The fate of Henry VIII's six wives is so infamous that it's become its own rhyme: Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived. While the king's relationships with his first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, have been well-explored on screen, the story of the wife who survived him has gone largely untold. Firebrand seeks to bring her into the light.

The historical drama, which marks the English-language debut of Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz, centers on the contentious relationship between Henry VIII (played by two-time Oscar nominee Jude Law) and his sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr (Oscar winner Alicia Vikander). The Swedish Vikander admittedly knew little about the woman she would portray before reading Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth's screenplay. (The script is adapted from Elizabeth Fremantle's 2012 novel, Queen's Gambit.)

"I think we've all begun to realize more and more how many women have been forgotten throughout history, even when — as was the case with Katherine — they've managed to do remarkable things," Vikander tells A.frame. "No one's really highlighted Katherine up to this point, even though she was Henry VIII's last wife."

Katherine Parr believed herself chosen by God to influence the king; but her Protestant sympathies pitted her against both the monarchy and the Church of England and, as the film reveals, she found herself fighting to keep her head on. Firebrand delves into the physical and psychological abuse that Vikander's outwardly placid, inwardly petrified Katherine suffered at the hands of her powerful, volatile husband. It demanded that the two actors go to some dark places in order to find, as Law says, "the truth" of the royal relationship.

"I can't tell you how important it is when you embark on a film like this, with this sort of relationship at the center of it, to know that you'll be working with someone who will support you and communicate clearly the whole time how far they want to go," Law explains. "The most wonderful, fulfilling experience you can have as an actor is when you're treading into dark waters, but you know you're doing it in a way that feels really nurturing and nourishing."

A.frame: I know that you were both in Anna Karenina, which was 12 years ago now. Is that when you met for the first time?

Alicia Vikander: Yes! I think my first English-speaking role was in that film, and, I mean, you can just imagine what that was like for me! I came from Sweden, showed up in London, and met with [Anna Karenina director] Joe Wright, then I met Keira [Knightley] and Jude. It was a remarkable thing for me — to be 22 years old and arriving on a set like that. I remember we got to do two weeks of rehearsals in the theater where the movie was filmed, and that was just the most terrifying thing. [Laughs.] My English wasn't very good, and it was like, "Okay, now go up and perform!" I was actually paired with you, Jude! It was a group of four of us, and I remember we did something involving a chair...

Jude Law: That's right! [Laughs.] It was a lot of theater games.

Alicia Vikander: We were doing these games to rehearse, and I was doing them with Jude Law! It was mind-blowing for me at the time. I remember after just the first few days on that film how struck I was by how kind Jude, Keira, and Matthew [Macfadyen] were, especially. They were these actors whose work I knew so well, but they all were really kind. Jude probably doesn't remember this, but he took the time to come up and check in on me and say, "Welcome." That kind of thing means so much when you're right at the beginning of your career as an actor, and it was one of those experiences that really taught me to always do the same thing with other, younger actors. You have to pay it forward.

After so many years, how excited were you to finally get the chance to really dig into a film together and square off against one another?

Jude Law: My memory of Anna Karenina and of my relationship with Alicia on that film is just one of warmth. I just remember thinking at the time, "Oh, she's really lovely and really nice and really good." Then, obviously there was this huge gap where I got to know her work more. So, I was just excited. When you're stepping into this kind of film, you don't ever know what it's going to be like until you're on set doing it. Then, once everything is going, you don't really have the time to periodically check in or discuss the terrain you're on together. It really felt like it was such a united front between the two of us, though, and I was so happy about that. The set felt so safe and so encouraging. There were some dark places we had to go to together, but I've said this before: I genuinely think our memory of making the movie is one of pure fun. I don't want to speak for Alicia, but we both laughed a lot. I remember looking at her several times, especially at the end of rehearsals, and just feeling like, "Yeah, that was good."

Alicia Vikander: That's what you always want as an actor. There really was that feeling on set, and it's one that I'm now so aware of and is what I actively seek in my work. I want to have really fulfilling, collaborative relationships, and I want to experience that feeling Jude mentioned where you can look back at the end of the day and think, "We really went there and it was bloody scary, but it was fun and thrilling, too."


Henry VIII is, obviously, a figure who looms large not only in British history, but also in film history. Did you know a lot about the later years of his life before Firebrand came your way, Jude?

Jude Law: I had a vague sort of understanding of Henry's demise. I knew about the wounds he sustained that contributed to his death, but I remember thinking for a long time that it was gout that killed him. Obviously, I later learned that it wasn't gout he was suffering from near the end of his life, and I learned about his obesity and his struggles with weight as he got older. But I knew very little about his relationship with Katherine. I knew very little about her in general. In a way, that seems like such an emblematic reflection of the way we're taught history.

