From Academy Award-winning creator and executive producer Neil Jordan, the Showtime drama series The Borgias tells the story of Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons), the cunning, manipulative patriarch of the Borgia family, who ascends to the highest circles of power within Renaissance-era Rome to become Pope Alexander VI. With the Season 2 Blu-ray/DVD now available, viewers will get a complex and intimate portrait of one of history’s most intriguing families through special features, cast interviews and behind-the-scenes glimpses.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Francois Arnaud, who plays Cesare Borgia, talked about the responsibility of telling such a historically epic story, what fan can expect from Season 3 (which returns to Showtime on April 14th) and his character’s journey, exploring the unusually close relationship between Cesare and his sister Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), that they don’t have many deleted scenes because they keep to a tight schedule, but that they do have a very funny 12-minute blooper reel, losing a cast member in Season 2, and how he focused on the physical work to prepare for Season 3. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
FRANCOIS ARNAUD: It’s always been fun. I couldn’t believe I was going to be working with Neil Jordan and Jeremy Irons, when we started the show, and it’s been a lot of fun since. It was also a big commitment, personally, as well, to play a historical figure who goes through so many different changes. I’m not saying that it’s not pleasurable, but it also felt like a big responsibility. It became a huge part of my life. I invested a lot of myself in it, and it paid off. I’m learning so much, and it’s been a great experience, all in all.
What is the balance between how much you delve into the actual history and how much you just stick with the script?
ARNAUD: I read the biographies before starting the first season. But at some point, you just have to trust the script because we’re not making a documentary. Neil Jordan was very clear on that. I feel like he was creating a Shakespearean drama and using those characters to make them more universal. The father and son relationship between Rodrigo and Cesare is not dissimilar to what a lot of fathers and sons experience today. Not that you can’t stick to history, but the story that we tell is all either true or very believable that it could have happened that way. The order of the events is not always factual. Obviously, I’m aware of how Cesare Borgia died, in real life, but the character isn’t. You have to keep your mind free of all of those considerations, when you’re actually doing it.
You couldn’t have possibly asked for better timing with getting a new Pope, seeing how the selection process works and learning about who he is, just in time for the start of Season 3. Was it bizarre and surreal to see that, knowing that the show is coming back?
ARNAUD: My god, yeah! I hope it gives us a boost in the ratings. I’ve read a little bit about it because it’s everywhere, but I don’t think the Pope today is a figure who’s as important as he was then. Today, the Pope is only a religious figure. At the time of The Borgias, he was also a political leader, a financial leader and the head of an army. I think Popes are much less relevant today than they were then.
What can you say to tease where the story is headed for Season 3?
ARNAUD: Early on, in Season 3, I think the Borgias realize that the threats are coming from everywhere. They have a few major enemies, but mostly everyone hates them. It will eventually have to lead to a war. That’s what Season 3 is about. It’s about revenge after Della Rovere (Colm Feore) tried to poison Rodrigo. Obviously, if you’ve seen the trailer, you know that he survives. There’s not big secret there. He’s not in great shape, but he survived, and Cesare feels that he is now the leader of the family, especially since Juan (David Oakes) is dead. And Cesare finally becomes who he was always meant to be and who he always wanted to be. He’s a warrior.
ARNAUD: I like when the politics mixes with the personal, as it often does on The Borgias. When Lucrezia marries the Prince of Naples, it creates conflict with Cesare’s personal agenda. Although they’re really close, the politics do affect your everyday life and your emotional life, as well.
Because there is this rather unusual relationship between Cesare and Lucrezia, is it weird to go from playing brother and sister to having the more intimate moments? Do you just have to have a laugh with things like that?
ARNAUD: Yes and no. We’ve always, if not known, felt where it was headed. It was all over the writing, since our first scene in Season 1. It was clear that these characters were desperately in love with each other, from the very beginning. So, we always knew that and felt that, but now we’ve taken it to another level that’s more physical. I don’t want to say too much, but I think these characters are as surprised or not surprised as the viewers are. You just use everything. They go through a thousand different emotions, during one scene, as we do and you just use that. You don’t fight against it. It’s part of who these characters are.
