For the record, Francois Arnaud did not fall off his horse while filming “The Borgias” for Showtime. (Note from Curt: I've updated this interview with videos and more Q&A about Season 2 below the main story.)
“I never fell off my horse!” he told me this week, disputing a recent interview claiming the opposite. “I never fell once. … I don’t know what I said to make them print that. … Maybe I said it to make myself interesting. I have no idea.”
Arnaud definitely doesn’t have to work at being interesting. Jeremy Irons may be the undisputed star of the series, playing embattled Pope Alexander VI, but the 25-year-old from Montreal has caused quite a stir as the Pope’s sinister, sexy son, Cesare Borgia.
“The Borgias,” based on the real-life story of the 15th-century cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who basically bought and bullied his way to becoming pope, closes out its deliciously devilish first season at 9 p.m. Sunday. (It’s already been renewed for a second.)
According to Arnaud, the finale doesn’t steer away from the Machiavellian maneuverings or murders. Arnaud says something unexpected happens, too.
“It’s a bit of a family reunion, I’d say. It’s like the Borgias’ Christmas. It’s very sweet,” he said, laughing. “That’s what it is, yeah, that’s why it’s surprising actually, because you don’t expect the Borgias to be sweet.
“[There’s] a bit of torture and a lot of sweetness.”
Viewers can expect that Cesare and his henchman, Micheletto (Sean Harris), will be doling out the violence. When “The Borgias” premiered, it seemed Cesare was the “good” brother while Juan (David Oakes) was more troubled and dangerous. But Cesare became more menacing—and maybe just a bit evil—to keep his father in power and dispatch his own enemies.
Arnaud still sees the good in his character, even if he doesn’t seem fully convinced how good he is.
“I didn’t want to portray him like a Disney villain,” he said. “I wanted him to be like an everyday young boy looking for his father’s approval and love, but still with that power and that hunger for power. He changes, he evolves into this monster slowly, I guess, but we’re all monsters a little. [Laughs.]
“He stays loyal to his family, to his beliefs all along. I don’t think he is all bad—at all actually.”
Viewers will see both the sweet and scary sides of Cesare’s personality in Sunday’s finale—and also the riding scene in which his horse, a Spanish Beauty called Carmen, gave him fits, but no fall.
“I just saw a blooper and it was raining a lot on that day [of filming] and … it’s me and Sean Harris on our horses and mine was misbehaving so bad,” Arnaud said. “He just goes everywhere; he didn’t respect me a lot. But I never fell.”
If you skip to the 8:49-minute point of the blooper reel below, you will see Arnaud dealing with the horse.
For being about religious men, “The Borgias” is quite sinister. And Cesare has been downright scary at times.
That’s what we want. [Laughs.]
Did you know about the Borgias before you took the role?
I knew a little bit about their reputation, but not much, no. But I did a lot of research before I took the part obviously. I read a lot of biographies and also fiction books that were inspired by their story and or by the character of Cesare Borgia. At first I only knew a couple of the clichés and that’s it.
There has been a lot written about the family, but most admit they’re not quite sure what actually happened. Was it difficult for you to sort of find the man or did that make it easier?
It probably did make it easier. Any choice was good in the end because there was so much to choose from, and a lot of people seemed to disagree on the character, so then I just took Neil [Jordan’s] script as my bible and I made my own choices according to what I thought of [Cesare]. I guess I just brought him closer to me in the end, weirdly.
I don’t want to sound scary or anything—[laughs]—but I just wondered what would I do in this situation and in that position and realized that the character wasn’t probably that far away from me. [Laughs.] And it is a bit scary.
I kind of felt when we first meet him I thought OK well this is the guy that is going to be sort of the hero, then he does a few shocking things here and there. Do you want his story to progress with the idea that power corrupts and he just became corrupted?
Yeah, I think he has that in him already and power just revealed it. He stays loyal to his family, to his beliefs all along. I don’t think he is all bad—at all actually. These were different times as well. Murder was part of their everyday life. It’s a bit “kill or get killed” in 15th century Rome. I honestly don’t know if he had any other choice.
And he is also rather conflicted, which is something that I liked. I liked how he is striving for his father’s approval, but he starts to resent his father too for making him be a man of the cloth as opposed to a warrior.
Yeah, well he stands up to him more and more I think and we’ll see in Season 2, I guess, what he is ready to do to not be a cleric or a priest.
I was looking at his history a little bit. It looks like he may have been a bishop at like 15 years old and a cardinal at 17.
