African-Caribbean Actress Stephanie Levi-John, 30, has a crisp, British accent and when she speaks her cadence is peppered with bursts of deep, throaty laughter. The sound of her voice reminds me of joy and I found myself smiling during our phone interview— a necessity because she calls London, England home. 

 

The occasion to connect was to talk about her role in Starz’s new series “The Spanish Princess” in which she plays Catalina (“Lina”) de Cardonnes, the lady-in-waiting to the Spanish Princess.

 

Teenaged princess Catherine of Aragon, played by Charlotte Hope, daughter of Spanish rulers Isabella and Ferdinand, travels to England to meet her husband by proxy, Arthur Prince of Wales, heir apparent of Henry VII of England to whom she has been betrothed since she was a child. Unwelcome by some, she and her diverse court, including her lady-in-waiting Lina who is of Moorish ancestry, struggle to adapt to English customs.

 

Audiences have grown accustomed to watching British costume dramas with a uniformly White cast. In Starz’s “The Spanish Princess” the creators decided to resist leaving out two historical characters that were merely mentioned in documents of the period which included Lina and one of Catherine’s soldiers. Instead, in the telling of the story of Catherine of Aragon, they made a point of bringing Moors, who were African, out of historical obscurity and into focus.

 

“The Spanish Princess” is a British-American historical drama developed by Emma Frost and Matthew Graham. It is based on the novels The Constant Princess and The King's Curse by Philippa Gregory and it is a sequel to the miniseries “The White Queen” and “The White Princess.”

 

The L.A. Watts Times spoke with Stephanie Levi-John about playing Lina de Cardonnes. Here is an edited excerpt.

 

L.A. Watts Times: What type of challenges did you experience in playing Catalina (“Lina”) de Cardonnes, the Black lady-in-waiting to Catherine in Spain, and then England, where she ends up on the British court?

 

STEPHANIE LEVI-JOHN: That’s a great question, but let me start with saying just how grateful I am to be playing Lina. I mean, two years ago, if anyone would have asked me would you like to be in a [British] costume drama shows, I would have just laughed. I mean that’s not going to happen, really, and then, you know, I was made to eat my own words which was refreshing.

 

LAWT: Did you grow up in a family of actors? How did you decide that you wanted a career as an actress?

 

SLJ: Solid question. When I was about eight or nine, a childhood friend of mine had been scouted to appear at the National Theatre in a play. So, I went along with her mum to watch her. It was kind of like a lightbulb moment at such a young age: This is exactly what I will do for the rest of my life, purely because someone who looks like me on stage is doing something that I knew I would enjoy. It felt like, ‘Okay, if she can do it, then hopefully I can do it, too.’

 

LAWT: Thank you for opening that question. Did you see a lot of Black people on the screen growing up in England?

 

SLJ: Another great question. Let me think. So, I grew up in the ‘90s, early 2000s, and we had some shows like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Sister, Sister” but they were American and so I did feel disconnected because I’m in London and the Black stars that I did see were there in America.

 

LAWT: I’m impressed with your talent and I predict that once American film directors and casting agents look into your skill level, you will become a very busy lady. What type of training did you receive?

 

SLJ: Thank you, you’re very kind. Well, I went to Identity School of Acting, where [founder] Femi Oguns created a platform for actors of color to get into the industry.

 

LAWT: Femi Oguns seems like a very intelligent person. Hats off to Femi Oguns. Sorry, please continue.

 

SLJ: (Laughing) No, you are right. I mean I didn’t know how I’d be able to navigate myself into this industry, and that gave me the foundation to build a career. I learn by experience. I call myself (laughing) a “work experience girl.” Every job is a new opportunity to learn and I’m receptive to all of it. I’m constantly learning about myself and things that work for me.

 

LAWT: How did you develop the character, Lina? In the press notes, it mentions that in historical documents there was very little about her.

 

SLJ: Well there was a wealth of information in the actual script that allowed me to understand and to place Lina historically in that time to figure out the ins-and-outs. I used my imagination asking myself how did she stand? How would she carry herself? This is a story about otherness and being different and coming from one place and trying to resettle in another. It happens today.

 

LAWT: You are right. That’s a great way of looking at “The Spanish Princess.” 

 

SLJ: You know, what I wanted, more than anything, is to treat the memory of this woman who was just a line in a history book with the utmost respect and dignity.

 

LAWT: Preach.

 

SLJ: (Laughing) She’s not subservient. She is a woman with emotion. I just want to stay true to that. I did not want to make her a caricature, I wanted to make her as human as possible.

 

LAWT: Now, let’s talk about you for a minute. Can you do a flat, American accent?

 

SLJ: Yes, I can do a flat American accent.

 

LAWT: Oh my God, you can do a flat American accent. What is it about you British folks, is it something in the water? Is it a secret gift from the Queen of England to all of her subjects?

 

SLJ: (Laughing) A gift from the Queen … yes… that might be it. 

 

LAWT: What type of roles do you want to play?

 

SLJ: A villain. A proper female villain. Some type of female assassin.

 

LAWT: Do you want to work in America?

 

SLJ: That’s the goal. 

 

LAWT: What type of directors would you like to work with?

 

SLJ: Wow, I would have loved to have worked with [the late] John Singleton. I recently connected with casting director Kim Hardin.

 

LAWT: You should connect with director-screenwriter Dallas Jackson, he credits John Singleton with opening the door to him being a director.

 

 

 

SLJ: Really? I will, and thank you. I would love to do more films about Black people from other eras. Understand? I mean we tend to associate people of color with certain eras of time and eradicate them from others.

 

LAWT: As if we didn’t exist outside of slavery?

 

 

SLJ: Exactly. That is why I was so drawn to the character of Lina because she existed, as well as other people who accompanied Catherine of Aragon on her voyage to England. Hopefully, this show will encourage people to learn more about people of color not only in British history but how we impacted history around the world.

 

LAWT: Stephanie Levi-John I see big things for you, and congratulations on “The Spanish Princess” being renewed.

 

SLJ: Thank you.

Category: Cover Stories


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