Evan Williams interview on the Chevalier's journey and Versailles season 2

"In season 1 'Versailles' was this kind of glittery disco ball, in season 2 it went dark and crazy and now in season 3 it's growing up."

Foto: Evan Williams, Versailles - Copyright: Tibo & Anouchka / Sky
Evan Williams, Versailles
© Tibo & Anouchka / Sky

June 19, 2017 by Nicole Oebel @philomina_

Walking through some smaller, less busy, picturesque streets of Paris to find a nice place to sit down for this interview, Evan Williams and I got into chatting about the fabulous dedication of the Versailles Family, beautiful places and cities he recently got to see and Matcha cookies. Evan is an excellent writer, a talented artist, an inspiring activist and upon meeting him I see that it all comes from him being a human being who lets his heart speak. So please have yourself a liquid refreshment on this lovely summer's day and dive in to enjoy the read and the sound clips.

Note: The interview contains spoilers on Versailles season 2 but there are no spoilers on the upcoming season finale airing this Friday in the UK.

You're in season 3 now, your performance is spread out over a long period of time. Do you feel the flux in the directors and cast can be difficult, in that the different styles and energies affect the actors?

I think by the time you get to the third season of a show the cast carries a momentum of its own. At the very beginning of a show it can be very important the type of director you have, for example you can see how much the show changed between the first couple of episodes and the next couple of episodes in season 1. By the time you're in a third season of a show the cast has its own momentum, so at best the director is coming in, logging ideas and new ways of looking at something that is already formed and so the danger in having different directors and different inputs all the time is lessened as the series goes on I believe. Definitely every director will have their own visual style but it's more like they're joining us as opposed to we are getting on their ship. It feels like a team that way. And in fact, we're all looking forward to the new, fresh points of they'll bring in and the new cast as well. The casting of this show has been great across the board, so whenever we have a new character we're all excited to see who it's going to be. 

Is it difficult to realize viewers often want things they like to stay the same, because they fell in love with the characters the way they were in season 1, while you as actors want new challenges? 

Absolutely! You see that in music all the time. Musicians press the boundaries and people say "Why don't you just do what you were good at?" but that's not the nature of creativity. I'm flattered that people feel a connection to the characters that we created but at the end of the day we have a responsibility to continue and go further and deeper into the stories that we're creating and there's an amount of experimentation and exploration. I'm sure that the writers when they set out at the beginning, they didn't know where we're going to end up and certainly as an actor I didn't know. It's something that we discover along the way with the audience. If people wished things would stay the same they would be disappointed after a while because it would be static. And especially as an artist myself I want to be going to the stuff that is unsettling for me, stuff that's destabilizing. So in essence, if there's something and you've done it then it's time to move on. We're trying to portray people and people grow and change.

I heard people saying "The Chevalier wouldn't do this or that." But in the universe we're creating he does. There's a difference between the historical so-called account, which is not a true account anyway, it's an abridged account, and then there's the version that we're telling. I'm not saying that our show is Shakespeare but there are some Shakespearean dramas that deal with historical subject matter and if somebody at the time had said "Hey, this isn't the way it really went." then we would never had those stories. We're trying to examine human nature through this lens of Versailles and it's always a juggling act between finding the things that are moving and finding the room in which they can move. 

I respect all the people's opinions saying that they would appreciate it to be this way or that way. But I think the best way as an artist, so that I can do my job, is to not worry at all about how it's going to be received and just go from my heart and be as dangerous as I can with my choices. There are some choices in season 2 and definitely in season 3 where I have a thought in  the back of my head saying "What are people going to think about this?" but that's not artistic. Making choices that are about being palatable will inevitably make the product less palatable. It's my job to tell the story that is in front of me as honestly as I can.   

Foto: Nicki and Evan, Versailles interview, Paris June 2017 - Copyright: Nicole Oebel
Nicki and Evan, Versailles interview, Paris June 2017
© Nicole Oebel

The show also wants to stay unpredictable. 

Yeah, we don't want to know where it's going to go. It's such an entirely subjective format and everybody is taking it with their own grain of salt.

His drug-addiction puts the Chevalier in a place of mental instability. Someone recently said to me "You can only help yourself, no one can help you, but you can be inspired"...

