Versailles packs a lot of sexy intrigue within the walls of King Louis XIV’s palace, but a complicated sibling rivalry powers the historical drama.
George Blagden, as Louis, and Alexander Vlahos, as his brother, Philippe, bring that love-hate-love relationship to life in the 10-episode series debuting at 10/9c Oct. 1 on Ovation.
Beginning in 1667 after the death of the brothers’ mother, Anne of Austria, “Versailles” tells the story of the Sun King’s desire to move his court from Paris to Versailles. With Philippe at his side, Louis takes on the French nobility, who are used to getting their way.
A number of issues challenge the brothers’ unity. Philippe’s wife, Henriette (Noemie Schmidt), happens to be Louis’ favorite mistress. Philippe’s male lover, the Chevalier de Lorraine (Evan Williams), also works to drive a wedge between the brothers.
I spoke with Blagden, who starred as the monk Athelstan in “Vikings,” and former “Merlin” star Vlahos about the challenges of playing the brothers. The duo already filmed a second season and were excited the international hit is finally making its U.S. debut.
We spoke when Alex was doing “Merlin” and George as in “Vikings.” These are very different roles for you two.
Alex Vlahos: You’ve got lots more hair, George, than you ever had in “Vikings.”
George Blagden: Yep.
AV: I’ve also got a lot more hair, but I still have horses. You had horses in “Vikings,” didn’t you?
GB: It’s still a period drama. We’re still not wearing jeans and T-shirts. That’s the dream, I think.
To keep you out of jeans and T-shirts?
GB: Well, I think that’s what other people would think, but I’d love to do a modern drama.
And use your own hair. How are those wigs?
GB: They were beautiful wigs. They each cost €4,000 a pop, right? [Editor’s note: That’s $5,184.]
AV: How many did you have?
GB: I have four per season.
AV: I have three. So there we go, he’s already beating me.
Well, he’s the older brother. He’s the king.
AV: Yeah, he is the older brother, so he gets one more wig than I do.
Besides the wigs and fancy shoes, what was tricky about playing your characters?
GB: The most challenging thing for me was to deal with the journey that this man had to go on over 10 hours, and his exploration of power. … The thing about power is, the more powerful you try to be in life, the less powerful you are. And that’s in any walk of life, whether you’re a business executive or a journalist.
As an actor finding that balance of how to attain power and represent it by not trying to be powerful was challenging for me, and I enjoyed that … It’s continuing in Season 2—building him into this omnipotent figure. It’s something that is very hard to relate to in a modern-day setting.
He’s in an odd position because he’s 28, but it’s kind of the first time he’s asserting his power at all because his mother always was in control.
He was king at age 5 but this is the first time in his life, because of the death of his mother, Anne of Austria, where he has been completely on his own. He has to make that brave decision: “No, I’m not going to be advised by lots of older men around me in court. I’m going to become this absolute monarch, and move my government to this swamp 20 miles west of Paris, and take that power in an isolating way.” So yeah, it’s a very defining position that he puts himself in.
Alex, how about for you? What’s the trickiest part?
AV: … He has so many facets of his personality that he’s very hard to pin down. I keep describing him as “quadrophenic” in personality. He has four very distinctive personality traits, from being a cross-dresser; an open homosexual; a devout, happily married man; and a fearsome warrior.
He bounces between these four things. On top of that, he has his undying love for his brother—and also an undying hate for his brother. By brother, I mean king. So he’s a big ball of complexity. It was complicated and tricky for a 25-year-old actor to play. I found my biggest challenge in how mentally, physically, emotionally draining it was to be Philippe for a day, let alone six months. … It wasn’t just a character challenge, but also a personal challenge.
Could both of you sort of describe the brotherly relationship and the conversations you had about playing it?
GB: I think probably the most succinct way of putting it, as you put it, is that one is king and one isn’t. It’s a very complex relationship. You take a family relationship and you put an exterior force of wealth and status and power on it, making one [brother] higher in all of those regards than the other. Alex and I had very similar, if not identical, approaches and opinions about this relationship, so a lot of it just sort of came naturally.
Not a lot of conversations were had. We didn’t need hours and hours and hours of prep work to create that chemistry. It was a lot of unspoken stuff on set that we were very lucky happened. And lots of times it’s a pillar of the narrative of the show.
AV: Just going back to what you said about one brother is the king and one isn’t. Is that the crux of it? It kind of is, but then it kind of isn’t, because I don’t believe that Philippe actually wants to be king.
I think Philippe actually has the best of everything. He has the wealth, he has the rooms, he has the clothes. He has responsibility to the point where he can walk into a room and people will bow to him, which means he gets attention, which I think is what he wants. But he doesn’t get any of the consequences of responsibility, which is what Louis has to go through. Actually being a monarch you have to make all the decisions—the bad and the good. So I think Philippe gets the best of both worlds.
I think the only time that Philippe ends up doubting whether he wants to be king or not is when he has the Chevalier—the sort of love of his life, that bad little devil that sits on his shoulder—whispering into his ear. I think had the Chevalier not been there it would just be down to their brotherly relationship. Add in that royal element to their relationship and everything becomes a lot more complicated. But the Chevalier is the real sort of puppeteer to Philippe’s dissatisfaction.
Philippe seems kind of resentful in the first hour? Do you think that’s mostly the Chevalier’s doing, with those whispers in his ear?
AV: Resentful, but I think he’s resentful because of the way his brother treats him—his brother, not the king. Our show tries to explore the aspect of public and private. And I think Philippe gets to win in private with Louis. He’s right in what he’s saying. But what the court doesn’t see, and what, probably, Philippe does want to happen, is the court to see when he wins as well. He never gets that opportunity because when the brothers leave the private and go into the public, Louis wins because he is king. And I think that’s maybe why Philippe resentful and jealous, because the attention, quite rightly for the people in the court, is on his older brother.
