Starz has become the hub of juicy period pieces. Its eye-catching, deliciously wicked freshman drama, The Serpent Queen, fits the streaming service to a tee. Starring Samantha Morton as the audacious Catherine De Medici, the series follows a queen in the making. The Serpent Queen cheekily injects fourth-wall breaks, dark wit and tennis match-like rivalries, with Morton going head-to-head with Ludivine Sagnier‘s Diane de Poitiers. Both deliver compelling performances. Thankfully, The Serpent Queen is returning for Season 2, so we’ll hopefully glimpse more of the messy dynamics between Catherine and Diane.
Recently, I had the privilege of chatting with BAFTA-winning hair and makeup artist Jacquetta Levon, who served as the Makeup and Hair Department Head for the series. Jacquetta is no stranger to period dramas, having worked with Morton on Hulu’s Harlots.
She boasts an impressive body of work. Jacquetta won a BAFTA with the Entertainment Craft Team for her contributions to The Sound of Music Live. Her other credits include Little Birds with Juno Temple, Saint Maud with Morfydd Clark (for which she was nominated for a BIFA), She Said, Catastrophe and Love Is the Devil with Daniel Craig and Tilda Swinton.
Jacquetta and I talked about how she got started in hair and makeup, what inspired her work on The Serpent Queen, collaborating with Samantha Morton and more.
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This interview is condensed for length and clarity.
Melody McCune: What was it like reuniting with Samantha Morton for The Serpent Queen after working together on Harlots?
Jacquetta Levon: She’s a brilliant person to work with because she’s such a great collaborator. She has no vanity. As long as you understand the emotional journey of her character, she’ll go anywhere with you. She doesn’t worry about what she looks like. It’s more for her about feeling authentic. That’s a gift for me.
MM: Samantha looks so different in both shows. You got to play around with her look.
JL: She’s got a fantastic face for change. I’ve worked with her a lot, and she’s looked quite different each time. She loves a wig, so that’s good for me too. Once it feels right to her, it becomes her character. She morphs into her character. It helps her on her journey.
MM: How did you choose this as your career path?
JL: In the early ’80s, when I was still at school studying for my A-levels, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I lived in London. I went clubbing, and everyone was dressed up. I was exposed to amazing characters like Leigh Bowery. He was a performance artist who used to come out in extraordinary outfits.
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I was friends with people in bands, and I became the person that made them up. One of those bands was the people who created RuPaul’s Drag Race, Fenton [Bailey] and Randy [Barbato]. They have a company called World of Wonder, but at that time, they were in London in a band called The Fabulous Pop Tarts. They wanted to look like ax murderers had attacked them.
I remember them going on stage covered in blood. I hadn’t had any training with makeup. Another band, The Mystery Girls, was doing a photo session, and the photographer got a bit cross with me. I was like, “Why are you cross at me?” He said, “Because they’re all so shiny.” I said, “Well, I’m just here to be a good friend.” And he said, “Oh, sorry, I thought you were the makeup artist.” It was a moment of, “Oh my God, it’s a job.”
That was the end of any thoughts of doing anything else. I was lucky. It fell into place — through people I knew, I started working. For me, it was being drawn to creative people. I love working with actors and creative people and being part of their stories.
MM: How did you get involved with The Serpent Queen?
JL: I’d worked with Stacie Passon before, who was the first director of it. I did a show called Little Birds with her and Juno Temple. When she had the job, she called me and was in the car with the showrunner, Justin Haythe. I did a Zoom with them, and they got me on board.
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They talked to me about casting and the shift in age. I was involved quite early with the story. Samantha Morton also came on because I was working with her at the time. She’d be going, “What are you doing? What are you researching?” I’m unsure if she went to her agent, if they came to her or if it was from me talking. She knew about it. It was funny at the time.
MM: The hairstyles and makeup for each character are intricate and unique. I loved the gold touches on Diane’s face. That looked so ethereal. I also loved the hairstyle evolutions between young Catherine and adult Catherine. Were you given a breakdown of each character before creating these looks?
JL: I knew nothing. I did talk with Justin and worked closely with Sam and Ludivine, who plays Diane de Poitiers, but no, I was given carte blanche to do what I wanted. Stacie trusted me. Karen [Muller Serreau], the costume designer, was the same. It’s a balance of reality and fantasy.
MM: There is a real modern sensibility to it. It’s a period piece, but those contemporary touches are fantastic to see.
JL: For sure. The gold stuff is a gift because Diane de Poitiers used to ingest gold.
MM: I was reading about that.
JL: She was so scared of getting old. She used to exercise, take care of herself and take gold. Traces of gold were found in her hair when she died. I’m sure she didn’t bathe in a gold bath, but suddenly I went, “Justin, we’ve got to do a scene with her in a gold bath.” He did it, and it was amazing.
