The rich dynasty against the poor, sex, revenge, power – no, it’s not Dallas, although that does returns to TV this summer. It’s the second season of The Borgias, once again starring Oscar winning actor Jeremy Irons as the cunning , manipulative Pope Alexander VI.
This season, seeking to consolidate his power, Alexander enlists his family to take an oath of revenge on the great noble houses that dared to stand against him. But his real problems lie with his children, all of whom are growing up and defying his authority.
This series seems very timely, like the ultimate 1 percent versus the 99 percent drama. Can you speak about when the Pope walks through the city and sees all the poverty, it seems like he generally didn’t know about it. Is that hard to grasp?
I think all people who are in comfortable, cushioned positions of power can get completely out of touch with the reality of how it is in some parts of the cities in the particular country they are governing. I think it’s all too easy. You see it happen time and time again in history.
That particular time for the Pope, he has been put in touch with his inner life, his conscience a little bit, perhaps, and therefore is more sensitive to the situation around him. I think he also realizes that the easiest way to govern is to have the people on your side, and therefore, you have to take care of the people.
So I think all of those things are happening. I do think it is a case of the 1 percent against the 99 percent, and I think it always has been.
As you were doing those scenes, as you walked through the despair does that affect you emotionally?
You mean as me, Jeremy? At that moment I am in the character. That’s what we do.
So I can’t divorce how I feel with how that Pope feels, and so I suppose the short answer to your question is, yes, it does. You feel it. You feel what he’s feeling.
The language in this seems to be very pure to the time, but if it were written in the exact idiom of the time, it would be incomprehensible. When you see the words on the page, how would you compare it to some of the Shakespearean work that you’ve done?
Neil (Jordan) does have a very particular style. It’s a style which, when you are reading it on the page, you think, ‘Oh, dear, this feels a bit odd.’ But, actually, when you speak it, he has a wonderful sense of rhythm, which is, of course, one of the things that Shakespeare also had.
Strangely enough, I’m rehearsing at the moment a film of Henry IV. So my head is full of Shakespeare, and I glory in him. And when it’s properly spoken and properly understood by the actor, it is completely comprehensible to the viewer.
I think Neil has managed to find a style which is not Shakespearean, but neither is it contemporary. It has a feeling of period. It’s wonderful to play. And I can only say that we are very lucky to have a writer with that ear.
How would doing The Borgias compare to Brideshead Revisited for you, which is one of your most memorable roles?
It’s strange you should say that because I was talking just [today] about the fact that it’s such a happy time doing The Borgias. We are such a great mix, out in Budapest, wonderful actors, wonderful production team, wonderful technicians.
We are able to work over a five-month period, telling this story with tremendous support. And it’s not since doing Brideshead Revisited that I’ve felt so comfortable about making a program. The way it’s constructed, it works. We are always fighting to make it better, but when it’s set up right, it rolls right.
It’s like a motorcar that’s been built right. It’s huge fun to drive. And for me that’s what the experience of doing The Borgias is, and think that’s what Brideshead was.
If you were defending Pope Alexander’s actions in a court of law, what would you say? Is there a Holy Father in him?
This was hundreds of years ago, and things were very different. The Pope was more like a King. He was more of a monarch than a pope, but, like everybody, he was a believer. He was a Christian, as everybody was. Christianity was a given. The God up there was a given.
The world had to be ruled. Power had to be exerted. Alliances had to be made. Children had to be married to make alliances. To rule is difficult and requires things which you would not expect from the little man in the white hat who we now see as the Pope.
He’s quite a different character now than he would have been in our period.
Have you heard from any of your Catholic friends about the series?
I was having a cigarette on the roof of an archbishop’s house in the Vatican one evening, drinking wine, having left his mistress in the kitchen because she didn’t smoke! (he laughs) And he pointed over to some windows and said, ‘Your successor is still awake.’
He was pointing to the Pope’s apartment. He said he loved the series.
My feeling is it’s a bit like asking whether Queen Elizabeth II is upset when she sees a production of Richard II or Richard III, also kings, also behaving extremely badly in many cases, but it doesn’t affect her position because it was a different time.
I think the fact that we haven’t been excommunicated as a group probably shows that the Catholic Church has the wisdom to understand that we’re talking about history here!
Season 2 of The Borgias premiered Sunday, April 8 at 10 PM ET/PT.