He was a bishop at 12 and then a cardinal at 17 or 18, around that, yeah.
Everything happened a little younger in those days, huh?
Yeah. [Laughs.] Well yeah, people died at 35, 40, so I guess you had your midlife crisis at 18. [Laughs.]
Very different times. So do you think we’ll see him give up the cardinalship in Season 2? I know that they’ve kind of changed a lot up from the history, but have you heard?
Hopefully. [Laughs.] I'm sick of that red dress. [Laughs.]
It looks like there are a whole lot of layers to that too.
I'm saying that, but I think it’s also really interesting to physically play with that, someone who is so confident and yet so uncomfortable in his own clothes. He is one of the richest families of Italy and most powerful and yet he is in that position where he is forced into the cardinalship and hates it, so I think yeah, it does give him layers.
So tell me about working with Jeremy Irons.
There’s a lot to learn. He’s hard worker. He is a very nice man and he knows what he wants. He is a confident actor. It’s great to see really and to witness.
You’re fairly new to acting right, a couple of years.
Yeah, well, I'm fairly new. I mean like I've always acted. It’s just like I'm of course much younger than him, but I went to drama school at 19. [Note from Curt: He went to the Conservatoire d'Art Dramatique de Montreal in 2007]
But yeah, I did learn a lot from him. What is great about it is that I don’t think he ever thought of himself as a—well in that particular project—as the more experienced actor. He treated me as an equal and that’s why I learned so much, I think. He wasn’t playing like drama teacher or anything, but in watching him and in seeing the way he worked I did learn a lot, yeah.
He questioned everything all the time. He won’t ever say something he doesn’t fully believe in for his character. I hate the idea of actors as puppets and he certainly isn’t that. It’s great to see that it’s possible.
Would you say that’s kind of the most valuable thing you’ve learned, it’s good to question everything like that?
The show has the physicality, the costumes, the scenery, the drama and all that stuff, the sex. What was sort of the most fun for you to do?
Honestly it was so much fun to get to sword fight and horse riding, but the greatest part about it was just those words, the dialogue. I mean working with those people. The conflict within the character was great because it’s like eight characters in one. He’s so different with everyone in every relationship that he has.
You’re right. He’s so tender with Lucrezia and Ursula, then he turns around and plots with Micheletto.
But yeah, I think we play different roles in our lives too, so I think it’s very believable.
You talked about the sword fighting. Had you had experience doing the sword fighting?
Well a little bit from drama school. Yeah, we did a bit of stage fighting, but and then from plays a bit, like from period plays, but very different I think fighting for the stage or for the camera. But yeah, it was just great to work with a good Hungarian stunt men and choreographers. They were really good.
Let’s talk a little bit about the brothers and their rivaly. That’s a little bit different than history, too, the way that it’s portrayed.
I don’t know. You tell me what you read. [Laughs.]
I guess we all read different things, but it seems like Juan died kind of early.
Yeah, but not much time had passed in Season 1. It’s all less than two years I think. It’s about like 18 months what you see in Season 1 and then I'll make sure he dies pretty soon after that. [Laughs.]
That was the next thing I was going to ask. Are you going to kill him off?
[Laughs.] So many rumors. Who knows?
Did you and David have a good rivalry too?
Yeah, I think, yeah. [Laughs.] David Oakes is great. We were about the only ones who spent the whole time in Budapest. But yeah, I think there was a bit of a rivalry, but like really friendly rivalry. We didn’t really have that many scenes together.
No, I really like David. I was really impressed when I saw him at first because he is very confident and as an actor too and he was just off “Pillars of the Earth,” in which he had done a lot of sword fighting and horseback riding, so I felt that he was way more ready than I was for that. I was like, “Oh shit I'm there all the time and I have a huge character and fuck, David did like all this stuff.”
I think he is a very like powerful young actor and fiery.
One of my favorite scenes with you guys was early on when Cesare made Juan kill the Persian prince, to teach him a lesson.
Yeah, it’s one of my favorite scenes as well. Yeah, I really liked the fact that Cesare hates him for doing that. You know he asks to use Micheletto in the first place, right? And I didn’t want him to and then there is that scene where Cesare pushes him in the room and says, “Well finish what you started.” There is something about teaching him a lesson and also understanding how hard it must be to do that. There was some sort of really loving brotherly undertone under all of this hard teaching. I really liked that scene.
Every relationship has that conflict. Tell me something about you. You’re new to U.S. audiences, so I want to sort of introduce you to people. What would you like people to know about you?
