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Lotte Verbeek: Seductress and Strategist on Showtime’s "The Borgias"

The minute Dutch actress Lotte Verbeek appeared on screen in the Showtime series The Borgias you knew her character Giulia Farnese meant business. With courage and conviction, Farnese soon seduced her way into the life and bed of Rodrigo Borgia, played by Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons, who was not just a man of great passions but also Pope Alexander VI, which makes the romance quite complicated. Set in 15th century Rome, The Borgias is a lavish period piece about the real life power-hungry family said to be the inspiration for The Godfather. The acclaim that has come with the success of the series is a pleasant shock for Verbeek, 30, who graduated from drama school only four years ago. While Farnese is someone who really existed, the actress is intent to infuse the character with her distinct interpretation of life and relationships. As season two finishes airing on Showtime, Verbeek, who recently moved to New York, is preparing to return to Budapest, Hungary to shoot season three.

 DivineCaroline: How did you get cast in The Borgias?
Lotte Verbeek: I got a phone call from a British agent who wasn’t my agent at the time, but he knew they were looking for Giulia Farnese. It was an ongoing quest for the right actress to the play the part. He had seen me in a film I did called Nothing Personal, which had done really, really well in Europe (earning Verbeek several international film awards). At first, I didn’t even know what he was talking about. I didn’t know the Borgia story. I didn’t know anything about the project. I didn’t even know Showtime. Then I read the script, I taped for it and before I knew it I was meeting (creator/director/producer) Neil Jordan and having lunch with him and I got offered the part.
 
DC: The Borgias has a very international cast. What is the energy like?
LV: We have a great energy. We all spend quite a lot of time in a beautiful city, in a country you wouldn’t normally live in for six months, so obviously we bond. We’re like a family. We’ve been doing this now for two years, so it’s become our lives pretty much. We’re picking up some Hungarian (Verbeek already speaks five languages: Dutch, English, French, German and Italian). We’re spending a lot of time going out to restaurants and parties in Budapest. Meanwhile, we make this series. It’s always exciting to read the new scripts because they keep writing them as we shoot. So a lot of times we’re surprised by how the story takes turns.
 
DC: Giulia Farnese is so intelligent and strong, but at that time historically the most she could aim for was being the wife or mistress of a wealthy and powerful man. How do you see her and what sense of that do you put into the character?
LV: Even today, isn’t that what a lot of women do? Just go for a successful guy. That makes it such a relevant character for me. I’ve been wondering the same, because she was part of a super wealthy, influential family in those days. Did she really need to do this or was she just really, really that attracted to the guy? What’s the story? I think it’s a bit of both. I think it’s actually interesting to see that striving for power is not only something that men do.
 
DC: It may have been more exciting for her to be with this dynamic man than to be in a politically arranged marriage.
LV: The way Giulia made her entrance into the series was by confessing that she had left her husband because he was unfaithful. Obviously, she didn’t walk the path of just accepting that. She chose something better. Now, as we can see, one wonders how faithful the Pope is to her. But she’s still in the Vatican, and she’s still the mistress. I think she chose to follow her heart rather than marry strategically. On the other hand, you could call it a strategy to be with the Pope. She picked the right guy if she wanted to go for power. It’s very ambiguous, and I think she is very ambiguous, which makes it very interesting for me to play the character.
 
DC: In a period piece based on real characters, how do you try to reflect a historical accuracy but still give the character your perspective on her?
LV: Historical accuracy as the facts is what we get from the scripts. So when I read the script, I’m educating myself historically. But I am the actress that’s going to play a part, so obviously I bring my own background, my own perspective to the part. I interpret it as I read it. That’s probably going to determine how I’m going to play the part. To be honest, historically correct is one thing, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily the most important thing to me. I think whatever part you play and maybe especially for a historical part, it’s really important to bring your own presence into the character.
 
DC: In season two, she’s become friends with the woman she, in effect, replaced in Rodrigo Borgia’s affections, Vanozza Cattaneo. How do you and Joanne Whalley try to portray that unlikely friendship?
LV: We had this beautiful scene at the ball where Giulia asks for advice from what you think would be the enemy. I think that’s so smart about these ladies. They’re not seeing this whole situation as a battle necessarily. Which doesn’t mean it’s without any animosity. There again, it’s a bit ambiguous. They’re smart about being strategic in their positions.
 
DC: What is it like playing opposite a world renowned actor like Jeremy Irons?
LV: You shoot a scene and he’ll always suggest new takes on the scene or new attempts to take it a bit further. I think that’s very inspiring. That’s pretty much the only way to get far, to always go that extra mile and that’s what he does. Obviously, it’s an honor to be surrounded by people who’ve had such long careers and are so good, including Joanne Whalley. It’s amazing to work with her. It’s also very inspiring to see how as a woman you can have such a long career. I really admire that.
 
DC: How does the show—either the characters or the costumes or simply the time spent away from home—impact on you personally?
LV: There’s a big impact. I wouldn’t go and live in Budapest for six months just to be there. It’s a job that takes me there. Obviously, I have my friends and family come visit. We’re a family with the crew and the cast. It’s like I’m living a couple of lives. Being Dutch, I’ve got my whole life in Holland—my friends, my family. Then I’ve got this parallel life in Budapest. Then I’m building up a new one, a third one here in New York. It’s a very rich life. 

photo credit: Mark Seliger/SHOWTIME

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