Of the three drama series featured in this cover story, the only one based on actual historical people and events is Showtime’s The Borgias, which chronicles the infamous Spanish family that held power in Italy — and throughout the church — during the early Renaissance after their patriarch, Rodrigo Borgia (played in the series by Oscar winner Jeremy Irons), manipulated his way into being elected Pope Alexander VI.
Despite being tied to historical people and places, though, The Borgias definitely does not suffer from lack of drama. Where the other series may be able to rely on myth and make-believe, there is plenty regarding the reality of the Borgias to captivate even modern audiences. In fact, when it comes to this infamous family, the old adage of truth being stranger than fiction definitely holds strong.
“Listen — we can’t put the half of it onscreen,” laughs series costar Colm Feore, who plays Cardinal Della Rovere, a rival of Rodrigo’s. “Apparently, Pope Alexander had unspeakable games of whores picking up chestnuts with their private parts. I mean, he was just outrageous! And orgies, lying, bribing, cheating, manipulating …”
While some of Rodrigo/Alexander’s actions may have been too hot even for Showtime, we do get a sense of what kind of man he is right off the bat in the series, as he muscles his way into the papacy, plots for his son Cesare (Francois Arnaud) to be next in line, begins thinking of who his daughter Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) can be married off to and starts a relationship with a young woman whose confession he has just heard. But yet we also see a man who at least claims to have God’s will in mind, and without whom the Renaissance may have had trouble getting off the ground.
“Was there sex? Yes,” says Feore, of the Borgias and their era. “Was there violence? Yes. Was there war, ambition and destruction? Yeah, all of that. But it’s like Harry Lime said in The Third Man, where Orson Welles turns to Joseph Cotten [and says,] ‘What the hell are you talking about? You don’t want any evil in the world? The Borgias and the Medicis had evil, and they created Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael and the Renaissance. The Swiss had peace for 400 years. They created the cuckoo clock.'”
The impact that the Borgias and others of the time had on the burgeoning Renaissance may have impacted the look of this series, which — in its photography and art design — is as lush and colorful as the paintings of the time.
Feore adds, “They had a lot of great taste. They were also, a lot of them, crazy. What they began as — and this is one of the things [series creator, writer, executive producer and director] Neil Jordan was very keen to have us understand — they were princes of the world before they were princes of the church. So they had money, power, influence. And if you add the patina of ‘God’s will,’ and the power of the church to sway and influence people, that took them to a whole new dimension. You begin to get into the infallibility of the pope and the kinds of stuff that we see today happening, which is why I think the series has enormous relevance. A paradoxical thing happens — doing all of this horrible, bad stuff, but very possibly in a good cause. That is to say, Jeremy’s character believes he’s been put in that place at that moment to do God’s will. And if you believe that, then how God accomplishes his will is then up for debate. This guy is doing what has to be done, and my character is trying to get rid of him because I think he’s horribly, morally corrupt. Now my guy, historically, wasn’t exactly Snow White either, but, relatively, he was less bad.”
Also relatively less bad, at least early on in the series, and especially when compared with the legends about her that have risen over the centuries, is Lucrezia Borgia. She is even played with a little bit of naivete by Grainger in the first two episodes. (“I’d say ‘innocent,'” Grainger corrects, “but she doesn’t want to be.”) As the story begins, it is 1492, when Lucrezia would have been about 12. For the 23-year-old Grainger, it was no problem playing a pre-adolescent girl. “I always play younger than myself,” she laughs, “because I look younger than myself. I’m kind of used to that.”
Grainger tells us that she knew little of Lucrezia’s reputation as one of history’s greatest femme fatales and started her research by reading two biographies by women who viewed the Borgia daughter as strong and ambitious, but quite morally grounded. Then Grainger turned to Internet research.
“And then to read horrific stories about her being the biggest whore in all of Rome,” the actress laughs, “and having a hollow ring that she filled with poison and poisons everyone at every opportunity. I say, ‘What?!? No! That’s not her!'”
Arnaud had almost the opposite happen to him when he researched his role as Cesare, the eldest Borgia son and sort of the “muscle” — even an early form of “consigliere” — for the family.
“I knew about the Borgias’ reputation before I actually read any real Borgias biographies,” Arnaud says. “When I read that [Cesare] was actually a very admired politician and warrior … it’s kind of weird that the first thing everyone thinks about when they think of Cesare Borgia is a ruthless killer. He might have been a monster, but he’s definitely an interesting monster and a very charismatic one, to see that Machiavelli admired him, and da Vinci as well. He inspired the look of the Christ in most of the paintings [of the time]. … What’s great about being an actor, you get to learn so much about something without going to college for it. I learned so much about the Renaissance.”
Feore shares a similar sentiment — that acting in historical projects has also allowed him to “know an annoying amount about a fair number of periods, totally tied to the jobs I’ve done over the last 30 years. It’s not enough to get a Ph.D., but it would be convincing at a cocktail party.”
And he believes that historical dramas like The Borgias, The Tudors, Camelot, Game of Thrones and the like can be helpful to audiences.
“These shows beautifully reveal why — and making it entertaining as well — we say, ‘same @#$%, different day.’ As human beings we’ve been going through the same challenges, trying to do the same things for ourselves, our family. Our ambitions, our dreams, our desires have been the same. Let’s look at how some really smart, really extraordinary people handled these questions, and let’s do it in a beautiful context. Nothing’s new under the sun, but it’s reinterpreted, reevaluated, and it allows us to have a much longer-term view of where we sit in the history of the world, which I think brings people comfort. … I think we feel smarter at the end of it, which is not a bad thing. Entertained, a little bit excited and smarter.”
The nine-part series The Borgias airs Sundays on Showtime beginning April 3.