If you’ve found yourself tuning into Ovation’s delectable French historical drama Versailles, you may have spotted a few familiar faces among its talented ensemble cast. It’s highly likely one of those is that of Canadian actor and musician Evan Williams, perhaps most known for his role as Emma’s roommate-turned-boyfriend Kelly Ashoona on Degrassi: The Next Generation, and Jenna’s college boyfriend, Luke on seasons four and five of MTV’s Awkward.
Being a daily witness to the events of the royal court is, as Versailles proves, less about the extravagances of noble life and more about survival of the cunning, and there is no truer statement for the handsome, manipulative, devil-may-care Chevalier, of whom Evan portrays. The Chevalier de Lorraine is a man historically known as the lover of the Duke of Orleans, ‘Monsieur’ Philippe (played by Merlin‘s Alexander Vlahos), who was brother to the famous King of France, Louis XIV (Vikings’ George Blagden). Last week, Chevalier’s ambiguous entanglements in the French noble class and his proximity to the Royal family put him between a rock and a hard place, and with the season finale only a couple of weeks away, his loyalty being called into question is leaving fans wondering where he’ll end up.
I had the wonderful opportunity to fire some burning questions Evan’s way, and he explained how deeply the Chevalier ticks, teased a little of what’s next for him, and talked about the gift of the job.
Read his fabulous answers below!
Period drama, extravagant costumes, putting yourself in a completely different time in history, I imagine, is quite the drawing card for an actor. What made you take on this role?
I’ve always been fascinated by period epics, ever since I was a kid. Getting to try on a whole new aesthetic, drawing on knowledge that exists subconsciously, at a cellular level even, from our ancestors. It’s a privilege to be filling in the blanks, bringing a heartbeat rushing back into the frames we can only find on paper or in museums, building a human bridge from then to now, I think there’s something magic about it. We have these beautiful sets and costumes, and then when we come together to tell these stories, to pool our imaginations, the result created is bigger, more sweeping then the sum of its parts. It’s like we are working to create this portal into another time, and I know the viewers are contributing their imaginations when they’re watching. Additionally, productions attempting to recreate any time period require such a big team to bring it to life, it’s a whole village that springs up around the idea, and we all get swept up in the current. What’s not to love?
Do you have a favorite wardrobe piece? Or even a set piece? Everything looks so intricate and beautiful. Anything you would steal to take home?
All of the costumes are handmade, and likely so expensive that I would face jail time for grand theft were I to be caught with them. Not to mention they are so heavy that my getaway plane would never clear the runway, so nix that idea! I think, besides the wig, which is my primary gateway into the character, my favourite wardrobe element are my many rings. I never wear rings in real life, so it marks a clear departure between myself and the character, gives me permission to go down the rabbit-hole as it were. Sort of like putting on long nails, you can feel them when you move and they always remind one they’re there. They make my hands move differently, more apt to flourish (laughs), and I’ve developed quite a relationship with them. I’ve even got a bit of a ritual when I put them on, always in the same order, each representing secret attributes that only I know. Acting is so much fun. I still can’t believe I get to do it for a living.
There was a lot of criticism about the shocking nature of the show in the UK. And there are US critics who are so exposed to Game of Thrones style debauchery that they have previously called it bland. I’m personally exposed to a lot of BBC original programming and was only scandalized to learn that it’s a fairly realistic depiction of life in the 1600s! If you had to sell this show to an audience, what would you say?
I would say “Look folks, this is a truly fascinating story. The history books have been abridged and we’re here to give you a look through the keyhole of the real Versailles, all that glitters in the light and all that festers in the shadows. It would be completely unbelievable if it wasn’t rooted in truth. You’re not gonna believe what these cats got up to. We give you the firsthand, up close and personal, gut-punch version of this period of history, a visceral and lyrical odyssey which explores themes still rampant in today’s world, seen through the lens of an opulence and excess that the world has never seen since and may never see again. It’s a royal rumble cage fight, a kaleidoscopic chess match at the dizzying heights of power with the weight of the world in tow. At Versailles, salvation or damnation waits behind every guilded door.” How’s that? I’ll stick to my day job (laughs).
