“Innocent” was how François Arnaud once described his character’s relationship with his sister Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) on The Borgias. It was 2011, and Arnaud had just begun the Budapest-filmed series. The Canadian played Cesare Borgia, the son of Spanish-born Pope Alexander VI (an Emmy-nominated Jeremy Irons) and a ruthless leader lauded in Machiavelli’s The Prince. Two years later, and the relationship was no longer quite so innocent.
The Borgias was intended to last four seasons, spanning the 11 years of Rodrigo Borgia’s problematic reign as Pope from 1492 to 1503. Two weeks before the third season finale, however, Showtime announced that the third season would be the The Borgias‘ last. Executives promptly started receiving cans of sardines as a protest from fans. In a Kickstarter world, it’s hard to know what will happen, but Arnaud has accepted the show’s current fate. “I’m moving on,” he tells us. “It’s okay.”
Handsome and with a faithful fan base, the multilingual 27-year-old should have a wide array of options before him. He’s just finished shooting a film in Argentina with Camilla Belle, Amapola, written and directed by the Academy Award winner Eugenio Zanetti. This Friday, the civil war drama Copperhead, in which Arnaud has a small role filmed between shooting The Borgias, will open in limited release. For his next move, he’s considering theater in New York.
EMMA BROWN: I’m quite sad that there won’t be a fourth season of The Borgias. Did you know that the third season was possibly going to be the last?
FRANÇOIS ARNAUD: After every season you think about whether or not it might be over and whether you should say goodbye to people when you leave Hungary. [laughs] It’s a bit strange, because the ratings were—not incredible—but steady. I think there were many reasons for that decision to be made; I don’t know what they are exactly. I know [showrunner] Neil [Jordan] didn’t think he had enough material to do a whole season. He wanted to do a two-hour movie with it next year and that was too expensive. I’m kind of happy about how it ended for my character; I feel like Cesare’s journey was complete by that point. It would have been great to play him until his death, but I feel like we got to see his evolution from little boy to… mass murderer. It’s the end of an era and it’s fine, I’m moving on. It’s okay.
BROWN: I read about a campaign that involved sending Showtime cans of sardines.
ARNAUD: Yeah, that’s a bit extravagant I think. It’s fun to see how some fans are really supportive. I wrote a letter to fans to try to calm them down and tell them that I cared—but they quoted me in a Telegraph article and it made me look like I support that sardine campaign. [laughs] I’m not sure I do. It’s nice to see that kind of support but we’re not responsible for decisions. If you can help me clear up the facts… [laughs]
BROWN: What was your favorite part about playing Cesare?
ARNAUD: The fact that he has so many layers and sides to his personality. I don’t know when I’m going to get to play another character that is so multifaceted. He kills people but he’s such a loving brother—almost too much. I really feel like, in the past three years, I got to a point where I understood the character instinctively. It didn’t feel like work anymore; it felt a bit effortless. I got really comfortable with all the different personalities of Cesare Borgia. Also working with such an amazing cast really helped as well. Just doing a scene with Sean Harris puts you in a completely different mood than doing a scene with Holliday Grainger. It just happens; you’re a different person talking to Micheletto than talking to Lucrezia.
BROWN: Micheletto is a very reticent character. Was Sean very terse off set?
ARNAUD: He keeps to himself a lot. He’s a very serious actor; he takes his work very seriously. I think we bonded maybe a bit more than he did with other actors because we had such a special, unique relationship on the show. I learned a lot from him about commitment to a role, to a character. I know that sometimes you have to reason with yourself and say, “This is just TV” or “This is just a movie,” but I think also as an actor it’s your job to find it so very important, and Sean taught me that. He doesn’t have to say it; it’s just the way he is and the way he works. It’s important; I feel like we’re doing something important. You keep that with you afterwards.
BROWN: We interviewed you a few years ago and everyone wanted to know about the possibly incestuous relationship between Cesare and Lucrezia. Did you know that Lucrezia and Cesare were going to cross that physical line when you started the show?