I like that!

Do you think Liselotte's sympathy towards him is what inspires him?

 Beside Jess being a beautiful actress, the Palatine is such an interesting character because in the same way that the Chevalier doesn't belong the Palatine doesn't belong on the opposite end of the spectrum. The Palatine is from a completely different world and the Chevalier and her eventually bond over being outsiders. I think for the Chevalier it's a great relief that he may not be completely alone because that's the specter that's chasing him through every waking hour. In a way the relationship with Philippe is consistently so contentious, that the desire for love can be expressed dysfunctionally as a desire for drama, because at least you're getting something. I've been in relationships like that and neither gets to say what they really want because there's no space for it. Liselotte is the anti-drama, she's the antidote and it works for both Philippe and the Chevalier. 

I see the potential for them to be great friends if the Chevalier can ever get over the inherent lack of self-worth which leads him to believe that everyone's a threat. If he doesn't believe that anybody is going to open their hearts to him he spends all of his time trying to find ways to guarantee they will stick around. It's sad that the way this guy feels is the way so many people feel in this world. In examining the broken heart that doesn't believe it's worthy of love, I feel like I've encountered my job with this role. I hope it doesn't cross over into melodrama but for all the comedy it's serious to me. It's something that I'm interested in exposing because I think it's a sickness.

You just mentioned the "not belonging" which touches a bit on what's perceived as LGBT stereotypes. In season 1 the show did a lot to not make Philippe and the Chevalier gay stereotypes but I think now we get to see the show doesn't deny anything, because first and foremost, they are just human.

Totally. Based on the storyline when I got it I had a choice to either use half-measures and try to be safe or go the opposite direction and swing for the fences. And that's my training, set up to swing for the fences every time. So I'm thrilled when I see messages from people in the LGBT community saying that they felt represented. There's always going to be an element of recognizeability, some would say stereotype, but I think that's the way that we tell stories, through archetypes and icons. But especially in season 2 it's very interesting to me to be playing with the dynamics of masculinity and femininity, depending on whether the character was rising or falling, winning or losing, which parts of their fragmented personality come out, because we're all complex.       

What do you find is the best way for you to get in touch with your vulnerability?

The first thing is to breathe and relax. We all carry so much emotional tension as human beings because we're trained to protect ourselves on the street because we have to. As actors we have this blessed opportunity to be completely without defense. It's hard to convince the ego to do that but I found the best way is to relax, and the truth is, that everywhere that our experiences have taken us, our body has been there as well. Every relationship, every thought, every experience is coded into our physical bodies. When I watch actors that I love, they're letting their bodies speak without being censored by their minds. I'm finding out how personal my connection to a given moment or situation is as opposed to trying to figure out how I can make it personal. It's already personal because we're talking about humans and we are humans. That's my philosophy. I definitely haven't solved it, that's a life's work, but that's the direction I'm pointing.

About working with Alex you've said you're not letting each other get off easy. I was wondering what you mean by that?

Everyone has a variety of façades for a variety of reasons in life. Some are necessary, some are habitual. Both Alex and I are so similar in that way we see through each other's façade, and have since the first day. We're constantly telling each other "I see you! I see what you're doing. You're not fooling me." We're taking that clarity and putting it in the work and so when we're looking at each other we recognize each other because we're the same. We're opposite kinds of the same person [chuckles]. I just adore Alex more and more, every season we work together, every time we come back I hug him a little tighter. It's a gift to be creating with someone who really sees you and is ok with you really seeing them. I'll be sad when it's over. 

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What's cool about this show is that since the premier has traveled around the world every time it bows in a new market it ripples around the world again. I also love interacting with the fans of the show and see the type of relationship they have to the character. I know that's not really about me, I'm the one who brings the character, but it's their relationship to what they see and recognize in the character, it's in some way a personal metaphor to their own understanding of reality. I always love that about this job. Especially when I get to do things like the Ask Chevalier on Twitter which is always a riot. You have to be responsible with your social media presence when you're in the public eye in any context, so having the opportunity to just be creative and say whatever the character wants and not have to censor myself is rare. 

