Alexander Vlahos Interview
From Versailles to La Ronde

A closer look at the creative process and brave choices of an actor exploring the preconceived notions of sexuality and social fabric at court in 17th century France as well as in modern day London

Foto: Alexander Vlahos, La Ronde - Copyright: Ray Burmiston
Alexander Vlahos, La Ronde
© Ray Burmiston

February 19, 2017 by Nicole Oebel @philomina_
Here's a German translation of the interview.

London. February. The first spring weekend in 2017. My first visit to the theater in 10 years brings me to the up and coming area around Borough Market. Bustling streets are lined with cozy pubs, each one with a cluster of cool people gathered outside; you feel you would like to get to know them. The Melting Pot in all its colors and shapes. Just a few steps away is the coolest theater I've ever seen, the Bunker Theater, and when you enter this location, all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Max Gill's modernized version of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde offers a cross-section through all the people you've just seen in the streets and it invites you to look behind the scenes. Behind the scenes of their sexual encounters, desires, lies, hopes and fears. And all that inside the intimate atmosphere of an indie club, exciting, dark and sexy.

In order to breathe life into the ten different characters of the play, a roulette wheel decides scene-by-scene between four exceptionally inspiring actors: Alexander Vlahos, Amanda Wilkin, Leemore Marrett Jr., and Lauren Samuels. As a fan of Alex's TV and audio work such as "Versailles" and "The Confessions of Dorian Gray" I'm incredibly excited to get the chance to see him on stage among this naturally talented cast. And one thing is for sure I'm coming back multiple times to see this play with its fascinating concept in which no two shows are the same.

Sitting down with Alex to talk about not only his work in such a bold and daring play but also his other recent projects such as "Versailles" and "Genius" was a joy! So have yourself a nice cup of tea, a macaron and dive in to enjoy the read and the soundclips.

Alex, back on stage, one week in – How are you?

How am I... tired, exhausted, mentally stimulated. It's such a short run for a work so daring and brave and challenging, but I can't imagine doing it for like four months. It's one of those plays where you sit in the dressing room constantly looking over your script and usually in theatre you rehearse to get to a point where you don't have to look at the script again, you can just live and breathe the character, but in the dressing room an hour before the play we go over and over all of the scenes. It's one of those things you can never let go.


I think we all get jitters in that first little opening sequence because we all don't know if we'll be playing that first scene or not but once the scene is selected and if you're playing or you're not playing then the jitters calm and you just live and breathe the play.

Your approach is different on different projects, for "Hamlet" you were immersing yourself in research whereas for "Versailles" the script is the bible. What was your approach here?

Trust the director! ...or first of all the lines, that was the mammoth one, having to learn the whole play, that's the biggest challenge. So before rehearsals started I learnt five characters so I was at least half way with the line learning and then doing the four weeks of rehearsals I learnt the other five so by that point I got them all in my head. But I guess the biggest challenge was that each character was different enough that people didn't think that you weren't showing versatility or variety. So making sure that ten characters were very distinct whether that means changing your accent or a physical approach to it. So the process was learning the lines and then making sure the trust was there with the director and the rest of the cast because it's such a sexually vibrant play. There has to be a lot of trust with nudity and touching and feeling, which took a lot of time actually.

So you didn't go to the original version so much?

I skimmed it once and realized that Max's version was so different from it. The concept is the same but as far as the lines go it's so modern, there's no similarities in that respect I think.

I was surprised that it's a lot closer to the original than I thought from your interviews before. Some of the characters are really a modernized version of Schnitzler's characters, like the maid is the cleaner...

Yes, but what happens during the scenes has been modernized like there's no BDSM-esque thing with a ruler in the original.

No, but the sex with Schnitzler was always violent.

Is violent the right word? I would say dominant. About dominance and the power shifts between scenes where you think one character is clearly in charge or the one that's in control and then it flips on their head. Max has always been very clear in rehearsals that he was only the director. Sometimes when you have the writer in the room it can become precious or the writer could become precious whereas if the writer is also the director maybe as actors you feel scared to challenge the work, challenge why that character says what he says. So we had to treat the writing as if the writer had passed away 200 years ago so we could treat it with a lot more confidence or guts and ask more questions.

How did you approach the characters you may have felt far removed from and are there favourites?

The ones that were the furthest removed from me were the ones that were easier. The ones that are kind of just me on stage with a lot more of me in it they're the ones I found trickier to approach. My cleaner, my bus driver, I guess even my actor are quite far from me whereas the professor, you got to see the doctor, they are closer to me, that's more me as a natural actor, me not doing very much on stage, and they were the ones I found particularly challenging because you feel like you're not doing very much and there's a worry there that you're not fully committed to the work if you're not doing very much. Does that make sense?

