Versailles interview with Joe Sheridan

Joe Sheridan shares anecdotes from the Versailles set and his take on Louvois, Minister of War, a manipulative man happy to carry out the King's dirty business

Foto: Joe Sheridan - Copyright: Carlotta Forsberg
Joe Sheridan
© Carlotta Forsberg

February 19, 2018 by Nicole Oebel @philomina_

Looking at your work in film and theatre am I right in assuming you live in France?

I do. I've been living here since I was at École Jaques Lecoq (school of physical theatre in Paris) and that was 40 years ago.

And you were part of some big movies that were shot in Versailles and the other beautiful castles around Paris, so working in Paris and in these locations wasn't new to you like it probably was for most of the cast...

Yeah I've shot quite a lot of them. I've shot twice with Stephen Frears and the first time was "Les Liaisons dangereuses". We were in quite a lot of the same palaces. We were in Maisons-Lafitte and we were also in Vaux le Vicomte. So the adventure and journey of Versailles was doubly moving because I got to go back to these places and revisit them but with a whole new energy. Versailles was just so massive and so I had my own memories of these places and now I got new fresh ones, new fresh faces and new fresh friends. You can never be tired of beauty, it's quite humbling to get into these places and think I'm actually playing a character that did move around in these circles. It was so much more real than the last time.

So shooting Versailles was more massive than shooting the big movies?

Yes! The first two episodes of Versailles – I've never seen machinery, costumes or a slick movement like that. There were cranes and lights hanging everywhere, whereas Stephen Frears did most of it with candles. It was watching a Swiss watch movement, no one was panicking, no one was shouting and it was exquisite to watch. There seemed to be a luxury quality to it, they were daring to do things French television had never done before and it was all very benevolent, it all seemed very controlled.

Some of the historians came in to see what had been created in the studios and said „This is even better than Versailles." I think one of the emphasis was the real star of the show is Versailles. It's about its completion and about its timelessness and magnificence.

As Louvois, Minister of War, you play one of Louis' most trusted advisors. How do you go about breathing life into a character whose job it is to report from war and be the one who usually brings the bad news?

On the very first day I said to David Wolstencroft "I've done my historical research but I want to know what your take on him is, now that Louvois is trapped between fiction and history." He was on the staircase walking quite fast and he turned around to me and said "Joe. Fly paper" and walked away. And I thought "What? Fly paper?" It so astute and it's so real. Fly paper is what you hang up in the window to catch flies so what he wanted was anything that was shitty, anyone who said anything bad about the king, anything that had to be reported, anything that was a hideous job would stick to Louvois. So when it came to actually incarnate this person it was easy because you just thought "It's a shit job but somebody has to do it." Louis actually turns round to Bontemps at one point and says "Yes! I understand!" – because Bontemps wants to slap Louvois [laughs] – "I understand your frustration but somebody has to tell me the truth."

Still, as the voice of opposition Louvois regularly makes the king explode. Scenes like the "I am the state" scene in 1x02 and the "God speeks through me" in 2x06 - How did you go about working on these with George Blagden?

Working with George is just a dream! I mean it has to be said. In the morning when we would do the blocking with the directors we would talk about what we thought, that it's easy for Louvois because he truly believes in the divine right of kings. So there's that devote side of him and then the other side of him is if he can use this to his own advantage. For example when he interprets that Louis wants the Palatinate invaded he gets quite a lot out of it. Through his manipulations with the army and how he interprets Louis' thirst for glory and thirst for power quite often Louvois ends up a richer man. There's a selfishness and a bullishness about him and that's also put to use by the King because he needs that. Louvois is very happy to carry out the King's dirty business and he also truly believes that Louis is the voice of God on earth.

Foto: Joe Sheridan, Versailles - Copyright: Tibo & Anouchka / Capa Drama / Canal+
Joe Sheridan, Versailles
© Tibo & Anouchka / Capa Drama / Canal+

This makes his position in the eavesdropping scene in 2x05 interesting. We see Louvois and Colbert in private conversation and Colbert's comments are clearly critical. What Louvois says, "he prefers to confront his adversaries closer to home", is so much more vague...

That's the fly paper thing! There was a discussion before we filmed that scene because Louvois and Colbert are off duty and so they're quite casual with one another. But I asked "Does Louvois know that Louis is observing them?" and no one could give me an answer. It seemed to me if Louvois even suspects that Louis is watching them then this is a trap for Colbert. And so the more he gets Colbert to say something that is anti the King the more interesting it is in the power struggle between Colbert and Louvois for the Kings ear. Colbert is the ultimate politician, Louvois on the other hand is like a school bully – he likes to manipulate but he's not very good at it. He's much more obvious than Colbert ever would be and he's nowhere near as clever as Colbert. So this might be the fly paper working. He's trying to manipulate Colbert into saying something that he'll regret – which in the next scene he does.