Oh my God, like not much. I don’t know. [Laughs.] I think that is the whole point of being an actor, right? You don’t have to be yourself. This is what is good about it and sometimes I do enjoy interviews, but it’s just I don’t really like talking about personal stuff because it draws the attention away from the work and then I don’t really like talking about the work because I think if it’s not self-explanatory then we’ve failed, right? So. [Laughs.]
It's OK. You can keep the mystery.
No, but ask me something. I'll probably answer it. [Laughs.] I just don’t know what to bring up really. I'm from Montreal.
Is this your first major international thing? And you’ve done some, what, Canadian and French movies?
Yeah, yeah, mostly in French, a couple plays in English, but most of my film work was in French. I was in a movie that did really well in festivals last year called “I Killed My Mother,” and it was a small film and I guess that is what kind of brought me to LA and I got an agent there and things just happened I guess afterwards. I guess film was always my passion and what I wanted to do.
And so you were in school since--
I started studying theater in school and then I got into drama school at like 19 and it was a national drama school in Montreal and so it was just you and nine other students for three years and it was really intense.
So do you normally have the scruff and the long hair?
I don’t have long hair. It’s a wig. There you go. [Laughs.] That’s something. We use a little bit of my hair in the front and the rest is a wig. They darken my skin, too, and I usually do have a bit of scruff just because I don’t shave. Well I shave like once every three weeks, so that’s it. But no long hair.
People are going to love that little detail right there, you shave once every three weeks.
The Lucrezia and Cesare thing—their incestuous relationship—that is considered just rumor, right?
And so are you guys going to explore more in the future?
I think we are already. I think because I just think they both idealize each other in a way that they can’t find anyone else that compares to the other. Like Cesare can’t find a woman that—I mean there is Ursula, of course, but I think he has a deep, deep love for his sister and all throughout his life it will continue. I mean that is as far as I think we’re going to go. I don’t know that they’re going to go any further with that, but we actually insisted on keeping some of the like Holliday [Grainger] and I insisted in keeping some really civility to this relationship. They always have their hand all over each other and they’re just very—they’re very much in love I think with the other, but in a very childish way.
OK, so it’s not like in love, in love.
Well, I don’t know. [Laughs.] I don’t think you’re going to see them get it on. [Laughs.]
All right, so are you working on anything else? What do you want to do next? I know you have a Season 2, but…
Yeah, there are a lot of things I want to do, but I don’t know if I'm going to get to do any of them. [Laughs.] But it was a bit hard this winter because we’re going to start shooting the second season very soon actually, and I was trying to get something done before, but with the schedule it didn’t really work out, so I'm actually right now I'm doing the dubbing of “The Borgias” in French.
Which is no problem for you, right? You speak three languages.
Yeah, French, English and Spanish, but I don’t think I'm going to do the dubbing in Spanish because it’s too much time.
So mostly I guess film work. I've read a lot of good scripts. No, not a lot. I read a lot of scripts, but very few are good. So hopefully a movie and maybe a good one. I don’t know yet. We’re starting to shoot it in July for the second season, so I guess it’s going to have to go after that and it’s in Hungary, so it’s very hard to combine it with anything else.
Right, exactly, but do you want to do something like maybe more modern?
Yeah, I’d like to do something contemporary, yeah, definitely actually. There are so many people I want to work with. I've been blessed really. Religious metaphor. [Laughs.] I've been blessed with all the people I've worked with so far, so I can’t pick anyone in particular. I mean I'm open to anything really, yeah.
And did you just get this through auditions and somebody sent you a script and everything?
Yeah, I first read the script and then I auditioned on tape and then met Neil Jordan in London and then tested with Jeremy Irons in London. It was a bit of a long process, but you expect it to be for such a big part. But the audition process was really fascinating actually. Yeah, with Neil Jordan not giving me any directions really, but just asking me what I thought of the character and where I wanted to go with it and being very open. It was great to get that level of trust from such a wonderful director.
So have you seen scripts for Season 2?
I think we should get them like tomorrow. Do you want me to call you back and tell you about them? [Laughs.]
Definitely, and tell me what happens.
Spoilers, all right.
Do you get excited about going back, like “I'm going back to school?”
Yeah, I am. I was a bit worried that when I came back in January I was so exhausted and I was worried that I wouldn’t want to go, that I wouldn’t be ready to go back in July, but now I am really. I'm really eager to go back, yeah.