The Borgias were an Italian Renaissance noble family whose love, dysfunction, and power knew no bounds: Adultery, incest, and murder—including fratricide—are just some of their purported claims to fame. Naturally, as good Italians, the complex web of their lives was intertwined with the Catholic church, inextricably so because the patriarch of the family, Rodrigo Borgia, became pope.
The Borgia saga has become legend and inspired novels, plays, and an opera, so naturally it was time for their story to be made into a Showtime series. Debuting this spring, The Borgias was created and produced by Neil Jordan (who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 1992’s The Crying Game). The show combines a Sopranos-esque crime-family drama with the lavish period production of Rome. But added to that are intricate interfamily struggles one usually associates with Greek tragedy. Jeremy Irons plays the father, Rodrigo, but the rest of the cast, though relatively unknown, hold their own. That’s particularly the case for two of the young and molto attractive Borgia children, who battle and plot their way into adulthood: Twenty-five-year-old French-Canadian actor François Arnaud, who plays Cesare, and 22-year-old Manchester, U.K., actress Holliday Grainger, who plays Lucrezia. As Cesare, Arnaud channels a son who has no qualms about murdering his own brother to take military control of the papacy and escape being part of the church. “The character has such a great journey,” Arnaud says. “He goes from a daddy’s boy to a warrior and a killer and a lover. It’s more honest to fight than pretend to be Christian.” Arnaud, who has previously been seen mainly in French-Canadian films and television productions, believes much of the show’s controversy is over his character’s relationship with his sister. “There were a lot of rumors of incest between Cesare and Lucrezia,” explains Arnaud, “but we’re not going for that. There is a deep love and affection. The physicality of the relationship is almost childish. They always have their hands in each other’s faces, but it is innocent.”
Grainger, whose childlike beauty gives Lucrezia a certain wayward innocence, agrees. “It’s one of the only genuine relationships in the series,” she says. “You get a break from corrupt politics.” For those unfamiliar with one of the most infamous women of the 15th century, Lucrezia is an amalgam of Ophelia, Cleopatra, and Marie Antoinette. “Some think she is a selfish, manipulative villainess who poisons people and has incestuous relationships with her family,” Grainger explains. “Some see her as the pawn in her family’s game, and she is just weak and does what they say. Other people see her as a very strong woman who manipulates the situation to get the best outcome for herself and her family. I obviously like the third one!” Grainger is no stranger to period dramas, having also recently wrapped roles in this year’s highly anticipated Jane Eyre and the 1890s Parisian drama Bel Ami. “I’m ready to get out of my corset and into contemporary life,” she says. If the series does as well as expected, Grainger and her co-star should expect to spend a little more time in Italian finery, as well as on location in Budapest, where The Borgias is being filmed. “Even Italy,” Arnaud reasons, “doesn’t look like Renaissance Italy.”