George Blagden talks to TV Drama about playing Louis XIV in the TV series Versailles, which enhances historical facts to tell the story of young Louis, the intrigue in his court, and how he was way ahead of his time in seeing himself as a brand, the Sun King.
Most everyone has heard of or studied Louis XIV, the French king and longest-reigning monarch in Europe. He is known for ordering the construction of the dazzling Palace of Versailles, promoting the arts, annexing territories and making France the most powerful country in the world. Less known are his private life, his vulnerabilities, the influence of his mother and his numerous mistresses.
Season two of Versailles will launch in the U.S. on Ovation and the new Ovation NOW app on September 30.
TV DRAMA: What research did you do before taking on the role?
BLAGDEN: I was unlucky that I was cast about five weeks before we started shooting and I had about four and a half weeks left to shoot on Vikings. But I was lucky that a lot was done for me. I was surprised when I got to Paris, a couple of days before we started shooting, to hear that the costume and set designers had been working for the better part of a year on prepping the show. Even for season three, our costume department started to work in February/March for production that began in May. As an actor you think, my job is to tell the human story and character here and an army of people have spent three years researching this project—every little button that Louis wore, even how he walked down the corridor. One of the scriptwriters who created the show did his doctorate at Cambridge University on Versailles and Louis XIV. It sounds like a cop out, but we were so supported that we didn’t need to do any research.
TV DRAMA: Was there an unknown side of Louis XIV you thought the audience should see?
BLAGDEN: That is the point of historical drama, to try to show the audience something they don’t know about a period in history they may have learned about in school. I would say it always starts with the writing and what the writers want to do with the show and what sort of story they want to tell an audience. I was very lucky that when we started season one of Versailles, the producers and the writers wanted to tell a story about Louis’s vulnerability. That was a major reason why I was cast because that is something I can do quite well as an actor—play vulnerability and sensitivity in characters and show their weaknesses. We wanted to start Versailles, season one, with a king who was very much a boy still, and show the growth of this man, how he built his palace and how he became this brand, the Sun King. I was lucky in that the creators and writers wanted to tell a similar story to the one I wanted to tell, which was about this man’s weaknesses and vulnerability and how he overcame them and became the Sun King.
TV DRAMA: His mother had a strong influence on him, didn’t she?
BLAGDEN: Absolutely. He became King of France at age four. So his mother was Queen Regent until he was 27. When she died, he had to take absolute power and authority. As a strong maternal figure, she had a huge influence on him [and because of this relationship with his mother] when he became an adult, the women in his life became extremely important. You see that in our show. The women have a lot of sway over what sort of decisions he makes. Sometimes the massive decisions he makes in the court, or for France, or internationally, are ideas that women in his life had. At the start of season one we see him wrestling out of boyhood and becoming a man. In season two, we see more of the man that we saw develop in season one.
TV DRAMA: How were women able to exert influence at a time when they weren’t given a voice?
BLAGDEN: What we try to represent in the show, to defend Louis slightly [because he had so many affairs], is that in the public domain, he saw women as complementary to him and very much as people who could support his brand. What we get to do in Versailles is show the relationships and the scenes behind closed doors that he had with women. He regarded a lot of the women in his life as equals and took their opinions very seriously. We know from history that some of his decisions were influenced by the women in his life—not just as objects of pleasure or as pastimes but as key advisors to him. I think we get that right in Versailles and show that they are the power behind this man.
TV DRAMA: It’s a story that takes place in the past but is also very modern.
BLAGDEN: Honestly, I was surprised that they didn’t have to change the facts of what happened that much to make it modern. I find it amazing that in the 17th century someone like [Louis’s brother] Philippe was able to exist as openly as he did as a cross-dressing warrior prince. It’s amazing that in 2017, society is only now reaching a point where we can accept someone like that and who he is. The writers didn’t have much of a problem in modernizing this story from the 17th century. They just were modern people. The court was full of people from all over Europe—from Spain, Eastern Europe, England—so it had a modern multicultural feeling. And of course, we are making a period drama for a modern audience so enhancing some of those aspects is what we’re trying to do to make these people relatable.
TV DRAMA: Do you shoot in the Palace of Versailles?
BLAGDEN: Yes, we shoot in the palace on Mondays because it’s closed to the public.
TV DRAMA: Do you feel the weight of history?
BLAGDEN: You do. The first time we shot in Versailles was on the anniversary of Louis’s death. It was the first time I did a sequence in the Galerie des Glaces [Hall of Mirrors] on my own, dressed as Louis, being Louis, on the anniversary of his death. It was surreal and very strange—you can’t help but feel like history is all around you. I stood in the Galerie des Glaces, looked around and thought, we’re representing something real here; we’re not just having a bit of fun. But the trick with any role like this is to get that off your shoulders and tell a story that you, the other actors and the writers and creators want to tell and is engaging for the audience. Some people might have a problem and say Louis would have never done this or Louis would have never done that, but we are not making a documentary, we’re making a fictional dramatic interpretation of this man and how he lived. It’s been such a joy to do that and discover him. [Versailles co-creator] Simon Mirren says if Louis were alive today, he’d be very proud because the show we have created is now in 149 countries. That’s exactly what Louis would have wanted. His brand and his marketing have evolved in the 21st century to a TV series created about the legacy of his life. He would have found it very fitting.
TV DRAMA: What reaction was there in France to the fact that Versailles is shot in English?
BLAGDEN: I remember meeting a French journalist, a lovely woman; we were filming the first episodes, and she came to set. She was very forthcoming about her opinion that English actors were playing these French characters—in fact, lots of actors from lots of different countries who weren’t French. Then we did a screening for the International Emmy members at Versailles, and this journalist was there with French President François Hollande. She came up to me at the screening and said, I have to apologize for the comments I made to you on set. Bravo, you’ve told our story in the best possible way. I didn’t mind any other [criticism] after that.