I understand you did a lot of research on what you could find of the history of Chevalier, and he’s historically touted as this fox in a lamb’s den. The way you play him seems so morally ambiguous so we don’t know where his loyalties lie, or if he’s even capable of being so. And my ‘MonChevy’ heart wants him to be loyal to Phillipe but we just don’t know how deep that is. Is he loyal? To anything?
The thing we’ve gotta remember about the Chevalier is that his role as a climber is one born out of necessity. He is extremely vulnerable in his position as the ‘known secret’ lover of Phillipe, and were the relationship to sour, he could easily disappear, never remembered and never missed. This fact is ever present, day after day, morning to night. It must have been exhausting. He’s always struggling to make himself necessary, which is to say, to balance out the relationship in such a way that he’s not always tapdancing to stay at the party. That in itself could be seen as an act of love, to seek parity with ones partner, or it could be the ultimate selfish act, in which he’s simply using Phillipe as currency. By selling himself as a cad, the Chevalier brilliantly silences his detractors. Nothing they can say can hold any weight if he’s beat them to the punch and said it first. It’s sort of a superior low brow chinadoll puppy thing, you can look but you can’t touch. It’s an act that, I think, he can even trick himself into believing at times, because it’s such a fun card to play, but the self-preservation goes on so thick that it must take its toll after a while. At the bottom, I think there’s real fear about whether Phillipe would still want him if he were just ordinary, so he stays emotionally just out of reach, which he knows drives his lover crazy enough to keep him chasing, but is a bad habit which he knows is unsustainable. Poor guy always has to pretend to be a step ahead, when in reality he knows he’s a step behind and wonders if everyone can see it. In truth, he’s trapped. He has to act the way he does, whether he loves Phillipe or not, it’s life or death and he’s gotta thrive to survive. To reveal the weakness is just far too great a risk, so he’s always bobbing and weaving to stay in grey areas. I think this ambiguity is a nightmare for the character and a delicious gift for the actor. Yum.
Did you want to portray him as historically accurate as you could? Were there any particular personality aspects you gave him to shape who he is?
I think it’s a synthesis of the research I did on the real guy, the guy on the page when I reviewed the script, and the guy I saw in the mirror when I put the wig on, that resulted in the Chevalier on screen. I wanted to tell his story, but I also wanted to tell all the stories that were bubbling up from my subconscious as well. Acting is cool because you can meld those things seamlessly and organically. One of the things I keyed in on early was vanity. We see it today in this selfie culture, taking what our elders may have called a vice and calling it a virtue. I sort of intuited that the Chevalier was a poster boy for this upending of morality, he would have been perfectly happy to be caught fixing his makeup in the mirror, in order to prove that he wasn’t embarrassed by their embarrassment. If he had a tattoo it’d say “Eat your heart out”. Anything to make the old folks choke on their wine.
Chevalier’s story is tied closely to Phillipe’s, which is a given considering how long they’re known each other. But outside of that relationship, what is he about?
If he was officially wed to Phillipe and didn’t have to worry about constantly staying a step ahead of the spectre of disaster, what would he spend his time doing? What a charming question! I think he is a true aesthete, would have likely been close with Oscar Wilde if they shared the same period, and would be a strong patron for the arts across the board. Fashion, theatre, dance, he’d have a hand in all. He’s no slouch when it comes to back room politics either, and given the platform, would definitely have strong opinions about the direction of the nation. That’s all conjecture, though, because gaming the whole court of Versailles without losing one’s head is a full-time job.
He does a lot of manipulating around the court, keeping up to date with gossip. He does a lot of whispering in Phillipe’s ear, too, and it feels like he has personal intentions for the throne. Is that in fact what it is? Is he hoping to nudge Phillipe into a place of power for his own betterment or does he genuinely believe Phillipe is the better option for King and is simply wanting the best for him?
