Showtime’s THE BORGIAS, created by Neil Jordan, concerns the famous (or infamous) Italian clan whose patriarch Rodrigo, played in the series by Jeremy Irons, became Pope Alexander VI in the late 1400s and remained on the papal throne until his death in 1503.
Rodrigo had mistresses and children (including homicidal Cesare and his adored sister Lucrezia), who he aimed to place in positions of power. The mother of these children was Vanozza Cattaneo, played in THE BORGIAS by Joanne Whalley.
Whalley, a native of Manchester, England who was the female lead in WILLOW and more recently appeared in the films TWIXT and GOLF IN THE KINGDOM (to name a few of many credits), talked about playing a mistress and mother in a precarious position in THE BORGIAS, which concludes its three-season run this Sunday, June 16.
AX: When you first got involved with THE BORGIAS, did you think the series would go for multiple seasons?
JOANNE WHALLEY: I did, actually, yes, because when I read it, I loved it, and I thought, “It’s got everything. It has history, it has high drama, it’s got wars, it’s got action, it’s got intrigue, it’s got sex, it’s got politics. It has everything.” And then at the core of it, like Jeremy was saying earlier, it’s got the family dynamic, which is infinitely interesting and infinitely appealing, and there’s a point of entry for anyone, no matter what their age. So yes, I thought it was so great, I presumed everyone else would like it, too [laughs].
AX: Had you worked with Neil Jordan before?
WHALLEY: No. And that was an absolute joy. In fact, one of the great joys of the whole thing is everyone we get to work with. The other directors who come in, too – I mean, we have wonderful directors. We’re so lucky. And then the departments – hair and makeup, costume, everybody. We have the best.
AX: Can you say what makes Neil Jordan distinctive as a director?
WHALLEY: I was a bit intimidated by Neil when I first met him, just because he’s quite a hard one to read – I was absolutely thrilled to work with him, but you know how it is when you meet someone new and you have to find out how you communicate together. But he’s amazing, because he just knows when we’re uncomfortable. And as actors, we’re always trying to make something work. He just knows when we’re uncomfortable, and there were a couple of times, he knew exactly what I was thinking and why I was uncomfortable and why I was having a bit of trouble with that line or whatever. So yeah, that was amazing. He’s wonderful.
AX: What are some of the story elements that have surprised you?
WHALLEY: Giulia Farnese [played by Lotte Verbeek]. The relationship between Vanozza and Giulia Farnese [another of Pope Alexander’s mistresses]. They’re two very intelligent women and of course, the way they function had to be realistic for the times they’re in. Their options were limited, but they’re intelligent women, they recognize that in each other and they’re smart enough to know how to work their way through things, through life. So it’s interesting – they have more in common than one might suppose.
AX: Vanozza wasn’t tremendously happy in the first season with the way things were going. What’s her mindset now?
WHALLEY: She’s figured out [the power structure]. And also, her priorities are the same as Alexander’s, really. It’s the family. She wants her children to go on and do well, like any mother is ambitious for her children. She wants to keep the peace, she wants it all to work and she wants it to work well. She likes power. She’s ambitious, not so much for herself, but for herself, too, and she’s very comfortably off, she wants to maintain that, and she’s very wise. It’s interesting how the kids’ relationships have developed with their mother. After Season One, when everything was just being established, we [now] get to play and we get to have details. So as the mother and seeing what’s happening between the children and the kids with their father, Vanozza’s quite fearful that there are tensions within the family that could destroy the family. So she has stuff to contend with.
AX: Obviously, you’ve played characters before who are in love and who have outcomes that they want in those relationships. Do you play it differently when your character’s love and ambition are for the whole family and not just romantic?
WHALLEY: Well, what’s fun about doing this and having the time to do this over a series is that there are so many things to explore. People that you’re very close to, as much as you love them, you don’t always like them. There are phases that my Borgia children go through that I’m not happy about, you know. So it’s quite a real family dynamic [laughs] and it’s a very normal family dynamic.
AX: Anything else you’d like to say about THE BORGIAS?
WHALLEY: I think the main thing for me, because I was curious, too, because we didn’t know – well, we had a kind of idea, but not exactly where it was going. It’s very exciting this season. It’s kind of epic. It’s huge. And it isn’t just the way it looks is extraordinary. They builtRome. It looks incredible. It’s full of surprises and it gets very interesting, now we’ve got everything established.
Related: Interview with THE BORGIAS executive producer James Flynn on Season 2
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