Yes, but it's also surprising.


[Cue me looking for words] What I was looking to say is: Don't you know what a natural stage presence you have, especially when a lot of yourself shines through the character?

The reason why I'm an actor, we talked about this, is the enjoyment of inhabiting someone that is so far from you, so you get to experience someone else's life. So what surprised me about Philippe ["Versailles"] was that I thought he was such a big challenge, I thought he was so far from me and then two months into filming season 1 I realized we're very very similar and then the whole process of season 1 became traumatic, turbulent for me. Because I was having to bring a lot more of myself than I thought I had to. Whereas with La Ronde, playing a Bulgarian cleaner or a bus driver from London – that's the joy, that's the fun because it's so far from you, that's the big leap, that's when you get excited because you're showcasing something different from you and getting to inhabit someone else. When it's something that is much more you, your posture, your accent, then it becomes trickier. There's a lot of characters in this that allow you to showcase a range. Whereas the doctor is quite limited in that.

I found the doctor and the lift scenes were the best scenes last night.


Because of how the two characters in the lift scene obviously cared for each other but they crossed the line to hate. That was a really strong, powerful scene. And the other one was raw emotions, the diagnosis...

Foto: Alexander Vlahos, Amanda Wilkin, La Ronde - Copyright: Ray Burmiston
Alexander Vlahos, Amanda Wilkin, La Ronde
© Ray Burmiston

Yes, my favourite character to play, going back to your question before, is the professor, the person that finds out about the news. I've actually played that character the most since we've been going and people from the cast joke about it being my character. It's the only chance that you get to dial it down a bit, be a bit more nuanced, less funny, get to showcase a different part of the play, the more heartfelt, painful version of the characters. Especially going into the scene after with the siblings, with the screenwriter.

I really like that both actors change into the clothes for the next scene and the one who isn't picked by the wheel stays in the back of the stage in the dark. It feels like it represents we all have these different sides of the different characters in us but only admit to or approve of certain ones in our lives and keep the others hidden in the dark.

I never thought about it like that but it's very true. What I've always enjoyed is the fact that you can see us in the same costume so you can see the potential for the scene. So whoever gets picked, half way through that scene you maybe think what this would have been like with the other person of a different sex or race. So it's about showing the other possibilities, but sitting on the stage in the dark with the same costume on, you're very right, is maybe a way of showcasing that we all got all the sides, all the personalities in us I guess.

In Schnitzler's "Reigen" we have the recurring phrase "Do you really like me?" representing a hint of how deep down the characters are really desperate for a connection. More contemporary productions lacked that aspect making the characters wrapped up only in themselves. Last night some scenes were more emotional and some were less emotional. Was that something you guys talked about how much emotionality there is in the different characters?

Foto: Alexander Vlahos, Amanda Wilkin, Lauren Samuels, Leemore Marrett Jr., La Ronde - Copyright: Ray Burmiston
Alexander Vlahos, Amanda Wilkin, Lauren Samuels, Leemore Marrett Jr., La Ronde
© Ray Burmiston

It's always the goal trying to work out why is the character there, what do they want, do they achieve what they want. I will say though that certain combinations of actors in certain scenes will change that dynamic. Me doing the bus driver scene with Leemore as the prostitute - I'm never going to get that kiss at the end because of his size because he would clearly smack me around the room so there's a sense of trying to get a disbelief with the audience that I could possibly manhandle him on the bed, does he allow me to push him on the bed and thinks it's still a game? When Leemore is the bus driver and Lauren is the prostitute he could potentially rip her to shreds so that fear and that objective that he wants that kiss is very clear. Flip it to me as the student and Amanda or Leemore as the cleaner that scene becomes very racially powerful because you got a white upper-middle class guy saying "Rape and pillage me" and that becomes incredibly loaded because of our connotations with that. Every scene in this play either will become very funny depending on the actors involved or become very emotionally charged. You said certain scenes had it and certain scenes didn't, we're always constantly trying as actors to figure out to get the most out of the scene but it all depends on dynamic and I guess that's the hit and miss in this production sometimes.

You're always trying to figure out what do they really want, do they actually want anything, do they want to just leave so that you can pull out all the nuances and detail in Max's script. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't and that's the gamble with having a Roulette and very little time to prepare. It's been a week and I have yet to play the screenwriter (Editor's note: Right after the interview in the Sunday matinee the wheel picked Alex to play the screenwriter!). Every actor has played all the parts now apart from me. When I get to play the screenwriter it'll be so fresh but maybe so raw and underdeveloped that maybe I'll miss things in the scene. It all varies depending on the combinations.