Is it an uncensored part of you?

In a way. It's like I'm taking the 5% of me that is the Chevalier and cranking it up to the fantasy at 100%. That's where the imagination mines the subconscious and thrives. It's better that way. The things that we are hiding in our real life, we bend over backwards to make sure nobody sees because we're sure that it will leave us isolated. Those things, the dirty laundry, create characters that are moving, because all of our dirty laundry is the same. We all have the same hopes and dreams and perversions. We're humans.

There are so many characters, so many stories in only ten hours. I sometimes wish the main characters would get a little more time.

That's part of the DNA of the show, that it's sweeping and that there are so many different storylines. The show is called "Versailles", it's not called "Louis and friends", I think this will always be the way the show operates, for better or for worse, there's more than you could ever really explore. When that works well it's very interesting, when it doesn't work well it's a challenge. We want to represent the business of court life without it being confusing of course. Of course, as actors I think we all have the same feelings as well, we all want more time to go into the hearts and minds of the characters. It's an interesting tension that's created because it reflects the way the people at the time were squabbling and struggling for relevance. So in a way that's reflected in the way the story is told.   

It was very interesting how the show tackled the coexistence of decadence and filth or decay this year. For example Chevy's STD or Isabelle's accidental drug death. 

That's one of the curiosities of that era that people were defecating in the hallways at the same time as they were wearing the most beautiful clothes that the world has ever seen. Playing that contradiction is a lot of fun both for the actors and also the writers because there are certain parallels to our present world, where somebody's talking on their six hundred dollar cell phone while they walk past somebody who doesn't have any food for that evening. There's a definite sociological resonance I think at the same time as being fun on the show. The storyline of Isabelle was also fun to play in that it was sort of an exposé because nobody was really guilty. Truly they were all guilty. I think part of what they were exploring in the writing of that storyline was that hurt people hurt people – they are not evil people. Whether it's the Chevalier or Philippe or the Queen or Montespan, they were all doing what they thought they had to do and when it resulted in tragedy there's nobody there to take the fall. So what do you do? And I think that's a really important question to be asking yourself, especially now. 

I think the Chevalier does feel guilty. He's a complex man but he's not evil. Sometimes he might have people believe he's evil so he can avoid culpability. I think that was definitely a contributing factor to his rapid decline after that. He's just one of these desperate guys where you can't help but love him while you shake your head and say "What the hell are you doing?" 

And the episode had been so fun until that point!

It was fun to shoot, too. Shooting that big orgy scene took most of the day and night. I was excited to shoot it and I was happy watching it as well, I found it tastefully done, considering the subject. It's a part of Versailles we don't get to see enough of which is just another side of human nature. There are the things that people do when they want to be seen and then there's the things that people do when they don't want to be seen, and then there are things they do when they don't care if they're being seen, and I think that's what the sequence was about. The animal part of being human. 

Like George once explained that the historical advisor on set says the people were even more colorful so don't hold back.

Absolutely, yeah. It's our job to explore all the different things that happened in Versailles. So even historically it wasn't the Chevalier selling drugs, for example, there definitely was somebody selling drugs. That's part of the creativity of the fiction to loop it all together so we can see these things through the eyes of the characters that we have. 

And the show was so bold this year, killing off two of the most beloved characters. Jacques and Claudine weren't huge roles but both deaths were huge shocks.

When we read the scripts all of us were like [muffled scream] "Nooooooo!" We were all sad! But we can't be precious with our creativity, and they didn't do it lightly. Both of those deaths propelled the rest of the characters. So it's a loss but also a gain. 

Did you have scenes where you thought "Oh god, this can't be happening" but you felt in the end it was very rewarding?

Sure! In the first season when the Chevalier was in jail awaiting execution and was hearing the guy getting tortured outside, we shot that first thing in the morning on a day that was bitterly cold. We were in a beautiful chateau in Lesigny, and I was on the ground in the basement of this castle and it was freezing cold and between each take they came to me with a blanket and I said no. I would rather not have to act, why fake it? So I stayed with bare feet for the entire two hours we shot that scene and at one point somebody said "Are you crazy?" and it was my absolute pleasure to say yes. It's my privilege to be getting to be telling this story as deeply as I know how and experimenting along the way.

