Alexander Vlahos laughs when asked about dressing up in women's clothes for
, the international hit series that finally comes to the U.S. in October.
"It was terrifying and then very empowering," Vlahos tells us, fondly recalling a scene in which his character, Philippe I, Duke of Orleans, shows up in drag to a party thrown by his brother, King Louis XIV of France.
The 10-part first season premieres at 10/9c Oct. 1 on Ovation. The Anglo-French co-production, which reportedly cost around $32 million and was partly filmed at Versailles itself, takes a sumptuous and sexy look at the private lives of Louis XIV and his court. The cast filmed the second season this summer.
Beginning in 1667 after the death of Louis' mother, Anne of Austria,
tells the story of the Sun King's desire to move his court from Paris to Versailles. Louis (George Blagden) hopes to turn his father's former hunting lodge into an opulent palace that will bolster the power of the king over increasingly disloyal nobles.
You can't tell Louis' story of intrigue and Machiavellian maneuvering without Philippe, a man of many contradictions who also kept Louis on his toes. He was openly gay, happily married (to his brother's mistress), a fierce warrior who wanted to lead France's armies--and sometimes wore women's clothing.
"He is so complex," says Vlahos, who may be best known in the U.S. for playing Mordred in
. "I think my challenge was to try to get a handle on how I approach this unbelievably extravagant, fantastical character that is Philippe."
One test came just a week or so into the 2014 production of the first season when the Welsh actor had to dress in drag as Philippe. Vlahos' trepidation about donning the dress had nothing to do with the character being gay.
"I was terrified more because of my own insecurities with my body and having to walk into a room of 150 extras in a corset," the 28-year-old says with a chuckle. "And I hadn't quite conquered Philippe yet, let alone this other iconic sort of showman that he wanted to be."
Show creators Simon Mirren and David Wolstencroft suggested to Vlahos that Philippe was a "17th Century David Bowie." And as showmen go, you don't get more iconic than David Bowie.
"David Bowie had an alter ego, Ziggy Stardust. So, I think this is Philippe being his alter ego," Vlahos says. "That dress is not him wanting to be a female, it's him wanting to be the most beautiful person in the room."
Not only is Philippe having his RuPaul moment, he's lashing out at Louis in the only way he publicly can criticize the king. Although the brothers have a deep love for each other, politics and royal responsibility cause a lot of stress. Their uneasy relationship is fueled early on when their mother forces Philippe to dress as a girl to show the court that Louis is king and Philippe would never be a threat to his authority.
Wearing the dresses as an adult, Vlahos says, "is all political maneuverings and grabbing the attention away from his brother."
Both actor and character ultimately felt empowered by doing drag. But Vlahos says it wasn't always easy to deal with portraying Philippe's constant disappointments.
Often during the six-month shoot he would come home grumpy because he rarely got to play Philippe scoring a win over his brother.
"That bizarrely takes its toll on you mentally--as an actor and person...I would get to the weekend, and I'd just be in a foul mood," he says, laughing. "That would sort of imprint itself into my psyche. That became a cycle while I was playing Philippe in the first season."
Vlahos found some respite in his scenes with another character named Philippe, the Chevalier de Lorraine (Evan Williams). While the royal brothers' intense relationship sparks a lot of the show's conflict, Philippe's love for the Chevalier burns up the screen.
Vlahos, who became engaged to model and actress Kajsa Mohammar just days before our August interview, is proud of how the show depicts the gay love story without trying to make a larger point about the
"I think it's the one representation of true love in the whole show. It just so happens to be between two men," Vlahos says, adding that Philippe isn't trying to anger his brother with the Chevalier. "They absolutely, 100 percent, unquestionably love each other."
The show's unapologetic approach isn't confined to its gay love story or that it tells a French story in English.
has been called "primetime porn" by the British press for its racy sex scenes. Vlahos dismisses the criticism.
"[The sex] is one of many flavors that our show has to offer," he says. "The show is so much more than that, but also, [the sex] is integral to Versailles, to the 17th Century."
Besides, without all that historical sex, Philippe would not be nicknamed the "grandfather of Europe" to this day. Married twice, he fathered numerous children and his descendants are sprinkled among many surviving royal families.
"What a gem of a part," Vlahos says of Philippe. "He had so many different facets of his psyche and it's incredible. I'm so privileged to get to play him."
Curt Wagner is a freelance writer based in Chicago and founder of the website
. He's been to Versailles and done drag, but not at the same time.