Drama Quarterly: Fit for a queen
Meanwhile, down on the ground, an important meeting is about to take place. In the greenhouse and the surrounding gardens, the future Queen of the Netherlands is about to meet the incumbent royal for the first time.
It’s a key scene from Máxima, a Dutch drama that explores how Argentinian-born Máxima Zorreguieta met and fell in love with Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, set against the backdrop of her upbringing and her relationship with her father, Jorge, a politician during the last Argentinian dictatorship.
In the gardens of Vollenhoven, which doubles for the Paleis Huis ten Bosch, Máxima, played by Argentinian star Delfina Chaves, is walking towards the greenhouse with Willem-Alexander (Martijn Lakemeier) when they spot Queen Beatrix (Elsie de Brauw) pottering inside. “She looks so normal,” she remarks. “She’s not, believe me,” he responds.
By this moment in late August, filming has already taken place in the US and Spain before the cast and crew’s arrival in the Netherlands, as the series charts Máxima’s journey from Buenos Aires to New York via Sevilla and on to the country she will soon call home.
The six-part series, commissioned by RTL Nederland’s OTT service Videoland, is inspired by Marcia Luyten’s book Máxima Zorreguieta: Motherland, an authorised biography that explores how the royal’s childhood and home country shaped the woman she would become.
That historical storyline helps to tell a story set across three decades, beginning with Máxima’s first encounter with Willem-Alexander and following her journey to becoming a public figure, highlighting her determination and ambition, as well as her struggle to balance her new role with loyalty to family and her own identity. As they grow closer, he eventually proposes – an event that marks the end of the series, which has been conceived as a multi-season drama.
“This series is about Máxima, our queen today,” says producer Rachel van Bommel from Millstreet Films, which is producing the drama. “We know about her, we see her in the news every day, but still we don’t actually know her. We just know her from the moment she became our future queen. Marcia’s book is a great basis to work with, and our writers Marnie Blok and Ilse Ott used it as a very nice basis for the whole historical line in the series.”
“Of course, there’s a happy end,” says Justus Riesenkampff, exec VP, Nordics and Benelux, for German coproducer Beta Film, which is also distributing the series internationally. “But in the German press, when they got engaged and married, it was about the fact she was from a family in Argentina that was close to the government at a time when there was a dictatorship, so this caused a lot of controversy. That will also be in the series, and they will have to deal with the publicity and the public digging into their lives. That’s why it’s so interesting to go back to Argentina at that time.”
Van Bommel says they sought to make the series as authentic as possible by using Luyten’s book and their own research and “sticking to the facts.” “But it’s not a diary,” she says of the source material. “I don’t know how she feels – if she’s sad or if she cried. That is up to Marnie and Ilse. It’s a lot of fun and a big responsibility because it’s now our queen we’re writing about. We tried to be very conscious of that.”
The series doesn’t aim to turn Máxima into a princess or a saint, however. “Her family were social climbers, she was thought to be a social climber, so we do try to give a realistic perspective with her flaws and ambitions,” van Bommel says.
“It’s not a Disney fairytale,” adds Blok, who says she was drawn to the project because of its “Shakespearean drama,” as Máxima had to decide whether to remain loyal to her family or follow her heart, all while in the media spotlight. “That has been a struggle for her. It must have been,” she says. “But we don’t have her diary, so we have been trying to figure out how that would work.
“I hope the public will understand the struggle she went through and what an incredibly strong woman she is. You see two people who are really in love, and the eyes of the world’s press are on them. It’s two young people – he just happened to be the crown prince. He thinks, ‘Should I give up the crown?’ and she thinks, ‘Seriously, you want to give up the crown? And then what?’ So there is a lot of drama as well.”
Máxima marks lead director Saskia Diesing’s first commercial project, having previously worked in arthouse feature films. She took on the job because she was interested in this coming-of-age story about a young woman who must find her place in the world. “It’s also about ambition,” Diesing observes. “For instance, women who aim for a crown, we often call them gold diggers, which I think is kind of strange. Why wouldn’t she want the crown, the prince and love? We’re also playing with that. All the time, you’re not quite sure if she wants the crown, if she’s playing with him. But then at some point, you think, ‘What if she’s really in love?’”
Naturally, casting the right lead was key. But as Dutch newspapers speculated over which local actor might land the part, the production team determined that for the series to be as authentic as possible, they needed to look to Argentina.
“When we started casting there, we weren’t really sure what people would think. But we learned that in Argentina, you have the Pope, you have Maradona and you have Máxima,” van Bommel says. “So we had a lot of actresses doing really good auditions, and it was a luxury problem. We reduced it down to six actresses and then we sent Martijn – who never auditioned because he was just perfect for the role – to Argentina.”
“When I got on board the project, I already knew Martijn was going to play Willem-Alexander so there was no choice,” jokes Diesing, who directs with Joosje Duk and Iván López Núñez. “I thought it was an excellent choice – one of the reasons I said yes was because he was in it. There were already some audition tapes [for Máxima] and I saw this one of Delfina and I remember saying to my husband, ‘We don’t have to look any further. I already know it’s going to be her.’
“I said to Martijn, ‘The only thing you have to remember is, if you’re going to work with this actress, you have to feel an immediate connection, and you will know the minute you start the scene – and [she also has to make] you work really hard.’ For me as a director, it’s interesting to see actors who have to work hard. If it’s too easy, there’s no fun. I like it when actors are challenging each other. Martijn was convinced when he met Delfina that it was going to be her.”
