Alex Vlahos interview
Saying goodbye to Versailles. An epilogue.

Alexander Vlahos on fighting Philippe's corner, working in a constant state of vulnerablitiy, the fishbowl technique and the completion of a journey

Foto: Alexander Vlahos, Versailles - Copyright: Leila Moghtader
Alexander Vlahos, Versailles
© Leila Moghtader

August 9, 2018 by Nicole Oebel @philomina_
Here's a German translation of the interview.

York. A glorious summer's day. The lovely Museum Gardens. The Ancient Wall providing shadow. Alex has just come off stage at Shakespeare's Rose theatre where he's starring as Romeo in "Romeo and Juliet" until September 2nd.

Sitting down with brownies and refreshments we take a closer look at Versailles' season 3, the highs and lows of the whole journey and the lumious character that is Philippe d'Orléans. For me as a viewer, the character has been the anchor on the show - for Alex as the actor, has he been a challenge of a lifetime?

Note: The interview contains spoilers on Versailles season 3 including the series finale #3.10.

Related: Interview with Alex on the short film LOLA, pre-production and directing out soon!


Philippe and Alex

In the words of Joni Mitchell: "I looked at love from both sides now, from give and take" - What did Philippe give and take from you and what did you give and take from him?

Too much! Arguably he has left me in a better and a worse place since meeting him and vice versa. It's great that I can talk about this now because it is done. In terms of what he has given me as an actor to now contribute to the rest of my career - everything! He's allowed me to access things within myself very quickly, emotions, feelings and a sense of one's self that shouldn't have been so quickly given to me at an age that I wasn't prepared for Philippe. He gave me depression. Fundamentally. Outside of work. He gave me a lust for things that were not productive in terms of a flashier lifestyle. He gave me things that weren't real. I gave him, hopefully, heart. I always try to fight his corner on his behalf. It's very hard now after three seasons and four years to differentiate. When did I start suffering from depression. Was it before I met Philippe? Was I always depressed? Did Philippe just bring it out in me? I think I was a very happy-go-lucky person. I don't think I was a pessimist before I played Philippe. So really having to give yourself over to a character to make it believable, memorable, I gave myself too much and that's the lack of maturity. Imagine there are four doors and you can open up one door and be a good actor, leave it there, or open up all four and let it all come flooding in. That's what happened in season 1, so then in season 2 and 3 I was starting to try and close these doors that I've opened. I can deal with this better now.

So playing this person that was so brilliant and out there and suffered with PTSD, it meant coming in every day at 5 am having to do a scene with Evan, then a scene with George, then with Tygh and then a grand ballroom scene with Jessica, and he's four different people in each of those scenes for me as an actor approaching him. There have been many people over the years saying I shouldn't use a word like depression or bipolar lightly - I never use it lightly because I feel it. For everyone watching it you see it linear, you hopefully see continuation and logic, but we're shooting scenes out of order, for me he's a mess, it's a headfuck. He speaks differently to people, he acts differently, he suffers more than anyone, he wears his heart and his nerve endings on show - I couldn't not bring that home with me.

Change

We get to see Philippe in a wide array of scenes with different and new characters that all bring forward different and new facets in Philippe. How did both Philippe and you benefit from that?

Change was good for Philippe because it meant he wasn't becoming one-tonal, you never want to be one-note. You see another side of him and that is always a good thing. He gets to have a friend that's not the Chevalier, which is Guillaume, he gets to have companionship with Fabien, he gets to be inquisitive and a fighter but not in a war. As an actor you want to work with different people, season 2 for me was mind-numbingly painful because I felt like me and Evan were replicating the same scene. We shot pretty much all of Philippe's rooms as a location in two days. So imagine in season 2 having to do all of the Chevalier scenes in a day even though they're spread over five episodes, me and Evan as a pair fighting, fighting, fighting, he comes in with blood, fighting. That's tedious - not Evan but what's required of you as an actor. So in season 3 it was so great actually working with other people, out on location a lot, not in Versailles, not in the studio. You need change to make it less tough. Let's do something different so it makes it bloody interesting to wake up in the morning. I had a ball in season 3 and I think you can tell. There was stuff actually pushing the character on, developmental stuff.

Looking at the different storylines that reflect a certain change in Philippe, the Man in the Iron Mask storyline clearly stands out. Philippe gets to be all business, there's a new kind of "no bullshit" attitude about him...