Phillipe would be far and away a better fit for the throne than Louis. Anyone with eyes can see that. If the Chevalier stands to gain any minor benefit from that power changing hands, then it is merely ancillary and perhaps the rightful reward for someone who is prescient enough to see the truth of the matter, and brave enough to stand for the obvious truth. That’s the party line and he’s sticking to it (laughs).
Portraying a same-sex relationship on screen can be a little daunting, but you and Alex decided early on that you were going to commit and do it justice. I find a lot of other actors in similar situations lack that kind of maturity, like it says something about them personally. So, yay for professionalism! How does that affect the way you work?
The way I see it, professionalism is just completely necessary as a base for any sort of meaningful exploration to grow from. I just approach that as standard procedure, and so do most of the artists that I respect. Both Alex and I needed to feel safe and supported to swing for the fences and take some risks with the relationship. In order to make it personal, it takes a certain amount of sacrifice, we’ve gotta let the guard down. I feel very grateful that Alex is my partner because I know that I can let out my true fears and insecurities, expose my most vulnerable bits, and he will never judge me or hang me out to dry. And vice versa. When that safety is established between the actors, it gives permission for the characters to go straight for the jugular. We’re both there to serve the story, and to take care of each other. That’s a partnership, and that’s when it’s fun. The gift for us is how quickly we dropped into this pact with each other. There’s no blueprint for that. It’s just chemistry, or alchemy, or destiny, what have you. Bottom line is it’s a blast.
One of your first scenes together put the two of you in a rather compromising position. Was that the first one you ever filmed?
That was the first male-on-male sex act I’d ever been filmed engaging in on international television, yes. However, I was so in love with that being the introduction to the character and thought it so fitting, that I never really got into my head about it or made it a big deal. I think the artist naturally verges on the activist on many fronts, and I relished the chance to be telling this story so subversive both to the period and to the accepted tropes of storytelling surrounding it. I was licking my chops. The role is like a big fat piece of chocolate cake, and I wanted it all in one bite. I knew it wouldn’t be popular with everyone, and perhaps unpalatable to others, and that made me want to do it even more. I guess I share that trait with the Chevalier, I like to stir the pot. Sue me (laughs).
I initially tuned in for the ‘MonChevy’, not gonna lie (laughs). But by the end of the pilot episode, I was fully enthralled in the politics of it. The whole court is like a massive chessboard and everyone has multiple opponents. Lots of power plays starting up, it’s yummy. How intense is that going to get?
It certainly is yummy, and as things marinate the tastes get even more complex. What I love is that the entire structure of the court can change on a dime based on how the King is feeling that day. On Tuesday you can be a squire, on Friday you can be a Duke, and by Sunday you can have lost your head. There is so much movement in all directions, so much to gain and so much to lose, everyone is on their toes and no one is what they seem. Add to this the artifice of polite society and you have a real cloak and dagger dance, all smiles and handshakes while you’re robbing them blind and they’re poisoning your champagne. I think the show does a great job of capturing the tension between the joie de vivre on top and the sharks swimming just below the surface.
Now, I’ve seen the whole season so I know what’s going to happen – what can you tease about Chevalier’s storyline coming up to those who haven’t?
At the top of the season, we see a guy who is too big for his britches, by about ten sizes. It’s clear that it’s all a front, but love him or hate him, he sure plays the cards well. It’s a smoke and mirror game. As the season wears on, we get a glimpse behind the curtain to see just how shaky the house of cards is underneath. It begs the automatic question “what happens when it all falls down?”. Well, stay tuned.
You have also filmed a second season. Was the experience the same second time around or has there been a shift?
There was a shift, and a delightful one, almost like we hit another gear. The show gets richer, the stakes get higher, the emotions run deeper, and all the characters are forced to extend themselves beyond anything they’ve done before. It’s almost like the atmosphere gets thicker. The show takes on a darker tone at times, as we plumb the depths of this great divide between the sparkling exterior and the rottenness below. The actors were all thrilled to be returning and I noticed a real focus and hunger in my castmates to push this thing to the limits. It’s a real joy to be part of an ensemble so dedicated to the common vision. It’s like we’re a pack of dogs and we’ve caught the scent, and we know there’s a loyal and invested audience that has caught the scent too. The historical events that we are drawing from in Season Two are so completely insane, that once again, folks will be flocking to the history books to confirm if they actually happened. And yes, I’ll say it now, they did happen. Excited yet?
