“The only time I would ever get to play something similar to this is if I played the Doctor,” Versailles star Alexander Vlahos says of his latest role.
“The Doctor can be a kind man, a grumpy man; he can be sweet and generous and intelligent; the cleverest man in the room or the silliest man in the room at any given moment. And [Versailles’] Prince Philippe is complicated. He’s not one thing or another. There are scenes where I’m lying in bed with my boyfriend then I go to the next room and kiss my wife on the forehead, then I walk into the King’s bedroom and start shouting.
“You can arrive and be someone different, show different facets of the same character. You can’t really nail Philippe down. I’ve been very fortunate to be given someone as complex as this so early on in my career.”
You could call this role an audition to become the next TARDIS-dwelling Time Lord – and, as a life-long Whovian, Vlahos wouldn’t mind. “My earliest memory is watching Doctor Who on VHS. I would die a happy man if I got to be on that show, even if I was inside a Dalek and you never saw my face,” he says. “I’m a fan first, actor second, but I would love to be the Doctor one day.”
“After Merlin I was suddenly on people’s minds about the part. 12:1 odds. That will be on my tombstone!” he jokes, but adds: “Any actor would love to take on such a humongous challenge. It’s a gift.”
For the time being, though, the 27-year-old is happy as the star of new sexy and stylish period drama Versailles. He plays the younger brother of the Sun King, who Vlahos describes as “a dandy and a warrior.”
“He’s very effeminate. He’s also led many French armies into battle and is always victorious. And he’s a cross-dresser, not because he wants to be a woman, but because he thinks it makes him even more attractive.”
“I get to wear all the best clothes,” he laughs. But Vlahos admits he did approach Philippe’s “fantastic” wardrobe with trepidation. “Probably my first moment of panic while filming was the scene where I had to wear a dress for the first time, just because of my own insecurities with myself and my own body. It was nothing to do with the character, just me going, ‘Oh god, I have to walk into a room filled with 100 people and I’m wearing a corset.’ It was bizarre.”
But the extravagant dress sense is an important part of Philippe’s character. “He wanted to be an icon. He wanted the attention,” says Vlahos, adding: “And it’s there in history. From three-months-old his mother put him in women’s clothes to show the court, ‘Louis is your king. This younger brother is not going to be any threat to the crown.’ And by doing that, she implemented this sort of flamboyancy in his nature.”
As well as having a penchant for petticoats, Philippe is gay in a time when it wasn’t socially acceptable. But “he gets license to do what he wants because he is the second wealthiest man in France,” says Vlahos.
“It’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” says Vlahos. “We deal with the relationship between Philippe and his lover Chevalier de Lorraine in the most beautiful, truthful way. It’s based on proper true love. We’re not trying to make a point, it’s not a LGBT movement. The word ‘gay’ is never used. The word ‘homosexual’ is never used. That, for me, gives you a lot of confidence because it’s not like you have to apologise for who he is.”
This unapologetic approach to the steamy goings on in the French royal court has been attributed to the fact that Versailles has already been dubbed “sensationalist” and “sexually graphic.” But Vlahos isn’t phased by any of the criticism.
“There is violence and raunchy sex scenes and nudity,” he says, but they are just “fractions of moments” and, importantly, they are post-watershed.
“There have been so many shows in the last four or five years that have pushed the boundaries of what is counted as controversial. Never once did we set out to create something shocking,” says Vlahos. “But if a Tory MP comes out and says, ‘Don’t watch this show,’ it’s kind of free marketing, in my opinion. If the Daily Mail says don’t watch it, then people with any sort of right mind will tune in. So I’m very grateful for the crazy headlines, actually.”
That said, he’s hoping that “if people are tuning in for the wrong reasons, they stay for the right reasons… [the] mesmerising storytelling and great acting.”
And if they’re not impressed. “There’s this amazing thing on the remote called the off button,” he jokes.
But, however many heated headlines Versailles elicits, the showrunners probably aren’t too worried about bad reviews. The cast are currently filming season two and the show already has a ardent following in France.
“It’s already got a fandom,” says Vlahos, adding: “The cast is so young. That’s what different about this period drama. It’s not Downton Abbey. The average age of our cast is 25. It’s a bunch of cool young kids in power having amazing house parties!”
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news