“It’s such a glamorous and dangerous world” - hmv.com talks to the cast and creator of Versailles
After finishing its rollicking run on our TV screens, Versailles comes to DVD shelves this week.
The show is a lavish, decadent and debauched look at the construction of Versailles Palace during the reign of Louis XIV. It follows the 28-year old king as he struggles to keep the country together, navigates his complex relationships with his brother and wife, and keeps the endless plots and schemes to bring him down at bay.
Earlier this summer we sat down with George Blagden, who plays Louis himself, Alex Vlahos, who takes the role of his brother Philippe, Elisa Lasowki, who portrays Maria Theresa, Louis’ Spanish wife, Sarah Winter, who takes the part of Louise de La Vallière, one of the King’s many mistresses, and David Wolstencroft, the show’s creator and, in the past, the man behind hugely successful drama Spooks.
Here’s their take on the strange world of Versailles...
What attracted you to the world of Versailles?
George: “The scripts I read were very bold with what they did with the history, looking at what happens between the marks in history and exploring the drama behind closed doors, what drives power, hatred and manipulation. I knew that’s what would make it accessible.”
Alex: “For me it was the character description I was given which said that Philippe was basically a 17th century David Bowie. To me, that was gold dust. He has this brilliant, questionable relationship with his brother, he has a boyfriend, but also a wife who is very committed to duty. He likes to wear women’s clothes, but he’s a great soldier. It’s this huge spectrum of personality, I couldn’t believe he really existed.”
Sarah: “It was period drama, but it felt very fresh and I loved all the characters, it’s such an eclectic group of people. It’s young people in such a glamorous and dangerous world, that’s always going to be fun.”
Elisa: “I loved the scripts, it just had a great flow, it was so modern, I thought we might be in jeans and t-shirts, it was that contemporary and that full of life.”
How did you come up with the idea for the show?
David: “Me and Simon (Mirren, co-creator, long-time showrunner of Criminal Minds) had been talking about doing something together since Spooks and he called me and said that he’d been asked to look into creating a show about Versailles and did I want to be involved? He’d written the first five minutes and the network loved it and he said that this should be the show we do together. So we both went to Versailles and had a look around. I’d actually studied Louis at university and so I knew a bit about it and I jumped at the chance to do the show. I knew there was potential for something very special.”
How did you go about casting the show?
David: “If you’re casting a massive show then the usual inclination to go after stars. But when I was casting Spooks all those years ago my three principals were Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes and David Oyelowo. Now they’re household names, but at the time they weren’t really known at all and it’s a habit of mine to try and find people who are young, unknown and can grow with the series. I wanted the cast to be fresh as it’s a fresh take on a period drama.”
How much did you know about this period of history? Did you have to do much research?
George: “Very little, I had four weeks to get ready and I did as much as I could. We were very lucky with this show, the production helps us so much, we shoot in chateaus all over France and that kind of scale does a lot of the work for you, by the time you’re in five layers of costume, you feel pretty regal.”
Elisa: “I knew enough, what everyone knows about Louis, but I did more, I spent days in the British Library looking into it, my character is quite a mystery so I enjoyed finding out more about her.”
Sarah: “Not a huge amount. I did a lot of research, I read a lot about the character and how women were treated at court at the time. My character actually wrote a book herself about her life at court and so having that to draw on was a great help.”
Alex: “I didn’t know much, only what we get taught in school, which is a bit fleeting. I hate reading, I read one book, which was dense and didn’t excite me so I just waited for the scripts. They were a history lesson in themselves.”
David: “I did a tonne of research and reading and spent a lot of time with a historical consultant. I’ve long believed that history is fluid, we know what happened at the top level, but we were looking to dramatise the clues and dig into the level underneath.”
From what you have learned, what surprised you the most?
Sarah: “Just how much of what have now came from Louis’ court. Ballet’s origins are there and Louis was the first global brand, he created the sun king logo, he understood so much about making yourself a big personality.”
Alex: “That someone like this actually existed! How he managed to live a life like this as he did in court, how he could allow his wife to be his brother’s mistress and live as an open homosexual in the court. We’re still struggling with homophobia now and this was the 17th century!”
George: “There were lots of shocking facts about Louis and the decisions he made. There’s a very famous room in Versailles called the ‘Hall Of Mirrors’ and at the time, one sheet of these Venetian glass mirrors would cost the same as a battleship, and when you walk into that room and see how many battleships are in there, it makes you realise how far he went in bankrupting his country to create a beautiful room. 5,000 people died building the grand canal at Versailles, tapping into the psychology of that as an actor was fascinating.”
Elisa: “If you watch the first episode, you’ll know what surprised me!”