I admit this is a new spin for me on this scene and it adds an intriguing layer to Louvois. In terms of character development, are you happy with how his journey is continued in season 3?

I'm very happy! I'm actually very relieved the way it went because... there is an expression in English "They also serve who only stand and wait." Throughout seasons 1 and 2 there were so many scenes within the war cabinet where we were just standing and I was basically a historical reference, you know, I would say facts from history. But there didn't seem to be that much substance to my journey as a character, whereas in season 3 he now becomes one of those who no longer stand and wait. He's now moved into historical action of very important scale. He has a brilliant and unexpected ally in Madame de Maintenont. It's wonderful, and Katherine Walker is extraordinary!

As Louvois you have been part of lots of the huge scenes involving many actors and point of views - war scenes or festivities... Which do you remember as the most exciting or challening to shoot?

Can you remember in season 1 the first expelling of Moncourt? It takes place outside, there's a huge banquet, the circus performers, and then all of a sudden he's tooled up and he's told that he's not noble. It was so cold that night, freezing cold, and a lot of the performers were performing half naked and we had to pretend it was a balmy night about to slip into kind of an orgy. I remember thinking "How are they gonna do this?" and it was exquisite because everybody shut up and concentrated. But it did go until 5 in the morning and the light was coming up. A lot happens that night. Moncourt is expelled and also you discover the dead body of Nabu in the pond... And here's another thing I have to say about George Blagden. In the three years we shot Versailles I never heard George in any way suggest a complaint. He was amazing! He started this when he was 25/26 and everyone depended on him and he really was like the sovereign. I've never seen anyone with that kind of joy and discipline and at the same time just totally unpretentious. I hope he becomes a massive star, he really deserves it!

In episode 2x03 you had two fun scenes with Evan Williams. The Chevalier, who is high as a kite - "Monsieur is more Madame than Madame" - and Louvois with the silent reactions.

[Laughs] That's me trying to keep my act together. Evan is like Puck in "Midsummer Night's Dream". I mean that boy is just chaos. He's so funny, he's so clever. And in that scene, what's so unique about what Evan can do is, he's making it camp, he's making it druggy, very kind of like a joke but there's a stream of melancholy lulling through in that particular scene. He asked before "Can I touch you, can I play with you?" [laughs] "Yes it's fine!" and with someone like Evan you just want to go with it because he's so charismatic and himself as a person and what he brings to Chevalier is so poetic and at the same time free. I remember watching him in season 2 when he comes back with all the Italian influence and his red coat and how he's gonna rule the world with fashion [laughs], there are so few people who could get away with this. Evan can get away with anything because it's all fresh and it's always new. I loved working with him!

Like you said in this case the humour had an underlying sadness, but when you watch the show back, what are the scenes do enjoy laughing about?

It's mostly because of what happened either before or immediately after. We spent so much time in the war cabinet and we were wearing those stupid heels that I thought I was gonna die in [laughs]. I can't walk in them, I was like an old transvestite. Your legs just ache so you have to think of something else. So quite often right before a big confrontational scene Steve Cumyn, Stuart Bowman, George and myself would do the scene but as the Martians from Mars Attacks, the Tim Burton film, we would do the entire thing [makes the Martian voices].

Did someone record that please?

[Laughs] I think actually they spent most of the time telling us to shut up! By that point it was too late. Or Steve has an encyclopaedic knowledge of every song that has ever been recorded by anyone in any language anywhere. So if there was a silence and I said "Steve, sing me a song!" [laughs] It was like having a human jukebox. And he'll go "Ok, do you want to hear an up number?" – "No, I want to hear some Joni Mitchell." He has a beautiful, beautiful singing voice. So he would sing me some Joni Mitchell to calm me down [laughs]. Or Stuart is hilariously funny! We're both Scottish, so I would say "Stuart, sing me something from Glasgow" and he would pretend he was a drunken Lounge singer from a bar and he would make up the words. He also had an act that I still can't think about without laughing out loud: He would do finger puppets of Chevalier and Monsieur ordering shoes. And then another finger puppet would come in and that would be George as Louis telling Monsieur that he'd spent basically a third world country's debt on shoes [laughs] and he would do the funny voices, he could go on for hours. And then "Right, it's rolling!" and we'd have to do the scene... I laughed for three years!

Foto: Joe Sheridan - Copyright: Carlotta Forsberg
Joe Sheridan
© Carlotta Forsberg

Aw you see, and Steve said how it was you who saved his sanity by making him laugh non-stop during the long days, and also Alex Vlahos talked to me about trying to learn from watching you guys on set being able to laugh before a take and then give it everything...