ARNAUD: No, we didn’t know. When we started Season One, Neil Jordan said specifically that he didn’t want to go there. But, it all changes. Maybe the way we played them, Holly and I, kind of helped shift the relationship in that direction. When we had to shoot more physical or sexual scenes this season, it felt like it really was a natural progression or evolution from what we were doing before. It was just taking it one step further; it wasn’t a change in the relationship. I feel like we’ve been playing that since our very first scene.
BROWN: Where do you live now that you aren’t in Hungary?
ARNAUD: I don’t live anywhere at the moment. I just go wherever work brings me. I share a house with friends in L.A. and I share a house with friends in Montreal when I’m there. I’m always on the road, which I like at the moment. I don’t have kids so now is a good time to do that. I don’t know if 10 years from now if I’ll still be happy doing that.
BROWN: Was there an early role that made you want to be an actor?
ARNAUD: I watched E.T. when I was a kid every day. Well, not all of it every day; I’d pause it and start over again. But I’ve watched E.T. about 400 times in my life. The first play that I saw was Cyrano and I remember going home—I was like nine years old—and trying to learn the monologues. My mom thought I was crazy, and I probably was. I didn’t act professionally before going to drama school. I don’t know if I had the confidence. I didn’t think I’d get in when I first auditioned for drama school and then I did.
BROWN: Do you remember what you auditioned with?
ARNAUD: I auditioned with a play that’s called The Bull. It wasn’t very good. It isn’t very famous. It’s by a Canadian writer, I think, from Ontario. It was really trashy, actually. I played a guy in a wheelchair that was in love with his best friend and it ended with me raping her—like jumping out of the wheelchair and grinding on her. It was intense. I can’t believe I did that, actually. [laughs] God. They must have seen something in me.
BROWN: Do you think there’s more pressure for actors to do everything—to write and direct as well?
ARNAUD: No, I don’t feel the pressure. I’d love to at some point. I’m not sure I’ll find acting satisfying creatively forever. If you get the good roles, it’s great—if you have the freedom to choose your projects and not just do anything and everything. But I’d love to artistically commit to a project from beginning to end, which I think you can only do as a writer or director. There are so many things you can’t control, especially as a film or TV actor. You’re not entirely responsible for your performance. On stage it’s a bit different because on the day of you can say, metaphorically, “Fuck off, director, I’m going to do what I want.” But on film, once you’re done shooting they can make you better or worse with the editing. They can cut the pauses; there’s so much they can do to change the soul of the performance, and that’s a bit frustrating at times. But that’s also something that I love as an actor: embracing another person’s vision and just serving that as much as you can. If you trust a director that’s an amazing feeling—to just let yourself go and forget about your ego.
BROWN: I wanted to ask you about Copperhead. Did you know that Augustus Prew was going to be in it, or was it just a coincidence?
ARNAUD: It was a coincidence. I met the director for another role, and that didn’t work out schedule wise, because I was starting The Borgias again. I wanted to be a part of it because I loved the script and I thought Ron Maxwell was an interesting person to work with. I loved his previous Civil War movies. Augustus sent me an email saying, “Are you doing Copperhead?” [laughs] We’re still really good friends now. He moved to L.A., and I’m here a lot as well. After two projects together… we didn’t really have scenes together on The Borgias, though. We hung out off set. I think I had one scene with him and it was a group scene. We were just a really good group of young actors on both Borgias and Copperhead.
I don’t have a massive role in Copperhead. It’s an ensemble piece; there are like 10 main characters. I wanted to do it for one scene specifically—basically my character has only one big scene. One big moment. He’s part of this group of men who’s sent off to war. He’s a bit of a douchebag. [laughs] He’s very arrogant and cocky. There’s that one scene when he’s come back from war and he’s injured so he’s sent home. He starts telling war stories to the villagers and still in a very cocky way, but then you see him break. I haven’t seen the movie so I don’t know if that scene is any good or not but you just see how deeply the war has affected him and changed him forever. [laughs]
BROWN: Now that you have this new free time, what do you want to do next?