I sort of agree and disagree with you. When he goes to war in season 1, from my perspective, he was in his element, the "no bullshit" has definitely been a character trait he's always had. When it comes down to his responsibility, like in the Man in the Iron Mask storyline with Fabien, he doesn't fuck about. For me it was freedom! I got to take responsibility for a thread of the storyline that was completely my own. Nothing really entwined and I quite liked that. It felt like a nice sort of payment from the writers that they trusted me with this.

Me and Tygh have always talked about Philippe and Fabien having a level of talking to each other, away from the hierarchy, that meant that they were mates and that they got each other, they had always been mates but they were never allowed to be mates. So what's great is the scene at the end of episode 9, Fabien says your brother is not who he says he is and Philippe gets on the horse and can't answer it. In that moment Fabien's world comes crushing down on him, we knew that was the pay-off, we needed to built up their relationship so that they were friends, god cop bad cop, Sherlock and Batman so that the pay-off for Tygh's character is even more heartbreaking when Philippe puts the status back in. It was a great visual metaphor, Philippe gets on the horse and Fabien is beneath him.

Foto: Alexander Vlahos, Evan Williams, Versailles - Copyright: Leila Moghtader
Alexander Vlahos, Evan Williams, Versailles
© Leila Moghtader

Another crucial change is seeing MonChevy going their separate ways. What do you think makes Philippe turn away from the one person he loves the most?

Chevalier brings too much drama to the place of mind that Philippe is in coming back from war. He left him with the words "I will always love you but I need to find myself before I can love you again." I think he finds in war that he doesn't need him. Philippe never needs the Chevalier, the Chevalier needs Philippe! That's the crazy imbalance about their relationship so when he comes back and sees that the Chevalier has got a job and a footing in court he feels breaking up with him is going to be easier, not having him so closely to him is a good thing. He comes back from war, he knows where the pitfalls are of what his post-war self is, he thinks let me figure out who I am, let him figure out who he is. What that does for Philippe, it leaves him completely isolated, he has to make his own decisions.

I adore Evan, he's my partner in crime, my best friend, I missed working with him every day. Did I think it benefitted the characters to have them apart? Absolutely. Would I have craved more MonChevy scenes? Absolutely. Would it have benefitted the show? Absolutely not. In season 2 I was so done with the MonChevy relationship in terms of there was nothing else that we could tell. Jealousy, heartache, crying, shouting - we've given you everything, the plethora of the relationship. In terms of acting you can't give anything more, the writers couldn't give us anything more apart from splitting us up and keeping us apart.

I did completely back the idea when it was presented to me. It meant that me and Evan get to have a lovely little experience of a different part of the show that we should probably do if this is our last season. When Richard Clark came in we did a read-through, me and Evan did a rehearsal of the break-up scene and we both said to Richard let's not rehearse this too much. It needs to find itself on the day. We did a take each, it needed to happen that way, the tears were real because in that moment we were also saying goodbye to seeing each other in these six months.

Do you find it natural how they get back together with very little leading up to?

The reason why it's maybe quite quick is that Philippe and the Chevalier get rid of those demons that have been holding them. In episode 10 Philippe sees in Chevalier that he's changed which probably means he can accept Philippe now for all of his faults. Philippe has always accepted Chevalier's faults, Chevalier has never been able to handle Philippe. That's the problem. So I think what happens is that Philippe looks at Chevalier and thinks he's ready to handle me now and vice versa. So yeah, it might be quick, television-wise, but that's the pay-off from him putting a grape in my mouth and telling me I could be king in season 1. Generally I think that's the biggest arc for me personally, along with "Do you have my back?" They planted that little seed in episode 1 season 1 and the pay-off is by 30 hours of drama. It's a journey they've been on back from the start, they've come on leaps and bounds as people.

And it makes the whole thing in episode 10 much more beautiful, he finally gets the Chevalier to say "I love you". We leave them much better off than they were in season 1 episode 1. I guarantee you if there ever was a season 4, thank god there isn't, but if there ever would be, it would be boring television because they would just be madly in love with each other.

About you and Evan working together Joe Sheridan said an interesting thing: "One of the lessons we learnt from Alex actually, to be that available, that in the moment... I mean Alex had to work with Evan all the time, and Evan is a force of nature, the two of them they are totally Macbethic."

There's an amazing quote from All About Eve: "The general atmosphere is very Macbethish. What has or is about to happen?" Basically saying there is something tragedical, momentous and bloodthirsty in the air. In Macbeth everything is presumed, the witches foretell things, so what Joe is saying is that working with Evan and with me is a day to day, minute by minute struggle but a fucking great struggle! What's going to happen? How do we make the scene work? Am I in a good mood today, are you in a good mood today?

