1, as you probably know, Catherina was hardly in it. They had said they will take the storyline further later, if we go to Season 2. So I started to find out more and more about her. And there were a few contradictions in terms of the historical accounts of her. But the essence of her comes across. And so I started to read various things about her and became intrigued. Because as research models go, it's actually a really lovely project to have, because the more you learn the more intriguing it becomes. And so since I began it I started to get into the history of it more and more.
Since "The Borgias" started I have become such a nerd for Renaissance Italy and papal history. It's great fun, you're right.
Well, it is because it's something that anybody who has gotten into historical events and the learning about the people behind the events ... knows that we kind of feel separated by the years but when you start to get to know the personalities and the reasons behind why people make decisions or do certain things, for example, it brings you very close because it kind of feels so familiar often to things that we experience in contemporary life. I've just been given another book about Catherina called "The Tigress of Forli: The Life of Catherina Sforza," which I'm looking forward to getting into, that was written by an American woman named Elizabeth Lev.