'Reign' Creator on Reworking History and Adding Horror to the Mix (Q&A)

"Knowing that [Mary, Queen of Scots] is going to die in 20 years, it gives her a certain sense of tragedy," executive producer Laurie McCarthy tells THR.
The CW; Getty Images
"Reign" (Inset: Showrunner Laurie McCarthy)

The CW is diving back to the 1500s.

Reign, which marks the network's first foray into period dramas and launches after The Vampire Diaries, follows a young Mary, Queen of Scots' (Adelaide Kane) rise to power after her arrival in France as a 15-year-old in 1557, betrothed to Prince Francis (Toby Regbo), with her three best friends as ladies-in-waiting.

The cast and producers have made it no secret that Reign won't stick solely to the history books. "It's TV, so we can take creative license," Kane told reporters at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour in July. "It's not the History Channel. Of course we're going to dramatize events and have fun." Prime examples include the incorporation of horror and a Gossip Girl-esque arc involving one of Mary's closest friends.

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In a chat with The Hollywood Reporter, executive producer/showrunner Laurie McCarthy discusses the challenges of departing from history, why she felt the need to add a horror element and what else to expect.

Have there been any surprises?

Any surprises have been positive, which is amazing I think. The chemistry of the cast has been great. To see Adelaide really take to this role, to see her confidently grow in the first 10 episodes, to see her create a character who grows in confidence, processing the kind of complexities of the dynamics of the court and the consequences of her decisions. It's been thrilling to see the actors really hold on to the material and get it into their bones.

The show takes liberties in its account of Mary, Queen of Scots' story. Is that challenging to maintain?

First of all, it is a fictionalized account of her life. It's designed to entertain. It's a love story with some horror elements to it. It involves political intrigue but it's of the most intimate nature. When you look at this moment in time in her life, very little is recorded but a lot was going on at the time. There is so much to take from that that you can twist it into a personal high-stakes story of the week.

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I found it interesting that you said you felt "liberated" by telling a fictionalized story …

I feel liberated by a character who everybody knows comes to a really pretty terrible end after two decades of falling in love with different men and choosing different men. She has technically two, arguably three husbands. She was engaged to one man from the time she was 6 years old who may or may not have wanted to marry her. Nobody really knows that when you look back in history. When living in a court of a king, where parents were not around, where bastard children abound and a mother like [Queen] Catherine [Megan Follows], yeah that feels liberating. It feels like a great idea for a show. There is a lot to mine. It's a great leaping-off point for all the stories that we want to tell.

Since we know what happens to these characters, are you putting more stock in the journey rather than the destination?

Knowing that she is going to die in 20 years, it gives her a certain sense of tragedy I suppose. At the end of the day, you know Elizabeth prevailed, but I think when you look at their lives, you think, "Wow, there is a really interesting life." And I would argue that Mary was the most interesting.

Are you using pivotal moments that took place during Mary's life as benchmarks for the show?

Yeah, we will acknowledge those moments.

How far are you straying from history?

We are not contradicting [it]. It's a fictionalized version of their lives.

You briefly touched on the horror aspect. Why was it necessary to incorporate that into the show?

Because it's fun and interesting. It feels like it's in our culture now. It's a nice way of increasing the stakes and creating mystery. There are certain creepy factors of the time just because it's the 16th century. There was a certain amount of barbarism at that time -- we could perceive it as barbarism -- and a certain amount of superstition at the time. What I'm doing is taking hold of that and just ratcheting it up.

How much more of that will we see as the episodes unfold?

It will be there bubbling, sometimes under the surface. It will lean more to the superstition of the time and the life-and-death, high stakes. It's a show that won't settle into a specific pattern. It's trying to turn over the course of the series and can move into any of those areas in a way that it won't feel jarring.

What storylines have you moved away from or jumped on as the show has progressed?

We've leaned into Mary's duty to marry for her country and the fact that she came to believe she was going to marry the future king of France, only to find out that he has reservations. We've leaned into the character of Francis and his obligations to his father and his country to marry, and that he is the future king of France. We've explored the incredibly entitled lives they live and the power that they wield, yet they are powerless against certain aspects of their own fates. That is where we find what will ultimately be our love triangle. We are coming up with a story for Mary's friends, who are exploring [adulthood], especially with one of Mary's friends who gets involved with somebody she shouldn't. There will be more relatable stories among the friends. To me the true love story of this piece is the nonromantic love story of a group of girls who really are a family to one another. To me that's relatable. And then you have Catherine, who feels it is her duty to her son [Francis] to make sure he doesn't marry someone who she firmly believes will cause his death. And if you look at the pages of history, maybe she was right.

What was the toughest part in getting this version of Mary right?

It hasn't been that hard, I have to say. When you hit on something that is right, it's exciting for the actors to play. I just feel it's the right show at the right time at the right network. Really, this is no bullshit, but I really feel like we can take incredible risks because The CW and CBS [TV Studios] are there to catch us if we fall and to guide us. They are really excited about the show and I've never experienced that. It feels fantastic.

What are you going to be doing on premiere night?

I am going to have all the writers over. It's really not that different than any other given Thursday, but it'll be really exciting.

Reign debuts Oct. 17 at 9 p.m. on The CW.

E-mail: Philiana.Ng@THR.com
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