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Francois Arnaud grows along with his 'Borgias' character

In "The Borgias," Francois Arnaud says, his character is finally "the Cesare Borgia he was meant to be, he always wanted to be."

He's also the Cesare Borgia that Arnaud always expected to play--"a warrior, a politician, a go-getter, really. He's now free from the cloth and from his father, pretty much. So it was a great year for Cesare."

Showtime's historical drama follows the family of Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons), a Spaniard who in the 15th century bribed, poisoned and otherwise forced his way to becoming Pope Alexander VI. Created by Neil Jordan, "The Borgias" is a thrilling potboiler filled with intrigue, murder, sex and--in the case of Rodrigo's driven son, Cesare, and daughter, Lucrezia--incest. Season 3 episodes air at 9 p.m. Sundays. (Spoilers ahead!)

So far this season, Cesare has acted swiftly to capture or kill the enemies who poisoned his father and tried to assassinate his entire family. He's going after the family's enemies, including Catherina Sforza (Gina McKee) and members of old Roman families who want to see their relatives on the throne of St. Peter.

He's making decisions free of his father's tutelage, and he's even opposing his father's wishes. Cesare has come of age and is his own man, a natural evolution for the character, 27-year-old Montreal native Arnaud said from his temporary home in Los Angeles.

"It felt like it's where he was headed since the beginning, but you never really know where you're going to go," Arnaud said. "I remember shooting a few scenes early on in Season 3 and ... it was like, 'Oh, my God. It feels like I'm playing a totally different character.' And for a while, I wondered if it was a good thing or not, but I think it is. I think people do change and can evolve into something completely different from what they were."

Arnaud believes he, too, has changed over the course of three seasons. "The Borgias" was Arnaud's first big international job after working mostly in Canadian theater and a handful of TV shows. The experience of filming in Budapest with Jordan and actors like Irons has made him more confident and assertive in his acting choices, he said.

"I guess I have evolved with the character," Arnaud said. "I feel a little bit more like a grown-up now. And I felt very much like a boy when I started playing Cesare. I think Cesare had good intentions in the beginning and was a little naive, and so was I."

"And now I'm cynical," he said, laughing. "[From] hanging out with those damn Borgias. But, no, it has been a great journey."

Arnaud talked more about the new Cesare, what's in store for the character this season, and what else Arnaud has been up to in the past year.

You're living in LA now?
I'm spending more and more time in LA, yeah.

How are you liking it?
Better and better. Yeah, yeah. I stopped hanging out with young actors so much. [Laughs.] But it's essentially more musicians and other types of artists. so that's a positive thing for me at the moment. Yeah, I live in this gorgeous little house with some musicians and, yeah, having a great time.

Are you into music?
I'm into music. I'm not a musician. I don't play music, really. I mean, I have a certain musical talent--I played music when I was a kid.

Do you think you have changed over the course of the three seasons? You've become more well known and probably more opportunities have opened up.
Certainly doors have opened but I still don't know where it's going to take me. I try to be in the moment and enjoy what I'm doing now ... I'm leaving for Argentina to shoot a movie. I'm leaving tomorrow to go back to Montreal for three days to pack more stuff for Argentina. And to see my accountant. [Laughs.] But I don't know how much I can say about the movie. But, yeah, great projects to come and maybe more of Cesare. We'll see.

You were saying that you feel like you've sort of grown up a little bit along with him. More confident; more professional?
Definitely more confident. More professional? I think I always was professional. [Laughs.] The experience has taught me just different things. Just working with people like Neil Jordan and Jeremy taught me to be maybe more assertive in my choices as an actor and to maybe not listen to other people as much, and just go for what my guts are telling me.

And Cesare as a character has also taught me a lot about myself. I think you end up digging inside you to find--I think Cesare gave me greater access to my rage and my anger--because they're all things that I have and I need to dig out to portray Cesare. But they're ultimately not things that you make up.

So, in other words, don't mess with Francois.
[Laughs.] You said it.

That critical moment in the season opener when the family is in peril if the Pope dies, Cesare takes swift action. Tell me about getting ready to play that Cesare.
I'd been thinking about it since I had gotten the scripts a few months prior to that. So that was the mind space that Id been in for months before we started shooting those scenes. And that's the first thing we started shooting in Season 3. And I'd been working on that rage and anger since the end of the previous season when my father got poisoned before my eyes. [Cesare] was ready to avenge him and kick Della Rovere's ass.