What Max has done is cast four very different people with four very different approaches and four very different clear ideas what this play stands for. For me it's about showcasing what your idea of a social ladder is. Why the royal is the last person that we see and why a prostitute is the lowest of the low. That's what I'm so interested in this play: our notion of why does a job define you. Everyone in the cast has a different perspective of what this play represents.

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You've said before you're drawn to complex characters, ones that allow you to discover something about yourself. What about La Ronde in that respect, did you discover things about yourself?

This was about, I would like to have this challenge and see how deep down within myself I can go within these ten characters. It's the same idea, the same want that I've had as an actor of discovering something about myself through characters but with this it was about can I succeed in this challenge, trying to make sure ten characters are very different and enjoy it. I haven't been on stage for three years. It's crazy!

Dorian and Philippe are characters who chose to live their desires and now you're in a play where desire's chips fall where they may, which is an interesting string of characters & projects. We know you always look for a challenge and even though I think you need to be confident to play these roles it seems the sexuality wasn't the challenging part for you in these projects, was it?

It was a challenge with Philippe initially. I took the role because of the role then you understand how much is asked of you, especially with Philippe and the relationship with the Chevalier. Me and Evan [Williams] making a pact, I know he said that in an interview to you before, on like day 2 of meeting him we were going like "Listen, these characters are so good that if we treat them with any amount of disrespect we're cheating the audience out of something truthful" and then it was both of us, separately and together, having to sort of really gear ourselves up through how much we were willing to be confident with our own bodies and the sexual nature of "Versailles". Since then I haven't looked back. So for me it was about breaking a barrier, a sort of emotional barrier like a see-through barrier of being confident on screen naked, being able to kiss a man and a woman, have sex scenes, lie in bed naked, all these tiny insecure little hurdles that you have to get through as an actor. Once you do it things get easier, so since then sexual challenges within acting have become a sort of no-brainer really. I don't think you should doubt or question getting a role because of the sexual content in it. Since getting Philippe, that was the jump and when I made the jump and landed I never looked back.

So doing something like La Ronde – no inhibitions, rightly or wrongly, overconfidence or whatever you may call it, it's just an acceptance of standing there. You've seen Leemore… gorgeous, built like a brick house. Some actors would find that a bit of an insecurity that your body doesn't match up but it's all in your head and you just have to get over it. I've never not been confident with tackling any sort of sexual scene at all, especially on stage.

"Versailles" is the first show in which you portray a character in a physical relationship, isn't it?

Yeah, I guess especially in a sexually and emotionally charged aspect of it. In the "Indian Doctor" I was having a romantic relationship but nothing to the extent of Philippe and the Chevalier / Henriette and now in season 2 Princess Palatine as well.

When season 1 came out in the UK there were all these reviews blasting it was basically porn - and in the same year you chose a play that challenges people's preconceptions about sex. Is there a connection?

Definitely! I'd be lying if I didn't say it is a big F you to people sometimes, we're so prudish and then we're so not?! There's no fifty percent. We're either prudes and criticize "This is the raunchiest thing on television", which it clearly isn't, but we're the generation that avidly seeks out more fetishes, more desires... And you got that end of the spectrum where we're the most emotionally and sexually active as a generation to something like a Tory MP coming out saying it was like "porn in cravats" on a TV show. So this was definitely a subconscious thing, or not even subconscious thing but a very conscious thing of reading the script and going "Well, why not?"

For Versailles both you and Evan have talked about your dynamic, in Evan lingo you were "going for the jugular and refusing to be polite about it"

He's got such a way with words, doesn't he?

Yes, doesn't he, especially in writing... How does building that dynamic between two actors or characters compare to what happens for La Ronde where you change your characters all the time?

You have longer with television to build up a relationship and also there's a lot of time jumping in television where you have to tell a story very quickly, there may be a year past between episodes where you have to show a little bit more of a progression but in La Ronde, there are a snippets, almost like sketches, characters at their most heightened or at their worst point. You have to take a lot more risks quicker. There is a lot more trust in having to work with actors and get there quicker because you haven't got that time. On television you get to talk about it, you get a lot of takes, you get to add details and layers and it's not rushed really.

It sometimes sounded like it was.

