Jeremy Irons portrays Rodrigo Borgia, the cunning patriarch of the family who through the corruption of the Catholic Church devises a relentless reign of power as the new Pope, Alexander VI. He immediately places his son Juan (David Oakes) as head of the papal armies, and elevates his other son Cesare (Francois Arnaud) to Cardinal.
The Pope’s daughter, the infamous Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), who is unable to serve in the army or the clergy, is a potential bride to a powerful family – one that can help strengthen the Borgia’s political position.
Colm Feore portrays Cardinal Della Rovere, Rodrigo’s rival, who is enraged when he is overlooked for Pope, and Rodrigo becomes Alexander VI.
I spoke with Holliday, Francois and Colm about their roles in this unique series, which has already gathered an excess of positive reviews.
Holliday, you play Lucrezia, can you tell me in your research for the role, the difference between the world’s take on her and what she was really like?
Holliday Grainger: There seems to be numerous interpretations of Lucrezia, from being a complete victim of her family’s power, and instances where she really was kind of the manipulative villainess that people believe. So I think there’s quite a lot of tension in her character.
What kind of research did you do for your roles?
Colm Feore: I did a lot of research, not that it mattered because you’re only going to be doing the bit that Neil has selected from the story. But my guy, Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere, became Pope Julius II. So at least I had that point in history to go back from.
He commissions Michaelangelo for the Sistine Chapel. Rapheal does a lot of work around the Vatican, patching things up here and there. So clearly he was a man of great taste, judgment and intelligence, and I had to bring that to bear, understanding who he must have been when trying to depose Pope Alexander.
Francois Arnaud: I also read quite a few biographies, but also other fictional works that were inspired by the Borgias, like Lucrezia Borgia, by Victor Hugo, or The Prince by Machivelli, which was inspired by the Borias and, more specifically, my character, I think.
But the script that Neil [Jordan] wrote becomes the fictional truth that you have to respect. It’s not so much about history anymore. It’s about what we’re telling, no matter how close it is to the real-life truth.
Holliday: I read quite a few biographies on Lucrezia and a few on the whole Borgia family. I think it was helpful because Neil’s script, to begin with, Lucrezia is a very young innocent, not at all naïve, but it’s important to know the kind of character that you need to be building up to throughout the series.
How does Machiavelli fit, is he a contemporary of these people?
Colm: If you are familiar with The Prince, and any of the rest of Machiavelli’s work, you’ll know how much in love with Cesare Borgia he really was, and he was someone observing the very difficult problem of power and faith, God and power, how does it work? Can they work together?
What Machiavelli seems to have hit upon is the very terrible problem that maybe they can’t. You can be pious and pure and live a beautiful life, but you can’t necessarily create a great society that will be the genesis of the Renaissance.
How come Lucrezia has such a blonde English look in a family full of very dark-haired Italians?
Colm: Have you seen the portrait of Lucrezia, the very famous portrait of her where she’s very pale and beautifully blonde and looks rather like Holliday?
Francois: There is a lock of her hair that sill exists. I think it’s in the same vaults in Mantua that was found attached to her love letters, and she was a very pale blonde.
What was it like to step into those grand settings, was it like taking a step back into history?
Colm: I appreciate the enormous amount of work that went into creating Rome in a good deal more than a day, and I’m sure James Flynn (the Executive Producer of the series] would tell you how expensive it was. But it was a beautiful thing to play.
Even though we didn’t build the whole thing, the sections of it that you could live in are a great help to the imagination as long as you didn’t try to ride a horse through them.
Holliday: It’s always surreal being on a film set but inside a kind of beautiful massive scene, particularly when we film mainly in the studio. When you’re on location and you’re in those real old buildings, that’s quite awe-inspiring.
Colm, what is the core issue between your character and Pope Alexander?
Colm: I am the moral center of the show. I took that responsibility on by myself. Mr. Jordan didn’t give it to me. I really thought that’s what my job was. But apparently, it’s evolved over the course of it.
One of the things that I found the most interesting in terms of service of God is that when we, Rodrigo and my character, are going to the conclave and we’re going to vote on who’s going to be pope, and I know it’s going to be a pretty close race between us, we have a wonderful scene where I try to express my admiration for those things that he can do that I wouldn’t dare to do, that are perhaps a little unsavory.
And so we come up against these moral dilemmas all the time, where I’m not willing to do it, but I’m very glad that Rodrigo is, and together we will rule the world. And as he beats me out, I then have to face the music of wanting to be pope myself.