Showtime’s “The Borgias” roars back with a real vengeance on Sunday, and returning as Cesare Borgias, actor Francois Arnaud is stepping into focus.
Last season, the Montreal-bred actor played sidekick to Jeremy Irons’ Pope Alexander. This season, though, the rising star takes Cesare – the Pope’s loyal son, willing to plot and poison for his father — into dark vigilante territory, with a swashbuckling flare. Being bad is definitely good in this case and makes the Season 2 return on Sunday at 10 PM a much watch.
He’s appeared across television and film in his native Canada, but stateside, “The Borgias” has become Francois’ breakout role, as he brings a complexity and dare we say it – a sort of sympathy – to the conflicted bad boy who inspired Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”
Arriving at Access Hollywood on a warm winter California day, Francois looks more handsome college tutor than Medieval menace, with his shorter locks swept off his face and dressed in a neatly collared shirt and light brown blazer.
Fittingly, he became a student last season to play Cesare, pouring through all the historical accounts he could find to help piece together his portrayal of the famed Borgias family member. And in Season 2, Francois told Access fans will really get to see Cesare in action — sword fighting, horse racing, and dropping those clerical robes as he tangles with a new love interest.
But first, to what his mother (the very first person he called when he got the role) thought of seeing her son in action in the Showtime drama…
AccessHollywood.com: As Cesare Borgias, you did some not so nice things in Season 1. What did your mom think of her sweet little boy when she watched the show?
Francois Arnaud: Mom knows that her sweet little boy isn’t so sweet. I’m sure she’s scared about Season 2. Season 1 was enough.
Access: Have you met anyone from the clergy who has seen ‘The Borgias’?
Francois: No, they avoid me now, as I have avoided them for the past 10 years (laughs). We do have an advisor on set who is really thorough… [With] Latin, for instance, we have someone on set who tells us we are saying it all wrong (laughs). He’s very, very thorough. We are trying to be as faithful as possible.
Access: Beyond looking up Cesare Borgias in books, where did you pull from to play him? He’s very complex.
Francois: For me, I worked at it like he was seven different characters. I thought, ‘He’s very complex and he’s got multiple personality disorder.’ I tried to make him not one dimensional. I did do a lot of research and a lot of it is in the script. And I feel like I don’t have to think about it anymore when I portray the character.
Access: In playing him, and making him multi-dimensional, how do you get around thinking of him as a bad guy?
Francois: I try to focus on the good sides because he commits horrible crimes. But, I think he’s also very loyal and loving and brave and ambitious and I think he gets a bit lost at times. But he’s always fighting for what he thinks is best.
Access: You get some more swashbuckling action this season. [What’s coming up]?
Francois: [In an upcoming episode], I have a big sword fight with my brother, amazingly played by David Oakes. And we have a horse race as well… That was particularly tricky… I wasn’t an experienced horse rider, not that I am now, but I am getting better at it. But this race was crazy… And it was bareback… We had no saddles and the second day of shooting the scene, I just got back on the horse, did a few steps, and said, ‘This is not going to be possible. I’m hurting too much.’ The stunt guy came to me and said, ‘You did such a great job yesterday… You need to keep going.’ I was like, ‘OK, give me five minutes.’ I popped like four Advils, rubbed cold cream on my thighs, and padded my very tight leather pants with whatever they gave me. And I got back on the horse and we did it. I’m really proud of that.
Access: Cesare is getting a new love interest this season, it appears from the previews…
Francois: There is a woman — who is not his sister. His sister is still there, and there is a lot of love there. I think you are talking about the new relationship with Caterina Sforza, who is played by Gina McKee, [a] brilliant actress and lovely to work with. But that relationship is not a particularly loving one. It’s more of a power struggle. She’s a very powerful woman, very ambitious, strong personality. It’s more about domination than love.
Access: Speaking of love scenes, do you have a routine you go through in advance (some of the ‘True Blood’ stars avoid carbs and beer) when you know you have to take your shirt off on camera?
Francois: Not really. I wasn’t told that. I wasn’t aware of that until recently. I like to be as natural as possible (laughs). Not necessarily perfect. And I think it’s a little bit weird actually when you see a movie nowadays and the nerd takes off his shirt and he has an eight-pack of abs. You’re like, ‘Really? He spends his life in front of computers!’ (laughs). I think Cesare is quite an active guy, so I think he has to be in shape and look young and in top form. But, you know, people didn’t work out at the gym six hours a week back then to have six-pack abs, so I’m just trying to be truthful to the character.
Access: Has playing Cesare made you want to play other characters from history or literature in the future?
Francois: What’s great about playing Cesare Borgia, is I can do basically what I want. No one can tell me off and say, ‘He wasn’t like that.’ You weren’t around. So I think it’d be a great challenge to portray, not to imitate someone, but to portray a modern figure.
Access: Speaking of acting, what sparked your interest in performing?
Francois: My mom brought me to see plays very early on and my dad brought me to movies. And although my parents aren’t in the industry or not artists, they are very much interested. They read a lot. There was always music playing in my house.
Access: Was there a moment, or a comment someone made, where you realized, ‘I’m good at this,’ ‘This is what I want to do’?
Francois: I felt so uncomfortable in everything else. The opportunity to play somebody else just saved my life, I think. So, I have to honor that, I feel.
Catch Francois Arnaud in the Season 2 premiere of “The Borgias,” Sunday at 10 PM on Showtime.