François Arnaud of The Borgias, who stars as the dangerous Cesare Borgia—son of the infamous Pope Alexander VI (Jeremy Irons) and brother of Lucrezia (played by British beauty Holliday Grainger)—shows us that he has a different, more gentle side in him in this DA MAN exclusive.
Photographer: Mitchell Nguyen McCormack
Above picture: Jacket and pants by Z Zegna
Playing one of the key roles as the ruthless and suave Cesare Borgia in the Showtime TV show, The Borgias, François Arnaud is actually a very pleasant gent. With several years of acting experience in the award-winning French-speaking theater productions, TV shows and films, mostly based in his native Quebec, François is now enjoying his big, global English-language debut. By Dino Moriartie
DA MAN: You’ve been acting quite consistently in French-language roles for the past several years, what prompted you to get into the English-language TV scene?
François Arnaud: I was in this movie called I Killed My Mother (J’ai Tué Ma Mère) directed by very young filmmaker Xavier Dolan. It did really well in Cannes and in festivals around the world, and that’s how I met my American agent. I had done a few short films in English and a play before that, but nothing big, really. And I love the English language, as I love French and Spanish too. I don’t see why I should limit myself, and turn my back on the opportunity to work with brilliant American and English (and Irish, like The Borgias creator Neil Jordan) directors.
DA MAN: Tell us about The Borgias and your role as Cesare Borgia
François Arnaud: The Borgias is a Showtime series created by Neil Jordan and based on the Renaissance dynasty. Rodrigo, the father, becomes Pope Alexander VI with the help of the rest of the family, and particularly his son Cesare. They are a fearless bunch and they develop a taste for power that has no limits. Corruption and betrayal are all means to an end. It’s kill or be killed. Cesare has been a bishop since he was 12 years old, and although he has never felt the ‘calling’ to be a priest, his father won’t let him be anything else. And like most sons, he desperately feels the need for his father’s approval. He has a very intimate (some would say ambiguous) relationship with his sister Lucrezia, whom he loves immeasurably. And a lot of resentment for his cocky brother Juan, who becomes Chief of the Papal armies, a position that Cesare can only dream to occupy.
DA MAN: What has been the most challenging scene for you, in this current show or others that you’ve worked on?
François Arnaud: For The Borgias, I had to learn horse-riding and sword-fighting very quickly and look like a pro, who has done that every day for the past 10 years. It was very exciting though, but when you add freezing rain and night shoots [in Hungary], it really helps to put you in a Renaissance atmosphere where everything was much tougher. But, no one wants to be an actor to sit at a desk comfortably all day long.
DA MAN: What do you enjoy the most about working on this show?
François Arnaud: The challenge, and the fact that my character has about eight different personalities, that he goes from being a loving son with his mom and somehow, he is willing to kill innocent people for the protection of his family. Also, I like working with a filmmaker (Neil Jordan) whose films I would have killed to be a part of. I mean, you have to see The Butcher Boy and The Company of Wolves. And I really enjoyed shooting in Budapest for six months. To be away from home, and everything that you know, just makes it easier to take the plunge. It’s long, and it’s hard, but everything else just becomes so irrelevant.
DA MAN: How much research of that period in history, if any, did you do to prepare for the role as Cesare Borgia?
François Arnaud: I read a couple of Borgia biographies and they all contradict each other. Most of them are based on the sayings of their enemies. I also looked into the Renaissance era. I mean, the arts, the politics, the science, the discoveries are amazing, just like the 20th century, but those were dirty, dirty times. And I’m not just talking about the morals, I’m also saying people didn’t shower back then. Their sense of smell must have self-destructed in order for them to survive. The Borgias were very lucky to be part of the upper class.
DA MAN: What aspect of Cesare Borgia resonated most with you?
François Arnaud: His logic, I would say. For me, he found a way of justifying, if not to God, to himself, every single horrible act he committed. And his loyalty to the ones he loved.
DA MAN: How much are you similar, or not, to Cesare?
François Arnaud: I’m not a violent person, but I understand this rage. I just control it better I think. And I’m nowhere near the position of power that Cesare was in. Who knows how one would behave? Werner Herzog says in Grizzly Man that the common denominators in the world are chaos, conflict and murder, that goodness is the anomaly. I don’t know if I agree with this. I don’t want to. So I’m trying to be a good man. But there is something in Cesare that I just understand. In the fictional character, I mean, I can’t say about the historical figure. At one point, you know, you have to forget that this person existed and you have to treat it like any other character. The writing is there to support history.
DA MAN: What was the atmosphere like on set with the likes of Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons?
François Arnaud: Jeremy is very meticulous and a hard worker. I learn a lot from acting with him and watching him. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but I think we found a great complicity in the end.
DA MAN: What was the first day of rehearsals like?
François Arnaud: Terrifying, I felt like an impostor. I wanted to die and go back into my mom’s womb. And then I changed my mind.
Sweater and pants by Dolce & Gabbana, shoes by Cole Haan
DA MAN: So which actor do you enjoy watching the most? Any favorites?
François Arnaud: There are so many actors that I find compelling to watch. If we talk about actors from the past: I have to say Marlon Brando, especially in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. I feel like he had understood something about masculinity that very few have. I could watch Kate Winslet and Juliette Binoche forever. And I’m so happy when I see young actors that inspire me as well: like Tom Hardy, Ryan Gosling, Ben Whishaw and others.
DA MAN: Who would be your dream co-stars?
François Arnaud: All of the above, especially Marlon Brando.
DA MAN: Who are your influences as an actor?
François Arnaud: Real, interesting, layered people. My friends.
DA MAN: What inspires you in your career?
François Arnaud: Writers and directors who have something to say that is unique, different.
DA MAN: Growing up (assuming it was Montreal), did you always plan on and work toward someday becoming an actor?
François Arnaud: I started acting in school plays when I was 13, and my mom had always brought me to the theater and my dad to the movies. And I did feel the ‘calling’ for acting, but I didn’t voice it until much later, because every kid in my school wanted to be an actor, a singer or a hockey player, and I wanted to be taken more seriously I guess. But yeah, I never really thought of a backup plan.
See the full story and all the high-resolution images in the June/July 2011 edition of DA MAN
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