GB: Also, we aren’t landing at the start of Season 1 and newly discovering this conflict between these two men. This has been a lifelong experience for Philippe. From when he was a very young age, he was forced to wear women’s clothes to emasculate him. This put Louis on a pedestal as a more powerful man—the more powerful brother. So what we see at the start of Season 1 is a 20-year-old, deep …
AV: … A deep psychological thing. It’s deeply rooted in their psyche—exactly what George said. This is a 20-year-long grudge, I guess, of feeling like you’ve been outdone constantly by their mother. It must be a tough to live with that.
What were the surprising things each of you learned about your characters?
GB: There were some historically political aspects to Louis that really shocked, that I wasn’t aware of. They really let me see into his pysche. Some basic historical facts about the building of Versailles were surprising.
In the building of the Grand Canal, and the exterior of the château, 7,000 people died. He knew that he was sending many thousands of men to their deaths in constructing this luxurious building. Making the choice to go that far in creating this luxury shows his excessive nature.
The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles is a large room. It takes at least a couple of minutes to walk the length of it, and it’s full of Venetian glass. Early on in the process we learned that a square foot of that glass at that time cost the same as it would cost to construct a battleship. When you walk in that room, you see hundreds of battleships in glass on the wall, if you get my meaning. Sending the country toward bankruptcy in that way, for the pure goal of creating a beautiful room, is [unbelievable]. It’s just a beautiful room but it symbolizes a lot more than that.
That’s a really interesting part of his psychology to tap into for me, that I wasn’t aware of taking on the role. I’m really glad that we’ve been able to explore that in the show. David and Simon often refer to his psychopathy, and it’s been great exploring that and exploring how he was Machiavellian enough to achieve his goals.
Do you think his mother trained by him to be that way, or do you think he just had it in him?
GB: I think it was something he had to develop very quickly once his mother had gone. Up until that point he had been operating as monarch under the regency of his mother, and he hadn’t really been able to make any individual decisions. I think he realized very quickly that he had to find a way of controlling, in an absolute way, his country, which was at the time one of the most important and powerful countries in the world.
He perhaps didn’t have the flourishing personality of his brother. In Episode 4, France is at war and Philippe is in total control of all of his soldiers and gets them to cheer [before battle]. We don’t see Louis have that ability in Season 1. He had to find much more manipulative methods of controlling and using his intelligence to find that absolute power.
His development is one of the fascinating things about the show. When he starts to assert himself the council is just flabbergasted by it. And threatened because they start to rebel a bit.
GB: Yes, and having just shot the 20th hour of this drama [I can say] that doesn’t stop. What’s been really exciting about Season 2, without going too far ahead, is continuing that journey and seeing how far this man pushed it. He was willing to overstep that line of advice and counsel from everyone around him.
Alex, you talked about Chevalier and Philippe’s relationship with him. Do you feel that they are truly in love with each other, or is this a rebellion thing against Louis?
AV: No, 100 percent they are in love. I’ve often used Louis’ relationship with women in the show as a counterpoint. I think Louis has relationships with five or six women in the show—loads of women. He has different mistresses and Mary Thérèse, the queen. Louis has different reasons [for seeing each of them]: one for lust, one for duty, one for religion, one for piety, one for sex.
Philippe truly is in love with Chevalier. [Vlahos talks more about Philippe and Chevalier in my story for Out magazine.]
Does Philippe’s love for Chevalier make the Duke blind, as they say, to Chevalier’s intrigues?
AV: Yes, I think so. It definitely makes him blind. But I think that Philippe’s love for his brother is maybe 2 percent more than his love for the Chevalier, and we explore that in the show. That puts Philippe between a rock and a hard place. Louis is in need of help and the Chevalier is also in need of Philippe’s help. Philippe has to make a decision; which one does he go to help. We try to explore that triangle fully in the show.
Do you think that he loves Henriette, too?
AV: Of course he does, yes. I think you can love someone for many different reasons. You have to remember that Louis and Philippe and Henriette grew up as children together. They played together. They were kids in Sainte Germaine … and they have this childhood triangle. It just so happened that Louis and Henriette were in love, but Louis couldn’t have Henriette. So Philippe had to have her, for, well—you know the reason. But yes, I think he loves her as one of his closest friends.
George, does Louis love her, too?
GB: Absolutely. It’s the relationship he has with a female character in the show that is the closest thing to love for Louis. He actually forces Philippe to marry Henriette to keep her close.
It’s an interesting thing for Alex to play because whereas Chevalier is a choice for Philippe, Henriette isn’t. And it’s not that the love is any less, it’s a different kind of love. And it’s exactly the same situation that Louis experiences with his arranged marriage with Mary Thérèse of Spain and [his affair with] Henriette. One is for political maneuvering and one is a choice. What’s fascinating about all of the character dynamics is that you have this sort of domino effect of relationships being forged out of political gain and relationships being forged out of true desire.
George, what was it like going immediately from playing Athelstan to Louis?
GB: Crazy. I finished filming “Vikings” on Friday the 15th of August, 2014, and I turned over on “Versailles” on Monday the 18th of August. I had two days to go from 800 A.D. to 1657. Seriously, but that’s what I love about this job. In the course of a weekend, I can go from playing an Anglo-Saxon monk turned Viking to the most powerful figure in European history. It’s just an amazing part of our job. It was extremely stressful and challenging, but I like it when my job is stressful and challenging. Now I hope it continues to be stressful and challenging.