Louis XIV lived a long life, and in that long life, he started wars copiously; had copious amounts of sex; racked up a copious rolodex of mistresses; and he spent copiously, particularly on the palace that he built out of his father’s hunting lodge at Versailles, creating a new seat for his government as a way of destabilizing the power of Parisian French nobility. In other words, Louis XIV’s life seems readymade for the current television landscape, with its fascination with the ways socially stratified societies use sex, opulence, and violence to compartmentalize people, creating a complex terrain of prisons and openings for anyone who’ll play the game. Louis’ expensive taste would be hard to replicate without a bit of imitation: Versailles, which premieres on October 1 on Ovation, is one of the costliest European series ever made.
Versailles‘ first season takes place when Louis XIV is in his mid-20s, right as he’s gearing up to officialize Versailles as the political center of France — essentially turning the isolated spot into the plushest detention center you’ve ever seen. Here, nobles are housed, but also have to navigate within an immobilizing limbo state, as the king grows increasingly aware of his agency and begins affronting their power and influence. (By the second episode, he’s gathered enough confidence to furiously declare his catchphrase, “I am the state” — a moment that Louis XIV surely anticipated becoming a pivotal plot point on a prestige cable series.) It’s a place where the wealthy can both bask and stagnate in their riches without confronting the outside world. But it’s also a place whose perfection denotes brutality and whose rigid social order is maintained by an underlying threat towards anyone who wishes to upend it.
In advance of the U.S. premiere of the series — whose first season has already aired in full in Europe — I sat down with cast members George Blagden (Louis XIV, who needs no further introduction); Alexander Vlahos (Louis’ brother, Philipe I, Duke of Orléans, whose open homosexuality and cross-dressing, at a time where such a thing was entirely foreign, characterizes both his privilege his burdens, and speaks immensely to the most hyperbolized form of the gender binary: he was supposedly raised to be effeminate so he wouldn’t get in Louis’ way); Noemie Schmidt (Philippe’s wife, who, in the show, is in the midst of a long, relatively open affair with Louis, and who is able to affect policy through her relationships to men in power); Anna Brewster (Madame de Montespan, Louis’ “Maîtress en titre,” who was rumored to have been a leading participant in the murder scandal known as the Affaire des Poisons); and Tygh Runyan (Fabien, the only actor present playing a fictional character — essentially, Louis’ assassin and overseer of a subterranean torture chamber).
Apart from the one character was was the King of France, all of these characters were either related to the King of France, slept with the King of France, or killed for the King of France — and their proximity to him was both a source of power and vulnerability. I spoke to the cast about creating a world that’s as foreign as a fantasy, yet so well-documented as to require the replication of certain mannerisms and legacies people have come to know.
Flavorwire: Prior to coming on to Versailles, what were your preconceived notions about 17th century French royalty/nobility? Was there anything surprising that you learned in this process?
George Blagden: I had a basic British education of it — there was this building, and this guy built it, and it wasn’t that impressive. I’d never visited [Versailles]; British school kids don’t see the scale. The scariest thing for me psychologically was how Louis XIV made decisions that most people would find very hard — when he built the Grand Canal, he was advised that he’d potentially be sending 9,000 people to their deaths. When he built the Hall of Mirrors, he imported glass from Venice at the time, and if you’ve ever been in the Hall of Mirrors, it’s composed of consistent mirrored sheets — there are hundreds. Each sheet at the time cost the same as it would to build a battleship. The amount that he spent for the price of beauty, that was the most shocking thing about this world, the extreme scale.
Noémie Schmidt: The first part of the script I read was [the episode with] the fashion show. You don’t get a script like that everyday, a fashion show at Versailles in the 17th century. It was beautifully written and described and you could see the grandeur of the castle and how crazy they were — they were all crazy!
The show is called Versailles, not Louis XIV, and it does seem to encapsulate the environment as an organism. What do you think each of your characters brings to the space, how they alter it in their own way?
Alexander Vlahos: [Creators] Simon [Mirren] and David [Wolstencroft] are known predominantly for writing procedural dramas. They come from the creative mind of [British spy drama] Spooks, where they create the precinct that the characters inhabit, and that’s no different than Versailles. The precinct we all inhabit is this gilded cage. The characters there get to exist in their own right within those walls —
Tygh Runyan: — within the constructs of that.
