Versailles, the opulent show about the French court under King Louis XIV (George Blagden), returns for its third and final season in the United States on Oct. 6 on Ovation. With even more mysteries, power plays and court politics, the series explores new territory before coming to a fitting end.
Alexander Vlahos plays Philippe d’Orléans, Louis’ darker, more emotional brother, who we last saw leave the palace at the end of Season 2 to go to war at his brother’s request. Speaking from York on his day off, where he’s currently performing in a theater production of Romeo & Juliet, Alex talked with us about the depths of Philippe’s character, the passion of the show’s dedicated fans, and what he hopes people take away from the series.
You finished shooting Versailles almost a year ago now, and the show has aired in France and the U.K. already but we’re finally getting it in the United States! Is it odd to keep talking about Season 3 and going back to this character over and over?
Alexander Vlahos: Save the best for last! October 10th was our last day [of shooting]. It’s been a while, but it’s actually quite nice to talk about Philippe. I always find it really hard talking about [Versailles] while I’m filming the seasons because obviously it does take a while to come out. When we filmed for Season 2, we were talking about Season 1 for the States. When we were filming Season 3, we were talking about Season 2. It’s nice actually now to talk about it without being in the costume and the wigs in the middle of the season. I can’t imagine not talking about it; it’s one of those shows now that, with all of us, has become such a success and we’re indebted, really, to the show. I’ll always happily talk about Philippe because he is a big part of my life.
At the end of the second season, Philippe went to battle. He returns a little bit different than before he left, so can you explain the process? The character undergoes some changes and now that he’s back at Versailles, what can we expect?
Well, we’re going to war. A lot of TV shows show characters going to war, coming back, and having not really changed that much. I think, to that end, you go and you see things and you experience things that are probably not very nice. I think Philippe had experienced quite a lot of that. We touched on, in Season 1, Philippe returns from war about halfway through the season, and he is very much affected by PTSD. We didn’t actually vocally say that’s what he’s got, but it’s clearly what he’s got. So when he comes back from war in season three, like you said, he’s a changed man. He is cautious and also, he’s been fighting for the sake of France and the first thing he does when he comes back in Episode 1 is that Louis shows him the Galerie des Glace (Hall of Mirrors) completed and it’s the antithesis between the two characters: Philippe has been fighting for France for money so that Louis can complete what is, in Philippe’s eyes, a ridiculous palace.
We were given a fact quite early on in Season 1 that one mirror, one foot-by-foot mirror in the Galerie des Glace is worth ten thousand battleships. That’s how much the cost is. If you think of the Galerie as one big building, as one big room, and there’s so many mirrors there — the amount of money that Louis has spent to make that beautiful creation! I think Philippe comes back and finally sees Versailles completed and realizes that he’s been fighting not for the sake of the people in France, but for the sake of his brother to build a palace. That leaves a sour taste in his mouth.
I have to ask about the relationship between Philippe and the Chevalier. What does Season 3 hold for them?
Philippe comes back and is no longer in need. I was going to say no longer in love, but I think he’s always in love with the Chevalier; he’s no longer in need with the Chevalier. I think seeing the Chevalier in a job as the head party maker for Louis, [Philippe] finds that it’s quite easy for him to leave the Chevalier on his own and find a sense of independence. Philippe always is craving to find his own feet in the world and coming back from war has probably woken him to the idea that he can do this. He is a stronger man. He doesn’t need people around him.
You’ve said in the press before how parts of Philippe have affected you as a person, as Alex the actor. What facets of him do you have that connection with, whether it be good or bad?
I always admire Philippe’s unwavering loyalty — his loyalty and his ambitions and his truth. Whether he’s right or wrong, he will always voice his opinion and I quite admire that trait in someone because we don’t have that, especially nowadays. We cower away from telling people the truth about who they are and what they are and the situations that we’re in because we’re afraid it might hurt people. Philippe, whether he’s right or wrong, will always speak out, especially against his brother. He’s an amazing dichotomy; he’s an anomaly. He’s not of that time, not of this time really. He’s a wonderful person to become part of someone, you know?
All of the set locations for the show are absolutely breathtaking, and of course you actually filmed at the real Palace of Versailles.