The show is enormous in scale, what was it like stepping on set on that first day?
Alex: “When I got the part I had no idea how big of a show this was. I had no idea they’d be spending 30 million euros on the set and that my wig was going to cost €5,000! I’d done Merlin for three years for the BBC and my first day was talking to a Green Dragon, it was a green stick and I was up a mountain in the Brecon Beacons surrounded by fake snow and I really thought this was as big as it was going to get. Then I walked on to the set on the first day of Versailles and it shook me to the core. You do your best not to let it affect you, you just have to feel lucky that there is all this money and you can really show off just how crazy this world was.”
Sarah: “I’d never seen anything on that scale. Seeing all these incredible scenes brought to life, I was overwhelmed more than once during filming. The costumes were incredible, they should be in a museum, the detail is that precise, they really tell a story.”
Elisa: “It did, being on a big set didn’t intimidate me, but the costumes and being in these huge castles and when we first got started it was so nerve-wracking. Getting into the mode to do this took a lot of getting used to, it takes you a while to get accustomed to walking into a castle.”
George: “It is a very big production, but I’d just come off Vikings, which had a similar budget, so they felt like similar sized boats with completely different sails. The thing I had to get used to was playing a guy who is a brand in France, he created a lot of modern luxury and he’s a huge figure in French history.”
David: “It’s a fantastic group of artisans at the top of their game, there’s a sense of immersion that you don’t get with other shows. Every part of the production added value to this show.”
What was the most challenging scene in the first series?
George: “There’s a sequence where Louis becomes very ill and starts hallucinating, making that come to life was hard, but I really felt like I pushed some boundaries.”
Alex: “There’s a moment in the second episode where I arrive in a dress. I felt like I’d got hold of the different parts of the various personalities of the character, but physically wearing the dress was hard, a lot of that was down to my own insecurity and finding out a way to stop being bashful. The director told me “Just imagine you’re Iggy Pop”, that was my way in.”
Sarah: “The first scene I filmed, the scale of the production hit me and I completely lost my place. It just took my breath away.”
Elisa: “All of it was pretty challenging, the main thing for me to overcome was to be natural in these dresses where you can barely move and how you make these situations seem real, how you take the artifice away and give yourself authority. That and a pulled muscle, which I did during the birth scene, I was trying to make it as real as possible, I’d watched a lot of videos on YouTube of women giving birth and I was trying to imitate them.”
What were the most fun scenes to shoot?
Alex: “Any scene that I had with George. They don’t look like fun as we argue a lot, but I love working with him. We’d never met before this, but we got a real chemistry going and I think we’ve found something really special.”
George: “Anything on horseback. I got to do all my own stunts and there’s no feeling quite like riding a stallion when you’re playing Louis and seeing your hair flapping in the wind. That’s a lot of fun.”
Elisa: “I like playing Maria Theresa when she lets loose. She’s a quite serious presence, but she has a wit and good sense of humour. I like her when she’s sharper…”
It must have been a great experience to film, you’re all roughly the same age on this big adventure...
Alex: “It’s a young show. The average age of the cast is 25 and the camaraderie you see on screen was built offscreen. We all lived in Paris and it was life imitating art. We had a great time.”
Sarah: “It was so exciting and we all became great friends. Me and Anna Brewster (who plays Fraincoise, Marquise of Montespan) were cast quite early together and we became really close. We spent a lot of time trying on dresses together and hanging out in Paris, it was wonderful.”
How do French crews compare to British crews? Does it feel different making a show in France? Or is a key grip just a key grip?
Alex: “They have two lunches for starters and there’s wine at lunch! But they’re very hard-working and they’ve got their own way of dealing with things. There’s no panic or rushing, things are allowed to take their time, they take great care over everything, especially the finer details.”
What can you tell us about season two?
Alex: “It really pushes the boundaries. Season one was a lot of introducing characters and asking people to come on this journey with us. With season two we’re not on the landing strip, we’re in the air.”
Do you think the show can run and run?
Alex: “I hope so. I’m contracted for three series, I’d love to come back again, if the passion’s still there and the writing’s good. It’s not fictional, it’s not Game Of Thrones, both our characters live to a ripe old age, so we can keep going and going. Unless they re-cast me, in which case I want Richard E. Grant to replace me.”
Elisa: “Absolutely. They’re already talking about season three, the show contributed so much to modern culture and there’s so much in these people’s lives. Potentially they could kill us all off and re-cast and keep going right up until right now, it’s French history, there’s a lot of it…”
David: “That’s the idea. Louis is the longest serving King in history, he was on the throne for 72 years and there are a lot of stories to tell. It’s the world precinct and all human life is there, we’ll just have to choose our history carefully. I think this could go for many seasons.”