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"Tony Curran discusses his experience portraying intimate scenes in Jacobean style for his role in 'Mary & George'."
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“Tony Curran discusses his experience portraying intimate scenes in Jacobean style for his role in ‘Mary & George’.”


When filming a scene of an orgy in a historical house, one must consider the preservation standards. According to Tony Curran, who portrays King James in the provocative seven-part series Mary & George, “The stately home we filmed in was a 14th-century structure.” He explains that due to conservation rules, “Moisture was not permitted for use.” He adds, “I cannot predict how long orgies typically last – I personally have never been in one – but I assume there would be some level of perspiration.” However, actors were not allowed to use any kind of fake sweat or fluids during the filming. “It was a very dry orgy,” I suggest. To which Curran responds with a chuckle, “Yes, indeed, a very dry orgy! Perhaps, like certain royals, we do not perspire.”

Curran has worked steadily and successfully for decades, from challenging films (Andrea Arnold’s debut Red Road) to Marvel universe shows (he was in last year’s Disney+ series Secret Invasion with Olivia Colman). But it’s only relatively recently, in his 50s, that Curran has been given the larger roles he deserves – he was excellent playing a terminally ill man in the 2022 BBC drama Mayflies. “Mary & George has been a real pleasure to be a part of, a real challenge and hopefully people will see it.” He smiles. “And will offer me more work.”

The titular character Mary is portrayed by the typically brilliant Julianne Moore. In her son George, she sees all the potential for her own advancement in life. Mary tells George, “(if I were a man and) looked like you, I would have complete control over the world.” She then sends George to France to learn proper manners and set his sights higher than the servant girl he claims to love. Upon his return, a newfound confidence and worldliness, perhaps thanks to indulging in orgies, makes George nearly as formidable as his mother. Now, Mary focuses on training him in order to secure a place in King James’ chambers. She states that King James is “so infatuated, it’s almost like a curse.”

The large amount of sex, particularly queer Jacobean sex, will definitely catch your eye. According to Curran, it’s up to the audience to interpret if the portrayal of public sex is as blatant as it is in the show. However, although there is a sexual intensity between James and George, Curran believes that is not the main focus of the show. For George, sex is a form of exchange, while for James, it serves a different purpose.

Eyes on the prey … Julianne Moore, Nicholas Galitzine and Curran in Mary & George.View image in fullscreen

“When one struggles to find purpose in life, they may turn to various forms of distraction such as indulging in their carnal desires, seeking pleasure, or consuming alcohol. However, it seems that James was seeking both meaning and distraction. Perhaps he wished to escape from the confines of court life and the pressures of leadership and politics.” The speaker recalls preparing to re-record some dialogue and watching a scene where James and George share a kiss, and being struck by the tenderness displayed. They mention that the sexual allure, particularly for George and Mary, involves a power dynamic, but also notes the presence of friendship, love, and vulnerability. The speaker also references letters where King James referred to George as “my sweet child and wife.”

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Collaborating with Moore was an inspiring experience for Curran. He describes her as a joy to work with and very focused. He mentions with a smile that there were quite a few redheads on set, and he believes that the more, the merrier. When asked about any challenges he faced as a redhead, Curran recalls facing bullying in school. As an adult, when he played the role of Vincent van Gogh on Doctor Who, someone asked him what he would change about his past if given the chance in a Tardis. He jokingly responded that he would tell his teenage self to not be so hard on himself, but as he has gotten older, he has learned to let go of any negativity towards his hair color.

Curran was raised in Glasgow, with his mother working at British Telecom and his father as a taxi driver. His family did not have a background in the performing arts, with his uncle being a redcoat at Butlin’s being the closest connection. Curran became involved in youth theatre and landed his first acting role on Scottish TV in a children’s drama called Stookie. He left school at either 15 or 16, as academics was not his strength. Eventually, he attended the now-named Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

When he was 24, Curran moved to London and landed one of his first main TV roles as Lenny, the plumber, in the influential drama called This Life. He fondly recalls thinking it was a great opportunity at the time. During the 90s, there wasn’t as much discussion surrounding whether non-queer actors should take on queer roles, as there is now. However, some may question Curran’s casting as King James since he identifies as straight. He acknowledges this debate, but he believes that restricting actors to only play characters they identify with dilutes the essence of acting as a form of art. To him, the most crucial aspect is to truly understand and portray the character, regardless of their identity. As actors, they are like chameleons, constantly transforming to immerse themselves in various roles – a skill Curran sees as valuable.

The character of James I caught Curran’s attention due to the lack of representation on screen. Curran expressed that portraying James was one of the most compelling roles he has played. As the successor to Elizabeth I, James was surrounded by significant events such as the gunpowder plot, involvement with Shakespeare, the witch trials, his translation of the bible, and the expansion of the United Kingdom and imperialism. Tragedy struck in James’ infancy when his father, Lord Darnley, was killed and his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned and eventually executed without ever seeing her son again.

‘He’s a compelling figure – and then on top of that was his sexuality’ … Curran as King James with the Earl of Somerset and Queen Anne.

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Curran, who spoke with Benjamin Woolley, the author of The King’s Assassin on which Mary & George is based, reveals that the king was cautious and wore extra padding under his doublet in case he was attacked. Woolley referred to James as “nourished in fear,” highlighting his paranoia and fascination with demonology and witchcraft. Curran notes that despite being a compelling figure, James is often overlooked in history, possibly due to being seen as a weak king for his reluctance to engage in war with France and Spain or for his homosexuality being considered unacceptable.

A contemporary interpretation of the time period appeared necessary, and Mary & George seems relevant in various aspects. It is hard not to draw parallels between Mary’s advice to second-born sons to make something of themselves or be reduced to nothing and a certain red-headed member of the royal family. Looking at it through a modern perspective, many things can be reevaluated, such as the role of monarchy in our society. When Elizabeth II became queen in 1953, a majority of people believed that she had a divine right to rule, but with Charles’s impending succession, this would be unthinkable now. We can also reconsider the formation and future of the Union.

According to Curran, the Acts of Union, which took place in 1707, fulfilled James’s desire to unite the kingdoms and bring peace. Curran, who has been residing in Los Angeles for the past two decades, supports the independence of Scotland. He clarifies that it is not a rejection of England, but rather a belief in the potential of Scotland to stand on its own. He acknowledges that growing up in Scotland during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure was challenging, but he questions whether Scotland has the necessary economic strength to become independent and wonders if it is a somewhat idealistic notion. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that James may not approve of Scotland separating from the United Kingdom.

Source: theguardian.com