"Versailles" interview with Evan Williams

Is the Chevalier the Iago of "Versailles"? Evan Williams on the different colors of a flawed character, portraying love without 'straight cinema' filters and losing in soccer to a seven-year-old

Foto: Evan Williams - Copyright: Mary Brown
Evan Williams
© Mary Brown

August 10, 2016 by Nicole Oebel @philomina_
Here's a German translation of the interview.

Thank you so much for making time for us, Evan, especially for doing this interview in writing. From what I gather you're a wonderful writer!

Ha, my pleasure! Glad to be here, textually.

Being part of the ambitious project that is "Versailles", the biggest TV series project to date filmed in Europe, what has it been like for you so far building and experiencing everything from scratch?

Working on Versailles has been a dream in every way. If someone had told me in theatre school that I'd be living in Paris shooting an epic period drama that would be broadcast all over the world, I would have probably fainted. It's so cool to be part of a project that is breaking the mold industry-wise as well. Since it's a coproduction between multiple nations, everybody is being forced to stretch and grow because this kind of show has never been attempted before. There is a certain sense of ownership and a 'here we go' mentality that is palpable in every part of the production.

Your character, the Chevalier de Lorraine, is one who challenges the viewers to look more closely. Feelings of love to hate and hate to love were stripped away until there was only love for the Chevalier. How did you and the Chevalier find each other?

I originally read for the part of the Kings brother, Philippe, and later I was told that the producers knew I was meant to play the Chevalier even from that audition. They asked me to make a tape (just to be sure, ha) while I was shooting an indie film called Farhope Tower in Canada, I whipped the tape together in my hotel room and that was that. No notes, no callbacks, I just got a phone call saying that, to my great surprise, the part was mine. The thing that really grabbed me about the role was a note in the character description that he was 'the Iago of the show'. I had recently been hard at work in acting class, studying and exploring the role of Iago from Shakespeare's Othello. He is probably the most duplicitous villain in literature, who wears an inscrutable mask of friendship while thoroughly manipulating everyone around him. A cheshire cat type. I had already done months of personal work on these themes, so sliding them over to the Chevalier was natural. I brought the cat. When I began to research the real historical figure, though, I saw that the manipulator was only one color in a very complex and flawed character, and I began to salivate at the opportunity to bring this guy to life. Even my audition was full of broad strokes. It wasn't until I put the wig on for the first time that I met the character. All of a sudden, there he was looking back at me in the mirror. And I instantly fell in love with him.

"Versailles" shines a light on the vulnerability of the individuals at court of Louis XIV, who are known to many only as names in history books, and it lets many of them hit rock bottom in season 1. Were these dark scenes the biggest scenes for you or what was most challenging about portraying the Chevalier's journey for you?

One of my favorite parts of our show is that, like in life, no character is thoroughly good and no one is thoroughly bad. The Chevalier is a damaged individual, one who can't help setting himself up only to fall, time and time again, and never seems to learn. The challenge for me was to make that personal. To bring my own dirty laundry, as it were. I think deep down everybody has a secret fear of not belonging. My task was to take the personal version of that secret into the story, and graft it to the character so there are no seams. When the character is in despair, I want to find my own unique brand of despair and share it. His judgements are grown from the seeds of my judgements, his opinions have roots in my own opinions. I think the more personal an actor can get, the more universally the story is told, because we all know intimately what it is to be human. It was fun to let the shadows out to play.

"And Philippe, the truth is, if you don't love me… no one loves me." While this scene really hit home it made me wonder. What did you make of all the underlying emotional factors and motives going about this scene?

Funnily enough, that line was ad-libbed. It wasn't in the script. In my preparation, I knew that this was the thesis of the scene and I had been repeating it as sort of a mantra. It slipped out in the scene and I was happy to find out they kept it. It really is the crux of the character. He's not a royal, he's not employed at court, and at a moments notice he could disappear forever. Everything he does is to make himself necessary, to gain entrance to a party that he wasn't really invited to and everybody knows it. Most of all him. The veiled desperation is what makes me love the guy. Constantly outrunning his fear of being exposed. It's all an act, but he has no choice but to keep playing the part.

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

Philippe is being manipulated by most of the people closest to him throughout season 1. What do you think, where does he stand in the end of the season with the Chevalier?

This has always been an important question to me, whether the love between them is true or a tool in the belt of the Chevalier. I'm happy there is some conjecture among the fandom on the topic throughout the first half of the season. Chevalier certainly has an agenda, but I think it becomes clear over the course of the season that they are madly in love with each other (and fraught with all the drama that accompanies it). At the same time, the biggest threat to Chevo is the King, and he must delicately place himself between the brothers by any means necessary. I'm sure he'd say that what is best for him is what's best for Philippe as well. He probably believes it too.

We see, ever so subtly, how Louis is using the Chevalier to give Philippe a nudge in whatever direction the King sees fit in the coda of season 1. And while both you and George have great onscreen chemistry with Alex, may we hope to actually see more of the interaction between the Chevalier and the King in season 2?

I'm always pushing for that! I adore George Blagden, and we have fun whenever we're working together. We really exist on opposite sides of Philippe, so it's always uneasy when the two are in the same room. The King sees right through him, and he knows the Kings hands are effectively tied (at least he's banking on it, gulp). I won't give anything away, but there is room for the two to tangle a bit more in season two.

In the 2000s, "Queer as Folk" was a groundbreaking TV show in that it brought LGBTQ issues into our living rooms. The characters actually helped change the lives of so many people. In a way the MonChevy relationship on "Versailles" is also groundbreaking, don't you think? How did you go about portraying it together with Alex?