To play Maxima, Chaves had her curly, brunette hair straightened and dyed blonde, and wore brown contact lenses. “Delfina is amazing. You want to keep looking at her,” Diesing says. “That’s the most important thing. This is an actor we have to look at for six episodes – she has to carry this part, and she’s a magnet.”
Máxima is a breakout European role for Chaves, who is already a star in her home country. Though she was aware of the Dutch queen, the actor says working on the show has given her the chance to find out more about the real Máxima and the Argentina she grew up in.
“Of all the things I’ve heard, everybody likes her in Argentina,” she says. “Every time you see an interview with her, the people interviewing her are always smiling. She’s full of light and people really sense that. She brings the Argentinian culture within her.”
Stepping into the world of the royal family has also been a new challenge for Chaves, who was surprised to learn how much Máxima sacrificed when she moved to the Netherlands, being away from her family, having to learn a new language – and not being able to invite her father to their wedding because of his political background.
“I’ve never talked about monarchies before, so it’s been really fun to enter this world. If it wasn’t for this project, I would never have learned about this family and the monarchy.”
As for Lakemeier, a key part of his preparation to play Willem-Alexander involved exploring what it means for someone to have their life mapped out for them from birth. “That was a big part of researching the role, but the series focuses on the part where he gets to know Máxima and how important it is for him to find someone he can share this absurd life with,” the actor says.
“Other than that, it’s really interesting because there’s so much research to do. There’s so much to watch and read, interviews you can see, it’s endless. It’s nice to have so much material to prepare with. But then at some point you have to let it go and just do it.”
Acclaimed Dutch actor de Brauw (The Death of My Mother) was then brought in to play Queen Beatrix, while a similar search for authenticity led to the casting of German actor Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others) as Claus von Amsberg, husband to Beatrix and father of Willem-Alexander.
“I remembered Claus is German, so why not cast a German actor and teach him some Dutch?” Diesing says.
Risenkampff adds: “When we came on board as a German company, we were intrigued by the role of Claus and his story, which is known well in Germany. It’s also quite dramatic – his time at court, how he as a German married Beatrix and then how he found his role in the Netherlands. We decided Sebastian would be a perfect match.”
The role of Claus was not without its challenges for the actor, as Koch plays the Prince Consort at a time when he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. “He hardly moves, but he was still very much alive and making jokes,” Diesing says. “But it’s really hard as an actor to remember you must not move. When we had rehearsals, Sebastian was talking with his hands and I said to him, ‘You really have to get rid of the gestures.’
“But it was amazing how quickly he made this transformation. We gave him some blue contact lenses, and it’s very hard if you’re not used to lenses because you have to blink a lot, whereas Claus shouldn’t blink at all. So he has a lot of challenges to deal with. But it was amazing to shoot with him.”
Koch recognises the “tremendous” responsibility that comes with playing Claus. “People really loved him, they were close to him,” he says. “It’s not a burden but it’s a big responsibility to connect with him and make it good, to be as good as possible.”
The actor describes his role in the series as “a guest appearance – it’s only four shooting days.” But as he notes, there are no small roles. “You have to prepare and be able to do it well. For the first day, I was really nervous but I was looking forward to it. And then when we started, it was fun. I feel I love this man, I can identify with him.”
Playing someone with Parkinson’s meant his physical performance in Máxima was particularly important. “His face is almost moving in slow motion. His spirit is quick and sharp, cheeky and funny, but it doesn’t show in his face. It’s a weird thing to act,” Koch says. “Everyone’s very funny [in between takes] and usually I love that, to have fun before you shoot and then you switch [into character]. With this, it was difficult. I really needed to stay with it and not make a mistake or react quickly to something.”
Meanwhile, de Brauw didn’t want to be exactly like the former Queen Beatrix, who she says is characterised as cold in the Netherlands. In the series, “you see a softer and much more human image of Beatrix,” she reveals. “That’s why I did it. I liked the way it’s written because it’s got complex scenes, it’s not so plot driven and it’s really character driven.”
She also points out that there are lots of similarities to be found between Claus and Máxima’s respective journeys into the heart of the Dutch royal family, both coming from different countries and having to deal with a new role in the public eye.
“Claus and Beatrix were in the same situation as Máxima and Willem-Alexander because Claus was German and it was not so long after the war, so the whole of Holland was against him,” she says. “Beatrix knows what they are going through and she has to think carefully because she knows her son is not going to make it without a strong woman next to him. She needs Máxima as well, so all these decisions are more important than how she looked or walked.”
It’s the show’s focus on Máxima, rather than the institution as a whole, that will make the series stand apart from Netflix’s British royal family drama The Crown. It’s also a focus that fits with Millstreet’s ambition to tell stories with a contemporary, female perspective.
“We don’t only make series for a female audience, but the female perspective, or working with strong female filmmakers, works really well for us,” van Bommel says. “We know our audiences well. Our filmmakers know which direction we want to go in. And when we read this book, it was clear this was something that fits our profile. We thought it would be wise to focus on her and always tell the story from her perspective, which gives it a unique take. We don’t want to compare it to The Crown – it’s our royal story –but in the first season, we only see the palace at the end because we look at the first 30 years of her life.”
Van Bommel and Millstreet are now planning “many, many seasons” of Máxima, with Luyten also plotting a book sequel, Fatherland. “Marcia said she had the idea for two books, and I thought, ‘Great, we have two seasons,’” she says. “Now we’re already researching, and we think it would be a shame to tell the whole story in just two seasons because there’s so much to tell.”