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Between filming season 2 and 3 the show premiered in the UK and in the US, the fandom has grown… Does that have an effect on the mood on set or anything like that?

The show has been seen by millions of pairs of eyes now so it's a reality in day to day life but once we're on set I find it's far from the mind. We're focused on what's happening in the room. It's doesn't feel anything has changed especially since we're all in love with our characters now. So it's all very comfortable. This cast gets along famously in a way that is so rare. This cast is such a squad, such a team, it's a joy to go to work. We're also clear now that the show is not going to be everything to everyone. Some people tune in because they like the pulp, they want to see a bunch of frilly wigs and beautiful castles, and other people are really moved by it. In season 1 we were all wondering what the show was going to be and now I feel like we know what the show is. And we're happy with what it is. Of course we always want to make it better, deeper, more entertaining, more incisive but we're settling into it a little bit more. I think that's good for the creative process, especially as a young cast to be feeling the momentum and doing everything we can to propel it further as opposed to biting our nails and wondering what it is we're actually doing. 

It's been so much fun to watch the show grow, in season 1 it was this kind of glittery disco ball, in season 2 it went dark and crazy and now in season 3 it's growing up. That's my impression, it's a nice full circle, because the show is now three years old and we need to get further into the hearts and minds of these characters.

Some of us got to see George and Alex on stage a little while back. You did theatre before, didn't you? Do you miss it and would you like to do something in the future?

Live theatre can be magic! There's a reason that it's been around for thousands of years. Am I going to do any plays? I would love to. I was workshopping a play in Los Angeles during the winter and there is some talk to stage that play. It's a play called "In a dark dark house" by Neil LaBute, but there's no concrete plans yet. It's as much my priority as film and television, it's more about chasing the projects. I didn't know "Versailles" even existed until a week before I got the audition so how would I have known that it would be this dream role for me.

Going back to the actor fan relationship, with you in this fandom the relationship is one that has actually helped better people's lives. When this gets personified, can it be overwhelming or are you kind of used to being overwhelmed because you've actually met the people whose lives were bettered?

It's not overwhelming to me, because I'm making an effort to keep it focused on something that is real. I'm happy if people are moved by my work, that's thrilling, it's a total joy. I want to change the world with my heart, I believe that's the calling all creative people share, and if anybody is moved by that then they can join. And if that's the culture that's created around this fandom then I'm thrilled. There's no other reason to be telling stories. [soft chuckle] I'm emotional today. I was thrilled and surprised by the response and the enthusiasm and the heart that everybody has responded with. I also know that it's not a coincidence that people can be moved by some creative expression and then moved by a literal campaign for enacting change in the world. The two are very closely linked. I feel that whatever value that can be found in my work is a direct correlation to the amount of heart that I'm putting into it. I don't think it's possible to be uncaring in life and then walk into a room and open my heart as a creative individual. Living (or endeavoring to live) in a way that is conscious of what is truly important to me benefits both my life and also my work. I know that for the audience it's the same way as well. And I want to be clear, I'm just learning, and making a ton of mistakes along the way, I just can't help but recognize that love has power. And I'm thrilled that something appears to be moving here. It's a movement. We're a little part of it, but the movement is picking up all across the world.

And also social media made a lot of that possible.

That's the silver lining of social media. It's so easy to isolate ourselves on social media by only showing the good stuff. Having the opportunity to connect with people, collude over common goals, that's brilliant. Life is dualistic. Our greatest dreams are intimately tied to our greatest fears. It becomes just a question of perspective and we have the ability to remind each other to turn around and look at the other side. 

I'm interested in sharing the way I'm seeing the world because there is the opportunity for people to recognize themselves and I think that's the central aim of any creative art, to create a window, a perspective of the world, for other people to look through. It's a window and it's a mirror, and it's for anyone to see themselves in everyone else. If I ever start thinking it's about myself personally, I'll be on the wrong track. It's about so much more.

Thank you so much for this great talk, Evan!

It's been a real pleasure to be here with you today!

Versailles season 2 is currently airing in the UK on BBC Two and in Germany on Sky Atlantic.

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.