Alexander Vlahos: 'I wouldn't be cast in Versailles today'
The actor-turned-director opens up about stepping behind the camera, on-screen representation and giving back to the fans.
Alexander Vlahos is best known for starring in series including Merlin, Versailles, Sanditon and – most recently – Outlander, but over the past few years he has also been busy establishing himself as a director, helming a string of short films.
His back catalogue to date – including the films Lola (2020), Watchtower (2021), I Am One (2021), and Here We Are (2022) – will be screened at London's Prince Charles Cinema on 12th August as part of An Evening with Alexander Vlahos.
The event – which will also include a Q&A and a meet-and-greet – is being described by Vlahos as a "gift to the fans".
"I have been blessed in my career to have four very strong fandoms – Merlin, Sanditon, Versailles, and Outlander," he tells RadioTimes.com.
"In the last couple years, I have been... not stepping away from acting – I'll always be an actor – but directing is where my passion lies, and I am so honoured that the fans from each fandom have taken it upon themselves to be interested in my directing.
"I do a lot of conventions – some are really small and intimate and you get to spend a lot of time with fans, and some are juggernauts and it's kind of at arm's length. So this is my gift to the fans."
It was while filming the third and final season of the historical drama series Versailles that Vlahos first started to feel unsettled in his role as an actor and began searching for something more.
"You'd think by that point, having lived and breathed the character for 20 episodes, that by season three there would be a sense of ease with it. What I actually found was quite the opposite.
"The first season felt really liberating and by season three I was getting frustrated. I was finding the process of filmmaking, and my role in that as an actor, to be really detrimental. I was not enjoying the process at all, because I was finding that decisions were, obviously, being taken out of my hands.
"Being a director – being able to have control in the edit, being able to make casting decisions... I wouldn't say it was a specific epiphany moment, but it was a sort of progression of feeling uneasy about acting and and wanting to give [directing] a go."
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His experiences with directing have, for the most part, enabled him to collaborate more effectively as an actor.
"Some directors just want you to be an actor and I've struggled with that, because I love being able to converse with directors. I found especially on something like Outlander, it's such a juggernaut, you're a tiny cog in a huge wheel and... [it's like], 'Just keep it going.'
"But I've worked with amazing directors and I'm able to have conversations with them beyond just the actor/director conversation. It's not, 'I'm an actor, this is my mark, you work around me...' I'm able to facilitate shots for them, because I know what they're trying to do, and that saves time, and that means the crew get to go home on time."
The subject matter tackled in Vlahos's short films varies dramatically – from Lola's exploration of the vibrant drag scene to Here We Are's intimate depiction of a young couple's weekend away in an isolated country home – but the themes he says will be on show at the screenings are "human nature", LGBTQ+ representation and how mental health shapes our interactions and experiences.
"Mental health is a really big thing for me," he explains. "I was diagnosed with depression after Versailles, and about two months ago I got diagnosed with ADHD. As a 34-year-old male, that has a huge impact because you look back on all your your life trauma and you think, 'Was it because of this?'
"Those are the stories that I'm fascinated in telling – stuff that's really important and that also has a universal message."
He's keen to strive for authenticity when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation in his work, too. Versailles – which aired between 2015 and 2018 – saw Vlahos play Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, who made no secret of his sexuality.
It's a part that he doesn't believe he would be hired to play in 2023, pointing to 2021 Channel 4 miniseries It's a Sin – which saw Russell T Davies making "a very distinct point of casting gay actors to play gay characters" – as a tipping point.
"If Versailles were made now, I wouldn't be cast as Philippe, and I find that a really interesting topic – because of course I wouldn't. There'd be uproar if a straight, cis male was playing possibly the most fantastic gay man in France's history."
As a proud Welshman, how his homeland is perceived is something else Vlahos hopes to change through his directing work. "I think Wales has gone through dips and dives in terms of on-screen representation. There was a period of time where we were nicknamed 'Cool Cymru' and that went away for a bit...
"I'm not one for Gavin and Stacey. I struggle with it. As a Welsh language speaker, and as a director, and as an actor, I feel like Welsh representation matters – in the same way that Outlander is a f**king brilliant representation of Scotland... I feel like we're missing something like that."
An Evening with Alexander Vlahos will also, he says, mark "the end of an era" – having directed several shorts, he now has two feature films in development.
A few years ago, Vlahos says he could be "swayed by lack of confidence" but now he has enough belief in his vision to take the next step in his directing career. "I've got every tool available to me to tackle a feature and be able to do it with confidence. It feels like it's the end of an era, but it's also the right time."
An Evening with Alexander Vlahos will take place on Saturday, 12th August at the Prince Charles Cinema in London – tickets are available now.