ARNAUD: I’d love to do something contemporary and gritty and realistic—to take part in something almost improvised. The Borgias is very literary and it’s great to do that but I’d love to do something here and now and maybe. I just did another movie in Argentina—I just came back from Argentina—and it takes place in 1966 just before the coup.
BROWN: Is it an English-language movie?
ARNAUD: I speak English in the movie. I’d say it’s half English, half Spanish. It’s for Fox International. The three leads—Camilla Belle, Geraldine Chaplin, and I—speak English together. The other characters speak Spanish, which I think is great, instead of having them speak English with an Argentinean accent. I think people are able to read subtitles. Obviously, in The Borgias they wouldn’t have been speaking English; it’s different. It’s a Shakespearean drama, kind of—I like to see it that way. This is a more realistic piece, so I think it would have been wrong to have the Argentinean characters speaking English amongst themselves.
BROWN: Do you speak Spanish?
ARNAUD: I do. The movie takes place in 1966. My character is traveling the world with his girlfriend until he meets Camilla Belle in Argentina and falls head-over-heels for her. The second part of the movie takes place in 1982, and you see that my character has decided to stay in Argentina. But all my scenes were in English still, so I said, “I don’t want to be the douchey gringo who didn’t make an effort to learn even a little bit of Spanish,” so we changed a few of my lines to Spanish to make it believable.
I learned Spanish in high school, but then I traveled to Latin America, and I had a girlfriend from Chile, and I spent a lot of time there. I went to Argentina when I was 18 and I just fell in love with it. That was one of the reasons I wanted to do that movie, to spend more time there. But I hadn’t spoken Spanish in almost 10 years. I had forgotten almost all of it, but it came back pretty quickly. I think I can say I’m pretty comfortable with Spanish. I can have any conversation.
BROWN: Did they ask you to do an English accent for The Borgias?
ARNAUD: No, at first Neil didn’t want English accents on The Borgias for many reasons: maybe because he’s Irish and fundamentally hates all English people and also because in The Borgias, English is a code. [laughs] I think that’s why he started casting a lot of foreigners in Season Three. We had a lot of Swedish and Norwegian actors who tried to speak a neutral English. He didn’t want it to sound like The Tudors—like it took place in England. It had to have this Italian feel to it. For my character it was a bit different because the rest of the family were English actors. Jeremy, Joanne [Whalley], Holly, David Oakes, who played Juan. I just tried to get it as close to them as possible while still feeling comfortable. I think my accent got better by Season Three.
BROWN: Are you generally good at languages?
ARNAUD: I don’t know. I like languages. I like working on different accents. I speak English, French and Spanish. I’d love to learn more but I think, as you get older—not that I’m old, I’m 27—but I think your brain is a bit slower. [laughs] I’ve been trying to learn Italian a little bit but I’m terrible at it. And Hungarian. After three years in Hungary I picked up a few words but not enough.
BROWN: “Yes,” “please,” and “thank you”?
ARNAUD: No! [laughs] I can do more than that; like maybe 100 words. Not enough to have a conversation.
BROWN: Do you feel equally comfortable in French as in English?
ARNAUD: Yeah, I’d say so. Acting, definitely. Your voice sounds completely different in different languages. It alters your personality somehow. I don’t think people get the same feeling from you. The rhythm changes. Because the rhythm of the language is different, it changes your inner rhythm and that changes how you process everything.
When I hear myself speak French, I look at myself differently. Certain aspects will feel closer to the way I feel or the way I am and others won’t. I like that—to tour different sides of yourself. I often find when looking at people who are comfortable in many languages, they’re more comfortable talking about emotional stuff in a certain language or political stuff in another and that’s really interesting, how people relate to those languages.
BROWN: Is it easier to say “I love you” in French or in English?
ARNAUD: [laughs] I think it’s easier in English, definitely.
COPPERHEAD COMES OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE THIS FRIDAY, JUNE 28. SEASONS ONE AND TWO OF THE BORGIAS ARE AVAILABLE VIA AMAZON AND iTUNES.