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Producer, Claude Chelli, Emilia Schuele and Louis Cunningham participate in a panel discussion during the Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour, on Jan. 16, at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, Calif.Richard Shotwell/The Associated Press

Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and the British Royal family have given tabloids plenty of fodder. But as true Royal watchers and historians may note, infighting, hate campaigns, sibling rivalry and public opinion have long been touchstones of royal life. Look no further than this weekend’s debut of Marie Antoinette for proof.

The PBS Masterpiece series is a dramatic retelling of the life of the last French queen, as scripted by creator Deborah Davis (The Favourite). Through eight initial episodes, which bowed in Europe late last year, rising German actor Emilia Schüle helms that journey, painting an intimate and more nuanced portrait of the Queen of Versailles than, say, Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film of the same name.

“She’s an icon, but she was also controversial,” Schüle tells The Globe in an interview. “In prepping, one of the things that struck me most was that she was a victim. I thought the film was very shallow. Knowing Deborah Davis wrote this, I knew it would have cynicism and be edgier.”

The series begins with 14-year-old Marie, an archduchess of Austria and the youngest of 16 kids, cramming in French etiquette lessons to prepare for her upcoming marriage to Louis XVI. (Amusingly, portrayer Louis Cunningham is the grandson of the late Prince Charles of Luxembourg.) Although the girl is devastated to leave her mother and childhood home, she doesn’t realize how dire her situation is until she arrives in France.

There, King Louis (James Purefoy) is welcoming but overly affectionate, her soon-to-be sisters are dismissive and her betrothed refuses to speak to her. Her only real friend is the King’s mistress, Madame du Barry (Gaia Weiss), until she becomes Marie Antoinette’s biggest enemy. From there, themes of jealousy, succession and the trauma of child marriage unfold.

“Being sent away and married off at 14 and being in an environment where everyone hates you and just wants to get rid of you? That’s all traumatizing,” continues 30-year-old Schüle. “The math for me is that she would run away and party and wear dresses and distract herself because that’s what we as humans do.”

Historically, one of Marie Antoinette’s biggest legacies was her opulence, from her beauty potions and parties to her love of art, gambling and haute couture (production used not one, but two Dior dresses during filming). Purchasing a rumoured 300 frocks each month wasn’t a good look for the Queen during a tumultuous economic period in France. In the end, it was stories like these that lead to her nickname, “Madame Déficit.” The problem was, not all of these stories were accurate.

It’s a well-known fact the Queen never said “let them eat cake,” for example. But a perhaps lesser-known story is the time she rejected a necklace from the Crown jeweller, only to have someone else forge her signature. She was then falsely accused of fraud. Schüle hopes that specific “Affair of the Diamond Necklace” storyline plays out in a potential second season.

“These rumours were made up by people who wanted to harm her, and that was just the beginning of this fake hate campaign against her,” she adds. She said it was people making things up “to enrage the French people so they would overthrow the crown.”

In other words, Marie Antoinette could be considered one of the earliest victims of cancel culture.

“She wanted to lead and have influence; she wanted to have some meaning,” Schüle muses. “But she wasn’t allowed that.”

The actor cites the Hameau de la Reine as an example. Louis eventually gifted Marie the house in the Versailles gardens, and it was there that she would go to escape, unwind and de-corset.

“She would go there just to feel like a human, but it was used against her,” Schüle explains. “The simplest things were problematic for her at court. She was viewed as not playing according to their ridiculous rules.”

The mounting pressure of producing an heir to the Bourbon line and securing the Franco-Austrian alliance when her husband wouldn’t talk to her, let alone touch her, added to that trauma. It took seven years for Louis to consummate their marriage, yet much of the blame fell on Marie Antoinette.

To get into that mindset, Schüle worked with one of her coaches to develop the late Queen’s soul matrix: a definition of her energetic energy and an exploration of her higher self. It was the first time the performer, who began her career when she was 11, had gone to such lengths to understand the layers of a character.

“I had like 10 pages of her matrix,” she laughs. “One of the interesting things was that whenever she felt cancelled, she would try and feel connected with herself through touch. It could be cloth, or an apple or whatever. It was such an interesting tool and I found some interesting moments to integrate that.”

Filming on the series, which included shoots at the Palace of Versailles, the Castle of Vaux-le-Vicomte and the Castle of Fontainebleau, wrapped in February, 2022. Since then the real-life dramatics of the British royal family have also played out on screen, most notably with the December, 2022, Netflix doc, Harry & Meghan.

That project and the family members’ claims about leaked press stories, faked statements and the overall fear of change make it easy to draw parallels between Marie Antoinette and another royal family member who claims she was shunned for being different: Meghan Markle.

“It gives you a sense this whole royal thing is just ridiculous,” Schüle reflects. “It’s just a circus in a way. Watching that documentary you do get a sense that it’s all kind of a soap. Life at Versailles was like theatre. Marie Antoinette was never alone. You don’t own yourself as Queen; you are property of the court.”

PBS Masterpiece: Marie Antoinette airs Sunday at 10 p.m. ET.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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