Alexander Vlahos and I met literally seconds before our first rehearsal together. We were thrown in the ring, and perhaps based on the speed at which we were thrust together, we came to a very simple, very deep pact, that we were gonna go for it, make it personal, go for the jugular, and not hold back. What you see on screen is the result of our trusting each other enough to push each other, trigger each other, and refuse to be polite about it. I couldn't ask for a better scene partner than my dear Alex. We knew we were given this opportunity to wave a flag for an entirely underrepresented and maligned community, and it was always our intention to approach it without the filters that 'straight cinema' might have taken for granted. We wanted to bring this love mainstream, and in doing so, show that it's no different than any other love, no matter where, no matter when. I think perhaps that's what's struck a chord with viewers who have taken the characters into their hearts and cheer for them and cry for them. Season two sees the relationship go much further and deeper, it's been a trip, and I can't wait for the fans to be on the ride with us.

"Let's be mad together" and "Honestly, I don't know what you see in him" are among the best lines of the Chevalier. What are some of your favorite lines?

One of my favourite parts of this job is reading the scripts for the first time and cackling at all the outrageous things I get to say. A standout for me was when listing things the Chevalier enjoys more than spending time with a woman, the final item on his list is "..Cabbages." Followed by "Speaking of which I love your hair". I also relished any opportunity to malign Philippe's wife Henriette in any way. She's just too easy. Like taking candy from a baby and eating it in front of them.

"You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave", Hotel California could be a theme song for Philippe and the Chevalier's situation in the palace of dreams season 1. Not revealing too much, what could be some theme songs for season 2?

Hmm maybe "She's So Heavy" haha history buffs will already know what I'm talking about.. Let's see, overall I'd say "Paint It Black" is fitting for season two. In fact if they use that song in the trailer for season two it will be a stroke of genius *subtle nudge to our producers*

Foto: Evan Williams - Copyright: Mary Brown
Evan Williams
© Mary Brown

With "Awkward" coming to an end it leaves a huge void behind. There are really no light-hearted, empathetic coming-of-age stories set in the real world being told in TV at the moment. What did you enjoy most of being a part of this show?

Awkward was great because of what it represented to its fans. So many people grew up with the show through pivotal moments in their lives and felt the characters were like family. Even though I came onto the show in the final two seasons, I could feel how there was this responsibility to the world that had been created, a co-ownership between the show and its fans. It was cool being a part of that. It was a lot of fun too, those guys knew how to keep it light on set and to date it's one of the friendliest crews I've ever worked with.

On your Loving out fundraising page you talk about NEP-All-IN, a project everybody can get involved in to help build a primary school in Nepal. And you have been involved in projects like that before. Did you have the chance to actually be a part of it on-site and meet some of the kids in person?

Yes. Thank you for mentioning that. Our trip to Nepal with BuildOn has been at the forefront of my social media lately and I'm super excited about it. Education is the key to quality of life for the boys and girls of rural Nepal, and I'm moved by the way the fandom of Versailles has stepped up with their support. For those of us travelling to work there, there's nothing like getting sweaty with a purpose. All other complaints seem to fall away when we're in service. It's one of the truest joys that I think humans are capable of cultivating, that of communing with each other to improve lives.

I'm definitely not a saint, and am not trying to seem that way, I just know that when I share my heart, it never empties out. It just gets more full. I've been on similar trips before, the first when I was 15 with a makeshift clinic in the jungles of Nicaragua. It doesn't have to be an exotic location, there are people that can use our help everywhere, even in our own backyards, and the very act is both addictive and contagious. My response whenever I hear upsetting headlines in the news lately,is to redouble my commitment to love out. Love is great, everybody has it in their chests, but it needs to be carried on action. We gotta get it moving. The sweet thing is that moving our love is natural to humanity and it feels amazing to let it out. It's a societal construct that we only look out for our families and friends and everyone else is on their own. Says who? There's enough to go around, we just have to change the paradigm of scarcity, and loving out is the first step to exposing the lie that we are inherently without.

I am basically an overgrown child, so I always find myself gravitating to the kids during any of these experiences. It is amazing because language is definitely not necessary to communicate, instead an open heart and a willingness to play is all you need to become a tribe. They will school you in soccer though. There's no feeling like being thoroughly embarrassed by a barefoot seven year old.

Last week you released a song you had written, "Take me away" performed as a terzet with George and Mark, inspiring in where it came from and what it lead to. What does it add to the experience being on a show with a passionate fandom?

The central question of any creative individual is 'why am I doing this?'. Especially in the entertainment business, when all the extraneous elements can distract from the core of what we're doing, which is simply to tell stories to connect people to each other, to hold up a mirror, to show that we're not alone. When I see how passionate the fandom of Versailles is, I feel like it's a glowing arrow in the sky telling me that I'm going in the right direction, and to carry on. The fact that so many of the people from all over the world were willing to part with their hard earned money to support a cause, is so moving to me, I was brought to tears when their support came flowing in beyond all my expectations. We raised all the money [still needed to reach the goal] in a single day! It's the storytelling that has connected all these people together in recognizing their mutual humanity, and it's love that has mobilized them all to share in action. The way I see it, love is a revolutionary act, and I see art as activism, so there's really no separation. It's all one thing.

Thank you ever so much, Evan, you're a true chevalier :)

No worries! Thanks for asking. :)

Related: Exclusive Interviews with the "Versailles" stars

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