Alex has certainly nothing to learn from me! He's exquisite in this! Alex reminded me of a very young Richard Burton. He's got an intensity in his voice, which is silky smooth, and he has a control... and yet at the same time you know he's totally in the moment, totally! He's an extraordinary man! As far as I'm concerned I haven't really changed all through... I've been to some of the best schools, I suppose, in the world to learn how to act but I still think that my knee-jerk reaction is to go back to being a child and playing Cowboys and Indians. You know that kind of immediacy, remember as a child when you were killed as an Indian you would just get up and say "I'm a different Indian now." I can do that. It's something that's instinctive to me. But you would watch someone like Alex... I think that's one of the lessons we learnt from him actually, to be that (!) available, that (!) in the moment... I mean Alex had to work with Evan all the time [laughs], and Evan is a force of nature, the two of them they totally needle and spur each other on. You see them together and they're at ease with one another and there's a poetry about it, a generosity in both of them.

Alex is one of those people, like Evan actually, they're interested in everyone and everything. There's no distance between what they're doing tomorrow and what they're doing today. They would share their ideas about how to play a scene and you're thinking "Wow, these guys are top-notch. They really are!" There's a scene just after a nude scene that they've done together at Saint Cloud. Chevalier is saying "Oh no, this will be fine. We'll just live here. We have no friends and no one will come to visit us but it's fine, it's very pretty." And Alex is just looking out but there's an intimacy of that scene, which is just after they'd been in bed together and they're just sitting out in their dressing gowns, one teasing the other, there's something that really felt like an old couple. It's lovely, I really enjoyed watching them.

Me too... So looking back over these three seasons what are the most surprising and rewarding things you experienced on Versailles?

That's a difficult thing because my mother died a week before we started Versailles. We buried my mother on the Monday and I think we started shooting on Thursday and to begin with I expected nothing and was kind of in shock. And I came in and I realised from the very first day that this was something extraordinarily special because I had never experienced this kind of surprise. From the very first day I had the impression that everyone was working on a project that they truly, personally cared about. The whole crew from the top, it was the very first day I met George and you realised how young he was and how massive this undertaking was. We have to give massive (!) amounts of credit to the producers because they were so caring all the way through three years. They had spent like six years putting this together so when finally the baby was being born – and literally we started that day with the black baby being born – I was watching them and they were so kind to everyone. It didn't matter who you were, another producer, a writer, an actor, it was totally democratic and the way that they sustained that over three seasons I think is huge. Everyone worked the best they could because they all believed in the project. No one complained – because George never complained. There were no moments of tension or stress – well, obviously there was tension and stress when you were riding a horse 100 miles an hour... That is the biggest surprise and reward I got from Versailles: learning how to just do your job as best as you can because everyone around you is doing it.

You know in Scotland I'd be going to school in the morning and it was foggy or rainy but I had my favourite English teacher and I knew I was gonna be learning Shakespeare and I was happy! So every time someone would come and collect me at home, five in the morning, on my way to the studio or one of the chateaus, I was always happy, always excited because it was like going to my favourite lesson in school. I knew at the end of the day I was gonna be smarter.

Looking at your credits I see lots of French and German theatre.

My very first job was at Theater am Turm in Frankfurt and I had to speak some German. It was just after Fassbender had died, it was 1981, I remember the first day we walked into the theatre they still had the set up from "Miss Julie" that Fassbender had directed and it was a massive gold birdcage. I loved it! I think some of the best contemporary theatre writing is being done for the Schaubühne (theatre in Berlin), Marius von Mayenburg is probably one of the most talented men in the world.

Can we see you in a play soon?

Yes, I'm working on a play, that's being written for five actors here, by a woman called Geneviève de Kermabon, and there's another play being written for me and I'll be playing Winston Churchill. They'll both be in French. In the one for Geneviève de Kermabon, I'll be playing a sadistic circus master and I'll also be playing an old striptease dancer [laughs]. To go from striptease to Churchill will be a bit of a leap but we'll see.

Thank you very much for making time, Joe, I was smiling from ear to ear and tearing up this whole talk!

Thank you for even thinking about interviewing me! I'm so grateful for Versailles because they gave me a lovely opportunity to work with the best and I can leave knowing I'll be seeing these people again. I have every intention of seeing Stuart within the next month. I don't know when I'll see my brother Steve but I'm definitely never gonna lose contact with him, we became like brothers. They called us "Laurel & Hardy" – what are Laurel and Hardy's names in German?

It's a bit of a stupid name, it's called "Dick & Doof" (fat and daft).

Yeah, that's what they called us, they called us the Versailles Dick & Doof.

Related: More interviews with the "Versailles" stars

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