Blagden: In terms of how characters fill space, I have probably the easiest job, in that everyone has to gravitate around me, and the drama has to circulate around me. Which means that a lot of the other characters in the show are aware of the drama, and so the space is actually created by everyone around the King. How the space shifts, how when you walk into the room, the energy changes, based on people around the King. So in some ways I’m really a passenger in that.
Circling back to Versailles as a gilded cage, what, within these spaces, is each of your characters’ form of personal, perhaps secret liberation? They’re confined not only to mores we now may find stifling, but also to the physical space of Versailles.
Vlahos: The liberation for Philippe is, he’s the other side of the coin to Louis. And he has the same amount of wealth, same amount of responsibility, but he doesn’t have the weight of France on his shoulders.
He talks about being raised to be smaller than Louis.
Vlahos: He’s the second wealthiest man in France, gets to live in the most beautiful place, gets to wear all the clothes, but suffers none of the consequences. His liberation is by going, “Yeah, I am a homosexual, I am madly in love with my boyfriend.” Being a homosexual was completely crazy — it was treason, and by being so extroverted about it, the antithesis of everything Louis wanted to uphold in France — that’s his liberation.
Runyan: For me, Fabien comes from the understanding that someone of Louis XIV’s stature would have had someone in the position of managing the security of the palace, but, for good reason, [that person] would’ve been omitted from history. He’s a young guy from the streets who’s in service to a divine being, basically. For Fabien, it’s quite clear — he’s very at peace not just with the brutality, but with all of it. Through a modern lens he’s completely brutal. He’s self-sacrificing — he wakes up everyday thinking it may be his last, and he’s totally cool with that. If the King decided to kill him, that’d be great! In a twisted way, that’d be living his dream.
Schmidt: Henriette’s strength is that she knows both Louis and Philippe intimately in a way that nobody else does. She dearly loves Louis and he shows his weakness to her in a way he doesn’t do with other people. Her freedom is to escape through that truth — it’s not all about golden appearances, which is a mode women had to be in all day long. They had to show off in order to be considered; she didn’t have to do it, because she was royalty, and she was in the intimate circle. Her feelings could be expressed to Louis and Philippe.
Some of the reviews of the series when it first debuted in Europe focused on the amount of sex in the show, and took issue with what critics perceived to be a drive to appeal to contemporary sensibilities. What do you think the sex has to say about the story we’re watching?
Brewster: It’s super important in Montespan and Louis’ relationship. Historically, it’s what they were known for, that they matched each other sexually, and in intelligence, and we wanted to tell that story. She was putting on this show the whole time, and when she met Louis, there was a vulnerability there, and she stopped pretending. That’s her liberation as well — she could be herself. And sex is important for that story.
Vlahos: The whole point of the show in my opinion is the private and the public. And sex happens in private, and that’s where the drama is.
Blagden: What the writers are trying to dramatize is what isn’t recorded — [it’s] history that’s redacted. We’re trying to show these characters in environments where historians wouldn’t have taken notes — about what exactly goes on in, say, Fabien’s torture chamber. Decisions that were made or documented in formal settings — amongst the war cabinet, or in official announcements, official engagements, official parties — were totally influenced by the conversation between two people the night before at midnight, maybe totally unclothed.
How much did your florid costumes inform your acting choices? Was it hard to develop your characters before the outfits came along?
Vlahos: Hopefully you’ve been cast because you’ll offer something to that character and vice versa. Putting on those shoes, and getting that wig on, and that coat, and we’re filming in Versailles — there’s not a lot of acting required! You hope you bring what you bring instinctively as a person, and those heels and that wig, and the grounds, and it is Versailles, and that is marble, and that is gold. It’s not green screen, it’s not pretending it’s a dragon.
Was it then hard to maintain those characters — whose status and their manner is so deeply determined by their state of dress — when you were in states of undress?
Schmidt: You were talking about freedom; as a woman, the corset is painful, and after 10 hours, you just want to rip it off. You can’t lift your arms, you can’t scratch your head, you can’t run, you can’t go to the toilet when you want — the costume was a cage. When we had scenes where, as a character, I was in a nightgown or was naked, I felt more free both as a character and as an actor; I was feeling more things.
*This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.