There is something about me and Evan working together - we've never argued on set about conflict of character, we compromise. I found that the best way to work with Evan is to find the centre and allow him to be the ping pong ball. When we did the first two episodes we both tried to be the ping pong ball I'll do that, you do that. Fuck, these scenes work!

Also, Joe, Steve or Stuart, they saw me at my worst, like not coming out of my trailer but they also saw me when I was pinging out things and being in my hopefully Philippe best. They were much more supportive of my traits as an actor. I think it's respect actually, and vice versa back to them, the amount of respect I've got for all of them.

Another new and interesting thing we get to see this season is Philippe as a father. Do you think the moment he slaps Marie Louise was meant as a surprise within the character?

No! Philippe gets called in and has to deal with his daughter holding a knife up to the doctor - just slap her and tell her to get on the bed, done, she did it. It's quite an archaic thing to watch but when you boil it down to that - it's going back to what you said about "no bullshit". You can't have "no bullshit" in one scene and then have a lot of bullshit for the second. I'm not defending it but I'm also not criticising it, I'm sitting on the fence on it. As an actor, when I got that script I never went I wouldn't do that or Philippe shouldn't do that. Seeing Philippe as a dad was a great thing. And Frances Pooley looked like a young Noémie Schmidt, she was fragile, she was strong, she was everything in between - perfect casting!

Philippe's look usually reflects his mood which makes it interesting: Why did you go for action hair for the whole season?

Miguel Santos is an unsung hero amongst the Versailles world, he's been there from the start as has Mathilde, the makeup designer, they created every look for the show. Miguel's heart is in the most beautiful place, he knows the characters as well as you do, he's part of the fabric of creating Philippe. We always talked about what choices we should make and I said we should just go for war wig for the whole season. It's a clear decision, court wig was the luscious one, the L'Oreal advert, and I don't think Philippe wants to be part of the court. I always loved war wig, I think I've associated war wig with the four days of shooting with Christophe Schrewe doing the war battle scenes and how much fucking fun I had. That look with the chest plate, the white horse - the turning point of Philippe in season 1. In a selfish way, it meant 15 minutes less in the chair, the wig was already done, the wilder the better sometimes.

Foto: Versailles season 3 souvenir photo - Copyright: Leila Moghtader
Versailles season 3 souvenir photo
© Leila Moghtader

Humour

Do you think Versailles would have benefitted from more humour?

I think that this is a pitfall because you write for the good of the show and if humour comes out naturally than that's great but I think if you write a scene for the purpose of just lightening it you're taking away from the heart of the show. As I said for Versailles the writing was the bible. Yes, you bargain and you fight for your character but the fundamental basis is if they think there's a scene that needs to be lightened in terms of the edit they will do that. If they don't then they don't feel it's necessary. A show should mature, a show should fundamentally get better - I personally find season 3 the best that we've done - it has all the right elements of humour and shade and light and dark. As long as there's truth. You're always going to get humour with characters like the Chevalier, Palatine... Louis has moments of humour, Philippe has lots of moments of humour.

Representation

The show doesn't marginalise mental illness. Looking at Philippe's mental health issues, do you think the show represents that he isn't weak but actually a really strong person?

I hope so! Did we set out to present a character that had PTSD and depression? No. How could he not though. That's when the script becomes the bible. You want me to represent a post-war person that has changed. You put him in scenarios where you need to show change - he comes home and doesn't want to be with his lover anymore - these are all signs that we now in 2018 can associate with mental health issues. It's our job as actors and writers to show up a mirror to society. We don't use the word depression but we show versions of what that character has all the time. The writers offer up the opportunity to dig into the lines.

The scene in drag, Philippe walks in, slams his shoes - that scene on paper is beautifully written, but boring. It's Jalil, me and George who made that scene memorable, it wasn't in the script to throw my shoes off, it wasn't in the script that George wipes off my makeup. It's not in the writing that I come back from war and throw Chevalier on the bed. The next line is "He is changed" - how about we fucking show it! You take what the writers give and it's up to us creatives to enhance what they've given us.

It's always the job of an actor to get the fine tooth-pick and get in between the lines. Any good actor can say what's written. Can you feel what's written and represent it in a better way than the writers intended? It's the next step, isn't it.

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