We’ve been very lucky that from the very start of Season 1, we were practically given the big padlock with the keys to the Golden Gates of complete access to Versailles. We would film there every Monday because that’s when they closed it to the public. We had the whole place to ourselves. In Season 1, it was incredible. Then Season 2, still incredible. In Season 3, I guess not saying the novelty had worn off, but you forget that you’re filming in a real live palace. It does become bizarre. It becomes a set. How fortunate you are, you seem to forget that. It’s an incredible place.
The idea that we got to film in the Galerie des Glace was incredible. It’s also beautifully realized because obviously George playing Louis is standing on the floorboards where Louis himself had walked. There’s something quite magical and quite real about that. We’re not shooting on a green screen; we’re not shooting in Hungary or Budapest or Belgium trying to avoid cost and imagine what it actually looked like…. it’s not a set. We actually filmed there. The French government were incredibly supportive of our show and helped us make our vision of Versailles a reality. But yeah, it’s very hard to take in when you’re filming it. It’s only afterwards when you see the episodes back and you think, “Oh bloody hell, we actually did do that, didn’t we?
Did you sneak anything away from the set to remember it by?
Not from the set because I think they would have come after me with spears. No. I took Philippe’s shoes from Season 1. I took the very first pair of shoes that Philippe was given, and it was quite an integral part of the plot that year. There was a line in Episode 1, I think, or 2, where Louis said, “You spend 50 thousand on shoes,” and Philippe responded, “Well, you haven’t seen the shoes.” It’s a big focal point of Episode 1 and I had about six pairs of shoes for the entire time of filming, but I took the very first pair home with me because I knew we weren’t coming back. I knew that was the end. I think George took all of his coats. I don’t know what he’s done with them.
Oh my gosh. Really?
They’re all probably hanging up in a cupboard somewhere. He had to buy another suitcase to take that back from France. [Laughs] For me, I took the shoes. They’re something quite…. There’s a closeness between Philippe and aesthetics and clothes. The shoes are now adorning my living room. They’ve found a place. Yes. That’s the only thing that I took.
Now that the end is approaching for us in the U.S., what do you want viewers to take away from Philippe?
I think a lot of people have found their way into the show by Philippe. I think he, hopefully by my representation of him, because of the craziness of his character and his real-life attributes, was the heartbeat of the show. Louis was the skeleton, but Philippe was always the heart. He was the voice of reason. He was the only one that was the outside eye of Versailles.
I can’t quite pinpoint what they should take away from him, but in general, not just Philippe, I hope the American audience take Versailles to heart. I think it’s such a wonderful show. We did things our own way. We broke the television writing rules; we broke conventions. We didn’t write it as a period drama. It was never sort of…. It’s not Victoria. It’s not Downton Abbey. It’s Versailles. It’s its own entity and we did things our way.
David Wolstencroft and Simon Mirren, who created the show, were writers of criminology backgrounds. They created M15, and Criminal Minds and Spooks. These were guys who wrote recent dramas. They kept that same sort of convention, that same sort of ideology for writing a television show and just adapted it for Versailles. It’s completely unique and I’m proud as punch to be part of it. I’m super happy that the Versailles family that exists — this very strong, small, but strong foundation and fan base — will keep the show living on long, long, long after it ends.
Are you happy with how the series ended?
I am, I am. Initially — and I’ll just give you a little nugget of information — but initially, we always knew that … Me, George, Stuart, and Tygh, Stuart plays Bontemps and Tygh plays Fabien. We were the original four, the four that got cast first. We were all contracted for three years, three seasons. We always knew that Season 3 would be the end. We would have been incredibly surprised if they would have got a season four. Season 3, if you think of it in terms of storytelling, Season 1 was the start, Season 2 was the middle, and Season 3 was the end. That’s the template.
I’m incredibly happy with how it ended. We fought as actors against production with the last script. We fought a lot for characters. We fought a lot for the completion of story lines. There’s a tendency in television to leave things hanging with the hopes that it maybe will come back. Knowing that we weren’t coming back, and the Episode 10 script that came through, a lot of story lines were quite loose threads. As a bunch of actors, as a cast, we came together to say that if this is the end, then the story line needs to be a bit more completed, so that the fans are left with a really nice taste in their mouth. I’m really proud; I feel like we’ve accomplished more than we set out to accomplish with these characters and with the story line.
