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The Borgias – Jeremy Irons on his leading role in the original crime family

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The Borgias - Cast
Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) © 2010 Showtime

The moniker for Showtime’s new dramatic series, Neil Jordan’s The Borgias, is ‘The Original Crime Family,’ whose patriarch, Rodrigo Borgia, goes on to become Pope Alexander VI. Portrayed by Jeremy Irons, he’s cunning and manipulative and literally bribes his way into the papacy.

Irons spoke about his new role in this intriguing series at the TV Critics tour in January.

Do you feel The Borgias are a name that people know so well, but they don’t really know their story?

The Borgias - Jeremy Irons
Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) © 2010 Showtime

Yes, I know I didn’t; I knew little things. I heard Lucrezia Borgia was a terrible woman who did terrible things. Not true. Interestingly, the Pope pulled in a huge amount of writers, and he filled the Vatican with those writers. One building that still exists was full of them. And then when his son died, which we haven’t got to yet, he kicked everybody out, saying, ‘I don’t want all these hangers-on around the Vatican.’

They all left and for the rest of their lives they wrote pretty libelously about him and the family, because they’d had their living destroyed. So there are lots of reasons why the stories have got down to us as they have, and I think you have to examine them pretty closely.

How much research did you do for the role?

If you read the newspapers over the last 10 years to try to discover what sort of man George Bush is, you read a whole load of different things. And it’s the same with my character of Rodrigo Borgia. What sort of guy was he? I read a lot of different [books by different] people and I’d say, ‘Well, they would have said that because …’ or ‘That’s their standpoint.’ You filter through all of that to try to find the heart of the character. That’s the only way I know how to do it.

You’ve played quite a few schemers in your career. Do you enjoy playing those parts?

The Borgias - Jeremy Irons
Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) © 2010 Showtime

I do, I like playing enigmas, I like playing people who you have to think are they good, are they bad? I like that.

I have to think they are good when I’m playing them. You can’t play someone and think, ‘I’m a bad person.’ There are days when you may think you’re a bad person, but most of the time you think you’re all right.

When someone reaches the power that Rodrigo Borgia did, he has to have had a thousand things happen to him, and you can almost see it all on his face. As an actor what do you focus on, because there has got to be a thousand aspects to this character?

You have to see what each scene is there for, what it’s designed to do and fulfill your role within that scene. And then you do that with each scene and you put it all together, and it appears complex.

What was the biggest surprise that you learned about him?

The Borgias - Jeremy Irons
Episode 1.03 - Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) and Cesare Borgia (Francois Arnaud) © 2010 Showtime

I think it was understanding the medieval mind, how they knew they were failed human beings. The Garden of Eden parable tells us that we were born sinners. So they know that, even if you’re Pope you are still a sinner, and you try to do better.

Does Rodrigo have any religious convictions that are driving his ambition, or does he just pretend to have them because his ambition demands it?

I think, like most people at that time, yes, he has religious convictions. I’m not sure all his family did. That’s another question. But I think he was a man who believed implicitly in God and his position within the structure. But I think we have to remember that he was more like a king than the present Pope. In other words, the position of Pope was more civil than the position of the Pope these days.

There’s a moment during the papal investiture where it seems that Rodrigo is really shaken and to me that said that maybe he actually believes in God. How important is that moment to the film?

The Borgias - Jeremy Irons and Steven Berkoff
Episode 1.05 - Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) and Savonarola (Steven Berkoff) © 2010 Showtime

It’s central, and it’s always there. And that’s why Neil [Jordan]’s writing is such great writing, is that we see the levels. We see the contradictions within the character. And that’s why, for me, it’s fascinating to play and why the sort of writing Neil has done for all of us is very rare and, I think, will make an audience hopefully think and also see the characters in greater depth. There are huge conflicts there.

Can you talk about doing the scenes with Derek Jacobi as Cardinal Orsini?

I’ve known Derek for a long time. He played Benedict to my wife’s (Sinead Cusack) Beatrice in New York, so he’s the godfather of one of our children. So I know him well.

It was a real lesson to me to watch him because he’s one of those actors who does not waste a second of screen time. He is always working, and that’s a great thing do see.

The Showtime slogan for The Borgias is ‘The original crime family.’ Since you’re the Tony Soprano of the piece, do you see any redeeming qualities to the character you play?

The Borgias - Jeremy Irons
Episode 1.05 - Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) © 2010 Showtime

I think he’s a pretty good guy just doing the best he can. Power corrupts. It was a time quite unlike the time we live in today. There were murders in Rome every night, poisonings most weekends. There was [prevalent sex]. It was a good old rollicking society.

If you’ve got to try and run that, which the Pope attempts to do, then, of course, you’ve got to play by some of the games, by some of the rules that society follows. I didn’t judge him at all. I just tried to hang onto the position and do what he wanted too. I think it’s up the audience to say what is good, what is wrong and what is right.