François Arnaud is widely known for his role as Cesare Borgia — illegitimate son of the mobster-like Pope Alexander VI (played by Jeremy Irons), and a Cardinal, politician and lover of the ladies in his own right on Showtime’s sexy/bloody The Borgias. Arnaud, who’s role in Quebec’s indie hit, J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother), won him international accolades, makes a pit stop on his desert road trip to chat with The Smoking Jacket about horses, history, and making flicks.
The Smoking Jacket: Where are you hanging out today?
Francois Arnaud: I’m just outside of LA… I’m at a truck stop, actually.
TSJ: Are you really? I used to camp with my mom all over the US when I was a kid, and I miss truck stops a lot. Where did you grow up?
FA: I spent a lot of time in France. My dad always had a house there. We were in Brittany, in the North, when I was a kid. My dad is now in the South, next to Nice, which isn’t bad either, right?
TSJ: Yeah, that’s a pretty part of the world.
FA: But mostly Montreal.
TSJ: Cool. So is one of your parents French-from-France? Or does your dad just likes it there?
FA: He just likes it there. He has family there he visits. He was born in Canada, though.
THE BORGIAS SEASON THREE TRAILER
TSJ: I read that the first play you went to was Cyrano de Bergerac, and that you were only four years old. So were your parents taking you to a lot of plays when you were growing up?
FA: I was around eight, I think. And your French is very good. Where are you from?
TSJ: I’m from Montreal — and I’m half-French, half-English. Alors on pourrait faire ça en français mais il faudrait que je traduise le tout en anglais pour les lecteurs de Playboy…
FA: [laughs] So let’s do it in English. So Cyrano, I was bout eight, and my mom used to take me to the theater a lot.
TSJ: I grew up going to the theater a lot too — my sister’s a playwright. It’s good exposure if you’re going to grow up to have a career in the arts.
FA: It’s amazing, yeah. I used to go to the theater with my mom and to the movies with my dad.
TSJ: And you’ve done a little theater yourself, you’ve had some productions up in Montreal’s Prospero, and the TNM, among other places. Have you ever done any theater in English?
FA: I did a few things in English, yeah, but not in the States, always in Canada. I did Shakespeare in the Park when I got out of drama school. But I haven’t done theater for like three years now.
TSJ: For thirty years? You’re not one hundred.
FA: No, I said three years!
TSJ: Oh! I thought you said thirty.
FA: I’m in my twenties! [laughs] Yeah. I do miss it a bit. I was shooting a movie in Argentina recently and I’d go to the theater like three times a week. The actors there are amazing. Amazing.
TSJ: I’d love to go to Argentina.
FA: You should go.
TSJ: I’m going to try to make that happen.
You’ve said in the past that your voice sounds completely different when you’re acting in one language or another. I’ve always felt that I was the only person to notice that sort of thing — in myself, I mean — but maybe that’s because I know I’m a completely different person in French than in English.
FA: It does change you. It changes your rhythm, your way to move. It changes you. You know that, as a bilingual.
TSJ: Yeah… I have no sense of humor in French… So apparently your real last name is Barbeau?
FA: Arnaud is my middle name. It’s not made up. My parents wanted to call me Arnaud, but Arnaud Barbeau sounded bad.
TSJ: It sounds a bit like a character out of a kid’s book…
FA: Yeah, exactly. It’s like a comic book character for like really young kids. Had I known I would have an [American] career maybe I would have picked something a bit more anglophone-friendly, so I wouldn’t sound so French.
TSJ: Barbeau would have tricky for sure, though. Anglos would just look at all those vowels and freak out…
FA: Maybe, maybe.
J’AI TUE MA MERE TRAILER
TSJ: I really enjoy The Borgias. I haven’t seen the last few episodes, but I heard that things get a little incest-steamy with your character, Cesare, and his sister, the very lovely Lucrezia Borgia.
And that’s cool.
But one of my favorite things about The Borgias is, I think, the episode when Lucrezia has the baby, and then there’s a huge, beautiful family tableau, sort of a painterly photograph, or tableau vivant. It’s so theatrical. That kind of thing kept coming up throughout — there’d be these scenes, these pauses where you have a moment to soak the aesthetics up.
FA: All that was done on purpose.
TSJ: I’m sure.
FA: You know, Neil Jordan and the other director we worked with, John Maybury, love to do that. Sort of quote certain painters from that era. And [it's] there [visually], in the set design, in the photography. It was really a blessing to be working with those people.
TSJ: You were working with such notorious talents on The Borgias — Neil Jordan and Jeremy Irons are obviously fantastic. But I also really like Colm Feore a lot.
FA: We didn’t have that many scenes together, it was like one per season, but it was always a strong one and it was really good working with him.
TSJ: I really love him in Titus Andronicus.
FA: Oh, I haven’t seen that. Is that Julie Taymor?
TSJ: Yeah, it’s Julie Taymor. It’s one of my favorite Shakespeare movies, which people find pretty horrifying. I guess it’s like The Borgias – crazy violent but so beautifully wrought that you’re like, Okay, I’ll watch.
FA: I haven’t seen it but I should check it out. I loved him in 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.
TSJ: That’s a classic. I read someplace that your horse on the set of The Borgias taught you Spanish? It was a talking horse, eh?
FA: I could speak Spanish before meeting the horse…
TSJ: Something about a girlfriend…
FA: Something like that. The horse allowed me to practice my Spanish, which I hadn’t done in years. But now I’m better at it because I spent two and a half months filming in Argentina shooting another movie. And I was speaking English in the movie, but a lot of the crew and a lot of the actors spoke Spanish, so I just spoke Spanish for about two months.
TSJ: That’s a great way to get back into a language.
FA: Yeah, the only way to get back into it!
FA: You can take as many classes as you want, but if you don’t get any practice time you’re fucked.
TSJ: True fact. So you’ve made this other movie recently, called Copperhead, which is, I guess, named for a snake? Or a subgroup of people? Historic politicos?
FA: Yeah, in the Civil War they used to call certain people Copperheads. The name is taken from the snake but the movie’s not about the snake it’s about the people who were from the Northern states that didn’t believe in the war. Not because they were for slavery, but because they didn’t think of the Union as the most important thing, or as a reason to risk their sons’ lives. But the movie’s not saying they were right. I think a lot of people today think there were only two positions to have and there were many more nuances… That’s what the movie talks about.
TSJ: Do you feel like you’re learning a lot about history through the roles that you’ve had?
FA: Yeah. [laughs] I did a narration for a documentary about the First World War, they just told me this morning I couldn’t talk to the press about it… But I learned so much throughout the process. That’s the thing — doing The Borgias, doing Copperhead, doing any historical piece, you learn as much about history as you do about acting… as you do about other characters, and your place in history, as well.
The Borgias, the third and final season is now available on Blu-ray and DVD Showtime Networks, CBS Home Entertainment and Paramount Home Media Distribution.