Foto: Evan Williams & Alexander Vlahos, Versailles - Copyright: Tibo & Anouchka / Capa Drama / Canal+
Evan Williams & Alexander Vlahos, Versailles
© Tibo & Anouchka / Capa Drama / Canal+

No, me and Evan talked in length, we'd go out in the evening after a day and know that we've had maybe a sex scene coming up the next day and we would work out verbally what we think the scene was about, how much we wanted to show so we would come in to the scene the next day very prepared and the director would add their take. And you'd add layers and maybe get four, five takes to get a moment down. Like for example in episode 1x05 where I come back from war. We talked in length about being on top, Philippe is never on top, he's always bottom, the idea that it should be him putting the Chevalier down on the bed, that was months of planning and detail and adding layers and what the reaction should be from the Chevalier, would he be disgusted or would he be turned on. With something like La Ronde you just have to commit and hope that the actors follow suit and vice versa. And also while we're opening and there's an audience we're becoming a lot more daring with our work as well. We're adding layers in moments without discussing it.

From the reviews it seems the wheel is what pushes some viewers away but it also draws many in to feel the craving that the characters feel. Did you see that coming?

I did. We joke that the wheel can hear us and it's a fifth character in the play. It is so dominating at the back of the stage, always lit, we don't hide it from the audience. You're right the lure is we're trying to showcase something different and be daring with the production. I thought the reviews that pinpointed on and criticized the concept and the wheel itself never really talked about the acting which is a damn shame because you got four actors here doing an hour and a half of very brave and daring and ambitious work. And if they focus on a convention, on a device, it's hurtful because if you've come because of that idea and you don't like that idea there's still some great work being showcased.

As Max said "Part of the play's genius is that Schnitzler does not describe the act of sex in any stage directions" - Did your scripts only have asterisks for these moments, too? Because a lot of modern productions of "Reigen" made an effort to fill these moments and take that away from the imagination of the audience.

Yes, asterisks in all our scripts. We then had to discuss and agree on what would have happened in that moment, how long the moment was, why does it happen then and what's changed post the asterisk. Is it a huge change, is one character angry or upset, what's the catalyst to continue the scene. In every combination there has to be a concrete so we're both very clear about what happened. My favourite one is the sibling one where it's a split second really. Nothing happened but it's the idea that something might have happened. Whereas in the prostitute bus driver scene time has gone by in that scene where we don't quite know what's going on and I really like the idea that for an audience they can fill it with "Well that was nothing" or really go into their darkest deepest minds and fill it with a huge story if they wanted to depending on themselves.

The following two questions contain major spoilers on two scenes of La Ronde.

I thought the fetish scene was very well done especially since the representation of BDSM in a recent pop-cultural phenomen has been discussed very controversially.

That scene is a great example of a constant shift in dominance or what dominance is. The cleaner is the person that introduces the punishing, the idea of punishing, but during the whole scene before that it's the student that is punishing the cleaner with words. So the cleaner is the one that instigates it but the student brings out the ruler. Then he or she gets what they want and then immediately doesn't want anyone to know about it and it's the cleaner who then walks out of the scene who's victorious but then the student fires the cleaner. It's a constant toing and froing, almost like a chess match, you don't quite know who's coming out of that the best. Also, the cleaner from the scene previously has a terrible date and ends up being lied to by the bus driver, so bringing that emotional baggage into that maybe the cleaner is looking for a release, but you never hear the cleaner say that they wanted to hit someone or use BDSM in the form of getting satisfaction. So it's a constant shifting of power.

In the scene with the doctor doing what he does in the bed, I noticed there were only male laughs in the audience. I'm excited to see, when I'm coming back, who is going to laugh when that part is played in a different combination.

I didn't know it was male laughs. What's funny about that is that sometimes if it's two females or two males on the bed and they're shutting off the baby-monitor and why are they not content with their marriage or whatever, cuz they're clearly not as the spouse has been cheating on that person, sometimes the laughs are very awkward, sometimes it's a bit too true. Even if it's so short and there's no dialog I think it's the scene that sort of shows a very modern relationship.

Speaking of awkward... Watching "Versailles" with some rather conservative people I was happy to find that they were very comfortable watching all the scenes, also the love and sex scenes, and they were especially praising Philippe for his dialogs.

That's great to hear. That's probably one of the many small victories that "Versailles" has over people breaking down walls or thoughts or preconceived ideas. It's the one thing I've always been proud of, you know this, it's the one thing I always champion about playing that character. The fact that whoever comes in with an idea of what they're going to see, it's the dialog and it's the relationships that Philippe and the Chevalier, and Philippe and Louis have. It's why I say in "Versailles" the writing is the bible, it's because it's so damn good. And in season 2 it gets even more defined, they're writing for us now and that can only help the world that we're trying to create. It's why MonChevy is loved by people because of the way we treat their love as love. It's powerful, really powerful.

They're really the relationship scenes on the show. Louis has the sex and politics scenes and you guys have the romantic relationship scenes.

