Sitting at an outdoor table at a cafe on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, digging into a salad and carrot juice, French-Canadian actor Francois Arnaud — who plays Renaissance nobleman, priest and politician Cesare Borgia on Showtime’s “The Borgias” — looks like any other dark-haired, slightly scruffy 26-year-old actor.
Apparently that confuses some people.
“I was meeting a girl this morning for a magazine,” says Arnaud, “and she’s like, ‘What?’ I don’t know if she was expecting me to show up with long hair, in a long, red dress. It’s weird. It’s just weird. People don’t think that I look like a normal 26-year-old.”
“The Borgias” returns for a second season on Sunday, April 8, continuing the saga of the 15th-century family, headed by patriarch Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) — aka Pope Alexander VI — which blended the influence of the Roman Catholic Church with plenty of temporal power and wealth (not to mention heaping helpings of sin and debauchery along the way).
Along with Cesare, Rodrigo’s other children with his longtime mistress, Vanozza (Joanne Whalley), are swashbuckling soldier Juan (David Oakes) and daughter Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), whose relationship with Cesare borders on being too close for comfort.
In Season 1, Cesare chafed under the influence of his father, who had forced him into the priesthood against his will and later ascended to the papacy and elevated him to cardinal. Having little interest in the clerical life, Cesare’s passions tended more toward intrigue, romance and even murder (even if he didn’t always do the bloody deed himself).
In Season 2, things get more interesting.
“It’s a big year for Cesare,” says Arnaud. “He really comes of age. He grows into Cesare Borgia. He’s not that angsty teenage boy anymore. He still struggles with his father, and he’s involved in all that. He’s very much ready to take control of the family now. As his father gets older, he’s a little less able to make sound decisions.
“In Season 2, [Rodrigo] relies on his faith a lot. Cesare’s not a very good Christian. Well, the father isn’t either, but he thinks he is. He tries to be. He’s torn. Cesare’s torn between other things. For instance, in Episode 3, we’re fighting the Italian army, and they have cannon, and we don’t.
“So, the pope decides to pray for rain to soak the gunpowder. I’m like, ‘You can pray if you want, but I’m going to go blow that gunpowder up.’ And the rivalry between the brothers gets to another level. It’s not childish play anymore.”
While Cesare and Juan contend for a place in the family hierarchy, Cesare and Lucrezia move into another phase in their relationship. Last season, the brother and sister engaged in an apparently innocent flirtation that came to an abrupt end when she was married off to the violent nobleman Giovanni Sforza (Ronan Vibert).
While it was never shown that the flirtation was more than platonic, according to Arnaud — and as evidenced by several fan-created YouTube videos inspired by the theme of forbidden love — many fans were rooting for sibling romance.
“Me and my sister, yeah,” says Arnaud. “We have good chemistry, we do. But it takes a different turn this season. God, I don’t know what I can reveal or not. There’s definitely more of that. It becomes a bit less childish and more mature — not what you think, not what you think. Never … or maybe. Who knows? You’ll see. I can’t reveal that. People are rooting for that relationship.
“My God! Crazy. It’s what I heard most about the show, that people were crazy about that storyline. They want more. When I meet fans, they say, ‘Are we going to see more of Cesare and Lucrezia together this year?’ They’re crazy about that stuff.”
Asked if the fans are actually aware that this would be incest, Arnaud says, “Yeah, I know, I know. They can’t live that in their own life, so they want to see it on TV, I guess. It’s a very interesting relationship, because it’s not just sexual attraction. You see that they love each other. It’s not just about sex.
“We have a kiss in Season 2. Oh, my God … I think we got a kiss. We might have a kiss. It’s not a big kiss. It’s a small kiss.”
Along with more control and a kiss, Cesare also gets an upgraded wardrobe.
“I have to tell you one thing,” says Arnaud. “Season 2 is the last season you’re going to see me in that red dress. I did have leather pants in the first season. I get to wear more of them in the second season.
“I tell you, people keep talking to me about incest and the leather pants. That’s all people are interested in. Moral dilemmas? No. Leather pants and incest? OK.”