NEW YORK – As Woody Allen would famously declare five centuries later, “The heart wants what it wants.”
That goes double when you’re England’s dashing young King Edward IV, who, after he and Elizabeth Woodville meet cute on a forest trail, realizes he simply must have her.
Elizabeth is sweet on Edward, too. But she draws the line at being just the latest of his majesty’s sexual conquests.
What can Edward, who confesses “I’m mad for you,” do to win her over? He asks for her hand.
Thus begins the saga of “The White Queen,” a 10-episode drama premiering at 8 tonight on Starz.
Adapted from the historical novel “The Cousins’ War” and its sequels, this series is more than a moony romance. Beginning in 1464, it finds Edward leading the House of York in a battle royal with his own family’s House of Lancaster. Nothing less than the throne is at stake.
This imbroglio is further aggravated by Edward’s marriage. Not only is Elizabeth a commoner with two young sons, but also the widow of a Lancastrian who died in the struggle against Edward.
Can Edward prevail in this War of the Roses? Will his love of Elizabeth survive all the obstacles?
“The consequences of this marriage were seismic – alienating allies and creating enemies,” said Max Irons, who stars as the starry-eyed monarch. “But Edward was capable of dealing with them.”
So was Elizabeth, a woman who is as tough and politically savvy as she is beautiful.
History holds all the spoilers to the series’ major questions, but no rote account does justice to the on-screen crackle between Edward and Elizabeth, who, as played by Irons and Rebecca Ferguson, are the summer’s reigning It pair.
In a recent joint interview, both actors laughed nervously at that characterization.
“I don’t think it’s very healthy to think of yourselves as the next hot screen couple,” said Irons, who, in what they both insist is mere coincidence, is clad like Ferguson in fashionable black slacks and top.
“To me, it doesn’t feel like a love story per se,” said Ferguson, who this day exhibited her natural state as a brunette, not the titian tresses of her character. “There’s so much more happening!”
That said, pairing Edward with the right Elizabeth was crucial to the project’s success.
“We had to do chemistry tests,” said Irons, the 27-year-old son of veteran stage-and-screen star Jeremy Irons whose credits include the films “Red Riding Hood,” “The Host” and the upcoming “Vivaldi” (in which he plays the title role of the famed 18th century composer). Irons was cast first.
The Swedish-born Ferguson, 29, recalled first meeting him in front of the director, producers and other power brokers.
“I think I actually said, ‘I’m so nervous I barely know my name,’ ” she laughed. “You said, ‘I’m a bit nervous, too.’ And that disarmed the situation.”
“By that stage I’d seen about 10 other actresses,” said Irons. “Some of them looked right, some looked wrong. But the one thing that no one else really got was what makes this story so extraordinary: how a woman can navigate the political environment and survive. Elizabeth Woodville did that very skillfully.
“And that was at the heart of the scene,” he said to Ferguson, “that you were asked to prepare: the delicacy with which Elizabeth had to walk that line, to manipulate Edward without his realizing he was being manipulated. It was so clear after the first audition that you had that instinct.”
Ferguson was called back for a second audition, then a third, while Irons was offering her his encouragement as the process dragged on.
“We were texting quite a lot,” she said.
“And you were telling me how you’d given up.”
“Yeah, I had,” she admitted.
Then Ferguson was summoned for costuming and further screen tests. Even so, she still felt uncertain.
“There were others still being considered, and some of them were terrible,” Irons recalled. “My heart was always on you.”
“You spoke to me in general about the others,” said Ferguson, “but you didn’t run them down. I liked that. It made me feel safe. I figured I could work with you.”
The biggest challenge to working together? Their sex scenes, they answered in unison.
“We’re very comfortable with each other,” said Ferguson, “but getting naked in front of each other –”
“ – and 30 other people –” added Irons.
“ – was a bit awkward.”
“Everything in those scenes was choreographed,” noted Irons.
“We had our own wishes about how it should be shot. I wanted my arms up constantly, so they would look in good shape,” said Ferguson as Irons chimed in, “I wanted CGI muscles!
“When you see those scenes,” he summed up majestically, “just know that those are the things we’re thinking.”