In season 2 that changes for the better. It's the rise and fall of Montespan. So George gets to create relationship steps with Anna [Brewster], who's brilliant in it. And me and Evan get to add more big brushstrokes to the story, add more back-story, add more layers to that relationship which will make it even more 3D.

In the trailer Philippe seems to be drowning himself in meaningless sex. How does that fit with what you said in our "Versailles" talk that we'll see a lighter side to him?

The lighter side comes with the introduction of Palatine. The character and also Jessica [Clark], who plays her, is a breath of fresh air to Versailles. So when Philippe has to marry again the dark side is already there from the first couple of episodes and when Palatine is part of his life, rightly or wrongly, whether he wanted it or not, the lighter side comes out of him because he is seeing Versailles through a foreigner's eyes. He's seeing the ridiculousness of what Louis is creating. In season 1 Philippe hated this place because of this gilded cage and because it was all about control with Louis. And then seeing it through a fresh pair of eyes, he never got to see that with Henriette because they've known each other since they were kids. So Philippe's brighter side comes out with having someone looking around the Palace saying "Is it always like this?" and "Oh my god!" and being able to be very objective and not be so pent up and dark and fighting all the time. There are still dark moments cuz it's me, I'll always try and get that out of a scene but there's a lot of humour. Episode 6 of season 2 is without doubt my favourite episode that I've ever been given as a script. It's just a joy and that's when it becomes funny and dark and light and hilarious and over the top and crazy. Just imagine what would happen if Philippe got to be King for the day.

NeuThe following soundclip was added August 18.

One word about "Genius"?

One word about "Genius" [laughs] It's beautifully shot, beautifully acted by Johnny Flynn and Geoffrey Rush. I got to play a wonderful, again, completely different, eccentric, mad character [Maurice Solovine] who is obsessed with just education. He's a bored dilettante who wants to learn constantly. He's done literature, biology, art and the next one in line - because he's done them all - is physics. And he meets this guy called Albert and hires him and finds him fascinating but wants to mix education with debauchery. And they create the Olympia Academy and they become friends. But again it's something very light and funny and mad. I just couldn't not play it because it's something I'd never done before and I look forward to seeing what Johnny and Geoffrey have done with it because I was only there for three weeks over all, only in one episode.

Going back to our "Hamlet" talk, you said you're a "proud pessimist", which surprised me because I thought "He is not a pessimist, look at what he does!" But this is your job, and you're good at it, but at the same time does it combat the person in you?

Yeah, it does, completely. I'm a pessimist because... We were always going for season 2 of "Versailles" I just didn't believe it until I signed the contract. I got the producers phoning me up saying we're going for season 2, I didn't believe it until we were filming that first scene. I'll tell you a very funny story. So George [Blagden], as an actor and as a person, lives on this earth, he walks on the ground, he's a consistent optimist and a pessimist. He lives in the realm of humans. He lives among us. Evan is an optimist. He lives amongst the stars, he floats above the earth, he sort of hovers, ethereal, mercurial, it's about astronomy and fate with Evan. Everything is so magical and fantastical. Me, I live six feet under the earth. I can't see the light and the bright, I see the problems and the hurdles and they are challenging and I get to walk among the earth but it's a struggle, with myself, with my confidence I guess, not as an actor but as a person. So you have these three people that are leading a television show. When we do a scene together or we're rehearsing a scene and you have that happening, that's why there's magic. Because of that combination of ideas or idealistic views of who we are as people.

I think maybe I started off as an optimist but I don't know what's happened or why I've become this person. What it does do, it brings out my best work, weirdly. Being that person that finds it a struggle and a challenge, and it's painful and arduous, makes me incredibly focused and driven and ambitious because I find it not easy. I'm proud to say I'm a pessimist because it's not a negative thing, it's something that defines me as a person that helps me with my career. I never thought "Hamlet" would happen even though I talked to Scott [Handcock] for two years and we had the script and I sat in his house for four hours.

Yeah, but that's the thing, you made that happen!

Yes, I did make it happen but I didn't still believe that it would happen. Doesn't make me not ambitious. I was ambitious to suggest it and want it to happen and organize it and trust that Scott would do it but until that morning when I did my first speech – then I believed it was happening. I don't take things for granted. I'm so incredibly lucky and grateful and I'm genuinely so happy that you guys came to see the show last night, I'm that person, you know, for better or worse.

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La Ronde is at The Bunker Theatre until March 11th, 2017.

Note: © myFanbase 2017 - The interview is exclusive to myFanbase and may not be published on other websites or the like. You may share the first two questions (up to 180 words) if you link back to this site. Translations other than English and German may be posted with full credit including the link to this site.