MM: Do you have any contemporary influences?
JL: Always Jean Paul Gaultier. Vivienne Westwood. I keep a strong eye on fashion and images. I collect a library of things. One day, I’ll be able to use that idea, or one day, that’ll work for me. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly. Definitely those high fashion, creative houses. Fashion shows always have exciting hair and makeup, and I think I stole from them, for sure.
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MM: Steal from the best but make it your own.
MM: Was it a collaborative process between you and the actors when trying to nail down these looks?
JL: They were very relaxed. Everybody wanted to be part of the show and jump in on this exciting, creative adventure. I worked closely with the costume department. We were creating these big silhouettes. I think everyone understood that. For instance, Sam’s hair gets to a point where it is quite big sitting on her head. It felt important she had that strong silhouette to balance her power. As she got more powerful, she had a more prominent silhouette.
Nina [Van Houten], who was looking after Sam, we would talk about whether we would get away with her wearing it. As soon as they saw how it looked, they were all happy to go on the journey. Ludivine was amazing. The first time I met her, I said, “We’ve got to bleach your eyebrows.” She’s a French beauty. I had to find a way of shifting her face from being too modern. Diane’s the iconic beauty of that time, so I had to push her down that path a bit. She had an eyebrow pencil in her handbag at all times. As soon as we finished, her eyebrows came back.
MM: Do you have a favorite hair and makeup look from this season?
JL: I think the gold bath was amazing.
MM: Oh, yes. I agree.
JL: It was nerve-racking. We didn’t know if it was going to work or not. I had done a test with one of the ADs. We went to a motel up the road to do a test with this crew member and her. I remember her saying, “Come and get down to your bra and knickers; we’re getting you in the bath.” We left the bathroom with an element of gold. Gold around the tiles and stuff. I was happy when I saw it on the show. I thought it looked beautiful. Ludivine looked beautiful in it. But I also loved when young Catherine was presented to the French court. She comes out of this incredible Fabergé egg. She’s a total bejeweled creation of fantasy.
MM: Those shoes looked incredible, but they also looked very uncomfortable.
JL: The shoes were amazing.
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MM: What was your top priority in creating these looks for the show?
JL: They needed to be relatable. They are a bit out there, but you needed to understand the beauty of the time and how important it was for Diane so she could maintain her power. In contrast, Catherine, who was considered not attractive then, and how she got her power despite that. I thought it was important to balance those two. They’re the yin and yang. We had to believe Diane was this beautiful creature who had power over the king and the would-be husband of Catherine. That was the most important story I had to tell in the design. I think I did.
MM: I think it translates very well.
JL: Thank you.
MM: What inspires your work overall? Are you inspired by other hair and makeup artists?
JL: Always. I think in stills, images — so many things. Fashion inspires me. A color palette can inspire me. Sometimes, you see things, and they click in your head. There’s always a panic when you first get a job that you’re not going to have ideas. You have to sit in the fear. I go quiet, and my head is ticking all the time. I can’t watch telly; I can’t look at any images. I have to sit quietly with it until suddenly something hooks me in, and I go on the journey. There’s a trust point where you must go, “I will find an idea. It will come.”
On this, I was inspired by the Nefertiti bust I saw before lockdown in Berlin. It was the last weekend any of the museums were open. We were the only people in the museum. It’s this incredible Egyptian bust of Nefertiti. She has this big head shape at the back. For me, that’s what created the silhouette of Catherine De Medici. That gave me the idea of, as Dolly Parton said, “The bigger the hair, the closer to God.”
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MM: Do you have a personal favorite project?
JL: This is one of mine. Little Birds was also one of my favorites. One was shot in Spain, and one in France. Where we shot in The Serpent Queen was incredible. We shot in lockdown, so there were no tourists. We were walking around in the actual homes of these people. We went to Diane de Poitiers’ bedroom. We were there looking at the wallpaper.
As a life experience and creative experience, it was great. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had some lovely work. It’s up there. Little Birds too. Working with Juno was wonderful.
MM: I can imagine. She seems so sweet.
JL: She’s gorgeous.
MM: What else is on the horizon for you, career-wise?
JL: I was lucky enough to do a bit of stuff on She Said. I was only involved with the UK side of it. But that was fun. Currently, I’m filming a show for Apple TV+ called The Buccaneers, a Victorian piece. We are filming in Scotland about American girls coming to England to do the season, join society and find a Lord. It’s a fun series.
MM: Thank you so much for chatting with me, Jacquetta!
JL: Thank you, Melody!
You can follow Jacquetta on Instagram (@jacsprat11). The Serpent Queen Season 1 is now streaming on Starz.
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