In terms of the history of the show, Versailles can go on and on and on, but in terms of where we are with Louis and where we are with the palace, there’s nothing more to tell. Season four would have been branching out into a more fictional storytelling. We would have been having to make a lot of things up because Louis goes quiet in history for a while. There’s about 20, 30 years where Louis does bugger all. There’s no big dramas or any political or religious things affecting France. There are no wars. In terms of drama, we arrive at Episode 10 of Season 3 in a place where it felt right to end.
I really loved how it ended, and it’s great knowing that you fought for an ending that wrapped up the characters. Back to the fans, they’re small, but they’re very passionate, and they love the show. What’s a memorable experience you’ve had with the fans?
I’ve got loads. They support me and all the other actors in every endeavor that we do. I did a play January last year. It was a tiny little play in a venue that held no more than 100 people. [The fans] came in the masses. In one show, pretty much 100 members of the audience were part of the Versailles family. It was incredible. They were all there with their Versailles hoodies and the Versailles family crest designed by an artist that’s part of the family. We’ve also done our very first Versailles Con, a convention purely for Versailles. A family Versailles fan convention. That’s when the show steps into a different realm. It’s no longer just a TV show. It’s touching people in their hearts and in their minds and I think that means it has transcended success. It’s gone beyond a successful show. It doesn’t really matter about viewing figures in that regard. Like I said, yes, they’re small, but the people that are members of the Versailles family are the most dedicated, loyal, passionate, creative people I’ve ever met. The artists that are a part of this family that are drawing sketches of me and the Chevalier, or me and Louis, or Louis and Bontemps, or any of the characters, is just insane.
Another moment is when actually, funnily enough, when Ovation came over to film, I think it was Season 2, for some sort of stuff for their channel. There was a map given to us, basically a map of the world, and there were pins on the map showing every member of the Versailles family and where they lived. It was just everywhere. We were filmed on camera opening this up and seeing where every single one of these people were watching the show. Versailles was sold to 191 countries. There’s only 196 countries in the world. Five countries haven’t bought it.
I want to know who those five countries are.
Me too. We’ll have to go and bring them DVDs or something.
Exactly. [Laughs] It just shows you the global sensation Versailles has become, and it just means the world to me that even now doing Romeo & Juliet, not even in London; it’s York. It’s two and a half hours outside of London. People have flown from China to see me. People have come from Berlin. People have come from Hong Kong, from Australia, from Texas, from Tennessee. There’s a woman yesterday that came from San Diego to watch the show. It’s mad. That’s purely based on Versailles and its success and its storytelling, and that means the world to all of us. I’m sure it does. Like I said, going back to my very first thing I said, it’s one of those shows that I will never get tired of talking about because it’s given me so much, so I can give so much back.
I didn’t know some of that. That’s amazing.
Back to Romeo & Juliet in York. You’re finishing that up in September, right?
Yeah, I finish in a week, this Sunday.
And then you have Lola, your directorial debut. Is that starting production in the fall?
Basically, I finish in York and go to London the following day. We’re shooting on film, on 35mm, so we’re not even doing digital. We’re going against the grain. We’ve got an amazing cast. I shoot for five days over September. Then I’m coming out to L.A. to do some more Versailles press-related stuff. It’s a pretty busy time. Then I’m doing a play in London over Christmas; I’ll be playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan.
It’s a busy September. Directing for me is where I want to go. It’s where my heart is. I’ve never been more passionate than I am about directing Lola, but I find the lack of control in acting quite…. I find it as a negative rather than the positive, the idea that you do five takes in a TV show and you like take three, but the director likes take four and pretty much take four will go in the episode. I always find that a frustrating aspect of television acting. Directing gives me the fire in my stomach that I haven’t had for quite a while. I’ve been out of drama school now for 12 years and I’m finding my way into this world and into this business, and I find directing makes me really passionate.
Will you be starring in Lola as well, or just directing?
No, I’m not. Directing is hard enough, so I think putting myself in front of the camera as well would be doubly difficult. Yeah. Directing is the next step.