With a show that’s as big in scope as The Borgias is, do you think it’s almost necessary to include behind-the-scenes features on the DVD release, just to give fans an idea of what it takes to produce a show like this and make it look as good as it does for television?
ARNAUD: Oh, you’re not asking the right guy. As an actor, as much as I’m interested in how you make movies and TV shows, even as a kid, I’ve always hated making of featurettes and special features on DVDs. I think it breaks the spell. I don’t think they should do that, but I know everyone does now. I’m just being honest. You definitely shouldn’t watch the special features before you watch the actual series.
Do you have many deleted scenes with this show, or do you have to stay pretty well on point because of the budget and the time constraints that you have?
ARNAUD: We’re on a pretty tight schedule, so we won’t try to do bloopers on purpose. I’m sure on some shows, they do. And it’s not a comedy, but there are funny moments. I’ve seen a blooper reel for Season 3 and it’s pretty funny, but you have 12 minutes of funny footage, out of six months of shooting. It’s not Bridesmaids.
ARNAUD: What first got me interested was the people – to work with Neil Jordan and Jeremy Irons – and the journey of the characters. To go from this innocent boy with good intentions, who turns into this manipulative monster, which I have a hard time saying because I have a lot of love for him, was what interested me. Even Neil Jordan was a bit scared because he thought I was maybe playing it too much like a good guy, but I told him, “If we’re going to do three or four years of this, then I need space to bring him somewhere,” and we agreed. That was also what he wanted. I think Cesare is very much Neil Jordan’s alter-ego. He’d been working on making The Borgias a movie for 15 years, and that didn’t happen. It turns out that it was more suited for a TV show because there’s so much story to tell. But, it was the evolution of the character that always interested me the most.
Some of those last moments between Cesare and Juan in Season 2 were some of the most memorable of the season. Was it bittersweet to shoot something like that, where you have these great moments, as an actor, but you also know it will lead to having to say goodbye to one of the cast members?
ARNAUD: The last scene that David [Oakes] ever shot on The Borgias was his death scene. That was incredible. It’s always a bit awkward when you shoot your death scene, and then have to come back and shoot something else. So, it was bittersweet, but it was at the very end of the season and we didn’t know if we were coming back for a third season. It might have been the end of it all, anyway. He always knew, from the start, that his character was going to die, probably at the hands of Cesare, but it was a very emotional moment. I’m sure it was hard for Cesare to kill his brother. You just use all of that and put it into the scene.
Do you think the Borgias have any extra guilt, when it comes to doing bad things to their own family?
ARNAUD: It’s funny, the sense of self, 500 years ago, was completely different from today. Cesare does have a lot of ambitions for himself, but he’s also able to see the bigger picture, like with his brother. I’m trying to make him a nobleman, and it’s awful. I’m probably defending him too much, but I’m fighting for my guy. He knows that it’s for the greater good, and for the good of his family. At that point, Juan was threatening everyone. It was either him that was going to go, or Lucrezia’s baby, and I think Cesare would have done anything to spare Lucrezia something like that.
ARNAUD: Before Season 3, I did a lot of physical work, just to believe myself as the leader of an army, which Cesare becomes in Season 3. So, I put on a bit of weight and got better and more comfortable at horse riding. I just focused on certain moments or aspects of the character. The emotional side of the character was there, in the first few seasons, and that was not a problem. His relationship with Lucrezia was pretty clear already. But, focusing on Cesare’s ambition and strength and rage is what I did for Season 3. It makes a completely different show, too. It’s pretty full-on. Season 3 is pretty violent, actually. I hope people still enjoy it.
The Borgias returns for Season 3 on Showtime on April 14th, and Season 2 is now available on Blu-ray/DVD.