But I think what comes as a surprise to Cesare is that the threats are coming from all over. There was also a plot to poison the Pope. Caterina Sforza was also plotting to poison the Pope. Also I think for a while Cesare still thought he could convince Caterina Sforza or Della Rovere to be on his side and to come and help us in Rome.

But I think he's had it now. And he's like, "Oh, right, OK, you pushed us too far and now you're going to die." And so that's what all the third season is about for Cesare ... was going after what he wanted from the start and going after those who are stopping him from having it.

Right from the outset he seems his own man in that his father can't do anything and can't tell him to do anything. He just takes things into his own hands and says he will protect the family.
We tried putting our safety into the hands of others and it hasn't worked. Now just "trust me." We also worked on that with Jeremy a lot, just talking about the change that we wanted to play in our scenes together because as much as Cesare was already a strong personality before, he's been paying his father too much respect maybe. And it's a dynamic that's hard to detach yourself from once you saw that. We asked to do rehearsals for my scenes with Jeremy early on in Season 3. And we were kind of reversing the roles and had me talking like he was my son. So that's what we worked on to change the dynamic of our relationship in Season 3.

I still see in those early episodes Rodrigo can say one thing and it just sort of seems crushing to Cesare. But he starts to almost care less after a few of those encounters.
Also, when the Pope got poisoned at the end of Season 2 he was about to forgive Cesare, right? He was about to pronounce those words and I think that Cesare knows that since it didn't happen then, it's probably not going to happen ever. And so he's kind of moved on already. He still loves his father, but I think he feels that he needs to take control in order to protect his father and himself.

This season is a lot about the outside threats.
Before they can achieve that, there's still a conflict to be resolved between the father and the son. And the climax of that is probably Episode 9 right before the big finale.

It finally happens: Cesare and Lucrezia together.
Yeah. Together. [Laughs.] (Read more on this after Episode 3.)

Was Budapest fun? After three season is it easier and more familiar?
Oh, yeah. Although I don't speak Hungarian. That's why I have a hard time saying I live in Budapest. But I can say maybe a hundred words in Hungarian. ... I can order a drink.

You shot a film and are starting another What's the difference between TV and movies? Do you prefer one?
Conceptually I'd say I prefer film over TV, but when you read a hundred terrible movie scripts and you read something that Neil Jordan wrote you're like, "Oh, I'll do TV anytime." I don't think it matters anymore. There's more room for character studies on TV now.

I feel that a lot of film is fairy-tale adaptations, superhero movies. It's always very black and white who's good and who's evil. And in something like "The Borgias," we try to understand what pushes people to commit horrible actions and I think it makes your job as an actor more interesting, more complex. I'd rather do that any day than playing a dumb character in a movie. But film is great. Film is great because you tell a story from beginning to end. I don't particularly think about viewership and ratings and it won't influence the storytelling at all. I mean it's true and it's not true, but.

I'm scared of making comparisons to TV because I feel like on "The Borgias" we're really blessed to work outside of L.A., outside of Hollywood. Showtime completely trusts Neil. We don't have studio executives behind the monitor giving notes to the director. It feels very much like a film bubble.

I like to work in independant film as well, which is what I did in the past year. I did a little movie called "Copperhead" that we did some reshoots recently in LA. It's coming out June 28, I think.  It's a war movie. Billy Campbell, Peter Fonda are in it. Yeah, it was a great script. I haven't seen the movie but it's great because again, there's no good or evil. It talks about people who were anti-war and who were dismissed and traitors to the nation or racists.

I also did a movie in Belgium in January, a contemporary comedy that was different. "Moroccan Gigolos" [laughs], it's really fun and silly and well written and with a great bunch of people. And I'm really looking forward to seeing it.

Who do you play in "Copperhead"?
I play a pretty cocky soldier who thinks that anyone who is not running to war is a traitor. And he comes back home after being injured and I think he just realized how much war has changed him.

They planned four seasons of "The Borgias" and you could be going back to do Season 4 soon. Are you going to miss it?
Yes, I will miss it. I'll miss the people. I'll miss Cesare, but also I think it'll be time to move on. I feel that we've given it our all. I just hope we can tell the story until the end. I wish they give us that opportunity.

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