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'The Borgias' on Showtime examines a corrupt pope

Jeremy Irons stars as Pope Alexander VI, who had an underhanded rise to the papacy.

March 31, 2011|By Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times
  • Actor Jeremy Irons teams with director Neil Jordan for "The Borgias," in which Irons portrays Pope Alexander VI.
Actor Jeremy Irons teams with director Neil Jordan for "The Borgias,"… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Jeremy Irons' impressive gallery of distinctive historical characters includes his Oscar-winning portrait of chilly socialite Claus Van Bulow in "Reversal of Fortune" and Georgia O'Keeffe's husband, Alfred Stieglitz, in the TV movie "O'Keeffe."

Although Irons has demonstrated ease in slipping into these real-life personas, he had surprising reservations about taking on the ambitious, diabolical Rodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI, in Showtime's historical drama "The Borgias," which premieres Sunday. He was troubled by the lack of physical resemblance: Borgia was bulky and somewhat ungainly, contrasting sharply with Irons' tall, ramrod stature.

"I was a little bit concerned — my nose looked nothing like his, and I had a problem with that," Irons recalled with a sly smile. And whereas many of Irons' portrayals in films such as "The Mission" and "Being Julia" are characterized by a subtle, steely demeanor that hides often dark and frightening emotion, Borgia's personality was overt, even outsized.

Irons was eventually able to get over his concerns and immerse himself in Borgia's essence: "There's the fascinating complexity of the character, and when you have that, the physicality is only one element."

Showtime is counting on Irons' distinctive star power, the creative vision of Academy Award-winning writer Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game," "Interview With the Vampire") and a crew of top historical production designers and costumers to lure viewers to the elaborately detailed drama, set during the Italian Renaissance in 1492. Jordan, who is also director and executive producer, wrote all nine episodes and directed the first two installments, which chronicle Borgia's underhanded rise to the papal throne and how his family, particularly his daughter, Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), and sons Cesare (Francois Arnaud) and Juan (David Oakes) manipulate power and descend into corruption during their dynasty.

"The Borgias" arrives on the wave of programming showcasing costumed dramas of olden times. Starz, home of "Spartacus, Blood and Sand" and "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena," just launched a new version of the King Arthur tale, "Camelot." And HBO is about to unveil "Game of Thrones," an epic medieval fantasy.

David Nevins, head of Showtime, said he was not concerned about competition from the other historical series.

"True, there's definitely more period dramas on now than there was when 'The Tudors' was around," said Nevins. "But this is fairly unique in its class. 'The Borgias' has world-class actors and a world-class director. There is a sophistication and a texture and a nuance that I don't think the others are built for."

Sitting next to Irons during a stop in Pasadena early this year to promote "The Borgias," Jordan described the series as a powerful depiction of how religion and power can corrupt: "It's about how they intersect. It's also about how it's played out in the Vatican ever since the church was founded."

As they talked, Irons and Jordan shared an easy chemistry. Friends for years, they were clearly delighted to work together for the first time. Jordan said he was impressed by how Irons was able to embody the conflicting nature of Borgia, who alternated between benevolent and ruthless, untrustworthy behavior. Irons, who read several books and accounts of Borgia "to try and get at his motivations and measure," praised Jordan's research and involved depiction of the era,

"It's about a man who became pope at a time when the Catholic Church was in a pretty poor state," Irons said. "Now we think of the pope as a god. Then he was much more secular and behaved in a way that was shocking. That contradiction is fascinating to play."

The project was developed for more than a decade as a feature film, but Jordan ultimately realized that "it would be a crime to try and cram this into a two-hour movie."

The marketing of the series echoes HBO's gangster drama "The Sopranos": the tagline is "the original crime family." More significantly for Showtime, "The Borgias" is the heir apparent to "The Tudors," the landmark series revolving around the reign of King Henry VIII that ended last year after four seasons.

But this production is on a grander scale — it was filmed in Korda Studios, just outside Budapest, and utilized three gigantic soundstages and a 200-acre back lot. Like that previous series, the provocative stories are laced with sex and violence.

Considering the continuing scandals regarding allegations of abuse in the Catholic Church, "The Borgias" might also be a lightning rod for more controversy. But Jordan is not concerned.

"This is all very documented," he said of the Borgias' saga. "It's very hard to argue with things that really happened."

greg.braxton@latimes.com

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