Any word yet on a third season?
Lovely weather today. Just gorgeous blue sky, not a cloud in sight. Birds are singing. Sorry, what was your question? (laughs)
The Versailles fandom seems to have a lot of love to give, and you actively engage with them. Have you experienced this kind of thing in a role before?
I’ve been a part of shows that have strong fandoms before, but it’s been fascinating to watch the community that has grown up around this series in particular. After only one season, we’ve gone from having fans to having a family. They coined the term themselves, The Versailles Family. The show is on in 135 countries so it’s so cool to see people engaging from all over the globe. And they are tight. We’ve also got some serious historiophiles. In addition to the entertainment – which, we hope, we’re providing in good measure – I think the show appeals to the humanist, anthropological side of people. What was life like in history? How has it changed, or not changed? And why? These are the structural lines that allow historical fiction to captivate an audience. It’s the direct connection to now. So while we are characters on a screen, we represent real people who did real things, and are in that way linked to the real viewer. We’re all living in their inheritance right now. I’m also personally thrilled that the Versailles family has chosen to transmute that care for the way the world was, into caring for how the world is now. I’ve been so moved by their support of the non-profit work I’m involved in with an education initiative called BuildOn. They’ve not only supported me, but gone a step further, organized their own fundraising efforts in harmony with mine. That is awesome. Just, completely awesome.
You were in South India recently. What were you up to there?
I’ve just finished participating in a beautiful and life changing volunteer project in Nepal with BuildOn. We were helping to build a school in a village called Jalghushra, and were working side by side with members of the village to see the dream realized. We were lucky enough to billet with host families in the village and became fully immersed. There’s nothing quite like working, sweating for a cause you believe in, and I think I sweat more than I ever have in my life. BuildOn is a wonderful, transparent organization that I would wholeheartedly recommended to anyone who is interested in improving education, whether across the world or in their own backyard. Getting to know the kids in the village and being able to facilitate real change in their futures has been incredibly powerful. I have such gratitude to the fans of Versailles for getting behind us, putting their hearts and minds toward spreading the word and helping us love out. It’s so beautiful when people care. I’m in awe of the power humans have when we join together and let love lead.
Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us a little bit about?
I’m starring in an indie thriller called ‘Escape Room’ from director Will Wernick, which is a good bit of jumpy fun. It’s in post-production now but we’re all very happy with it, so keep eyes peeled for that. Also a short film I’m in called ‘Visitors Parking’ has just been released online via Vimeo (you can check it out here). Beyond that, I’m very excited for folks to see what we’ve cooked up for Season Two of Versailles.
What books, movies, television shows, etc. bring out the nerd in you?
Oh geez. That is an ever-expanding and nebulous list. The nerd in me is alive and well. I love Peaky Blinders, Black Mirror, Game of Thrones, Mr.Robot, Ray Donovan, Bloodline, Stranger Things, The Young Pope, there’s just so much good TV right now, the list goes on and on. If I were to recommend a book at this moment, in keeping with my current India vibe, it’d be ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts, it’s a vivid description of life in Bombay, and it’s a fantastic adventure. It’s a bajillion pages long, but captivating from start to finish. I was hoping it would never end. The last movie I watched was ‘Before The Flood’, the new environmental ‘we-gotta-do-something-about-climate-change’ documentary by Leo DeCaprio, and I feel like every human should see it. It’s not doom and gloom, just a severely necessary reality check with some very concrete solutions to bring sustainability to our lifestyle and some healing to our planet Check it out, it’s free online through National Geographic.
Oh, and, y’know, watch Versailles!
Versailles airs tonight at 10pm EST on Ovation.