We often think we're given a full picture when we learn about a man who was in power and behaved appallingly, but men like that always seem to dominate the narrative. When you look closely, you realize there were all these other characters around them who elevated them or who suffered under their reigns. And yet, a lot of those other figures have been forgotten. What's remarkable about this particular story is, of course, that Katherine was the survivor. It wasn't even the classic case where the winner tells the story. He died and she won, yet so many people still don't know much about her.

Henry is loud and brusque, while Katherine has to keep everything very close to her chest. What is the experience of being inside those scenes when you and your scene partner are required to operate at very different frequencies?

Alicia Vikander: I think the joy was really getting to play a kind of chess game with one another. Katherine, obviously, doesn't get to make any big moves. So, what she's trying to do is be 10 moves ahead at all times. She needs to foresee whatever Henry is going to do next. What I found interesting was exploring the fact that it was an extremely abusive, terrifying relationship they shared with very clear instances of violence. That profoundly impacted me, because these kinds of relationships still very much exist. At the same time, it was important to remember that Henry and Katherine are in a relationship in the film. It's not just a chess game. There's tenderness between them sometimes, and they really do know one another. You slowly realize as you watch the film that Katherine was probably one of the people that Henry kept closest to him, and for a very long period of time. We tried not to shy away from finding the intimacy and closeness in their relationship on top of the violence of it. Navigating all of those different levels was very interesting to me.

Jude Law: I remember Karim made it really comfortable for us to feel like we could always find the truth in every scene. That sounds really obvious, but it's not always considered. It goes back to what I said before, which is that when you feel like you really can come in at whatever frequency you feel is right or true, then you can also be open and receptive to the other truth, which is whatever your co-star — in this case Alicia — is bringing. Suddenly, it begins to feel a bit like real life, because you can't necessarily prepare for what another person is going to do. You just have to meet them like for like, and that's really where the magic happens. Karim was very open to letting us do that.

With a story like this, where Henry wields such unchecked power that no one can meet him face to face, he has to logically be met in a different way, because otherwise he would see Katherine as a threat. He had to be met in a capacity that was nurturing, understanding, and warm, but also — as Alicia said — with this long game in mind. Katherine had to think to herself, "I am going to stick this out, and if I can just lead him this way or that way, then I will probably survive this." Honestly, it's in the little alchemic reaction that happens whenever they meet each other in such different ways that, I think, we found the real sweet spot as actors.

Karim Aïnouz, Jude Law and Alicia Vikander at the Tribeca premiere of 'Firebrand.'

You've both played such a wide variety of roles over the years. At this point in your careers, what is it that gets you excited for a project?

Alicia Vikander: I do care a lot about the filmmaker. That's he first thing I consider now, because it's the director that actually sees what kind of film you're going to make. So, Karim was one of the big reasons I was interested in Firebrand, and then Jude, too. The people involved end up being what piques my interest first, because you can play characters that are so interesting but, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the work you do and the vision that the filmmaker you're working with has. If it's people I'm comfortable with and I'm confident in their abilities, then I feel like I have a big playroom and space to really experiment and feel safe in. The thing is, as an actor, you do realize at a certain point when you're making movies that we actually do not have that much control over our own art. It's kind of crazy.

Jude Law: Exactly!

Alicia Vikander: We give our directors all these different versions of scenes and things that they can use, but in the end, it's always someone other than you who gets to do whatever they want with what you've done. That's something I've really had to come to terms with, and I think at the beginning of my career that actually hindered me a little. It was a bit jarring at first, because sometimes I'd have an experience on a set where I felt like I really did a specific thing and then I'd see that it was turned into something very different.

Jude Law: It really is a bit of a shock early on, isn't it? I've been stunned sometimes when I've seen things that turned out completely different from how I thought they would.

Alicia Vikander: Yes! And that opens the door to a level of fear that prevents you from being daring enough to go to certain places. That can interfere with your work. But then other times, you do get to work with actors whom you enjoy collaborating with and a director who really knows if something works or doesn't.

Jude Law: And you really do trust that feeling, don't you?

Alicia Vikander: Now, it's almost like I just know when I feel that with a director — or even a DP. Sometimes, you do a scene and you turn to the camera at the end of the take, and everyone just knows that magic happened. Or you turn and everyone says, "Okay, at least we tried that," and you say to yourself, "Well, at least I really did go for it — even if it didn't work!" That's the kind of space and environment that I want to work in all the time.

Jude Law: Absolutely. I can't really add much to that. That's exactly it. That's the actor's journey or, if you will, the actor's dilemma. Fortunately, you do eventually gain a kind of wisdom, where you realize that what you've got to seek out is the right people and the right opportunity to perform in a safe environment. You really just want to feel like you're in good hands.

By Alex Welch


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