They say it’s lonely at the top, but Versailles actor Tygh Runyan might argue it’s lonelier protecting the man at the top.
Runyan plays Fabien Machal, the head of King Louis XIV’s police force, in the costume drama currently airing on Ovation. Charged with security at the palace and specifically for the king, Fabien can’t trust many people.
As viewers who are caught up on the action know, Fabien just learned that lesson the hard way. Throughout the first season, he has shown laser focus in rooting out anyone plotting against Louis (George Blagden). But he’s let his guard down in the arms of Béatrice, Madame de Clermont (Amira Casar).
Their affair came to an abrupt end in the latest episode, “Diplomacy.” Fabien nearly dies after Beatrice—a spy working against Louis—poisons him. Her betrayal hits the tough guy hard, Runyan said.
“It causes a great deal of paranoia in terms of letting his guard down again and essentially vowing to never let that happen again,” the Canadian actor told me during a recent phone interview. “It basically screws up his love life. Yeah, definitely no dating after that.”
Runyan hinted that Fabien returns to form in the two-hour Season 1 finale, which Ovation will air at 10/9c Nov. 19.
“From that moment on, I think it’s really clear cut,” he said. “It’s essentially a matter of following through with his investigations and devising a plan to essentially prosecute and bring them to justice.”
Runyan and I chatted more about playing such a complicated role, working around Paris and with his horse, Minos.
Have you enjoyed working at Versailles and other historical spots?
Yes! We work at Versailles maybe two or three times a season. They have Mondays available because it’s closed to the public so we go in. We shoot mostly exterior although for Season 2 we did shoot some scenes inside so that was kind of exciting. Yeah, getting to film at all the various chateaus and forests around Paris. We tend to work within a two-hour radius of the city, so we’ll go to famous forests like Fontainebleau and chateaus like Vaux-le-Vicomte, which is older than Versailles and inspired Louis XIV to build Versailles. We’ll film in places like that, so it’s kind of a little French history tour every week. A big part of it also is done on the sound stage.
Does it feel a bit like being on vacation while you’re working since you’re not used to all that history right there?
Just from my training and my approach to the craft, I get pretty focused and really immersed in the role. So it’s interesting how much you miss about where you are until we wrap. It’s happened both times, Season 1 and Season 2. As soon as we wrap, it’s like I wake up the next day and I realize I’m in Paris.
Your character is not really the most social of men, is he?
It’s true. It’s true. I’m the complete opposite. It’s true.
If you’re staying in his head, you’re not going to be doing a whole lot.
I know, yeah. I do think that that does factor in, for sure. It’s a role that requires a great deal of concentration and focus for me. … It’s incredible how much of your concentration is used on the role, even unconsciously as you’re going about your weekend chores, laundry, groceries, looking at the script for the next week. Even when you’re trying to take a step back, you’re still in the world of 17th Century France and in the world of “Versailles,” our show. It’s pretty interesting.
How do you approach the torture scenes and having to be so ruthless and seemingly heartless?
My approach to the character, from the beginning, was that this is a man doing his job at the time. If he doesn’t do his job well, the security of France is at stake and the life of the king, who he believes is in direct lineage with God, and that it’s the greatest honor in his life to be in service to him and performing these duties.
Essentially, with the torture scenes, it’s that feeling like, “Well, I better be scary as hell and get this information because of what’s at stake.” What is on the line is kind of creating this constant internal pressure within him. At some points, I feel like those interrogation scenes are a performance within a performance, if you know what I mean.
He fully buys into his duty, that he’s doing this for the king whom he believes, like you said, is a descendant of God? He’s not just, you know, an evil man enjoying the administration of pain?
Absolutely. I don’t think it’s necessarily a Catholic theme with him, with Fabien, but the back story that I’d written when I started doing this was that he was an orphan. His parents were killed in the Huguenot rebellion. He lived on the streets before then growing up in an orphanage where he was raised by monks. He really saw the dark side of that rebellion when lost his parents. All that experience essentially created this deep belief that the best for France and the best for everyone is a unified France, under one ruler. After meeting Louis he asked to serve him, so on a personal note, I think that he believes in a kind of divine appointment on Louis’s part.
The king loses faith in him at different moments throughout the season. Everyone fears Fabien, but in those moments you make it seem that Fabien fears the king even more. Do you believe that Fabien, pretty much the king’s the only person who he fears?
It just goes back to that deep honor Fabien feels being in the service of the king. When the king shows his disapproval or disappointment, everything goes dark. The sun is eclipsed. It’s like a kind of a living nightmare in a way. That’s the worst possible thing that he could hear in his life.
He wakes up knowing that this day could be his last. He goes willingly into every situation knowing that he must sacrifice his life for the king’s safety and for the security of the country and the palace. He’s a man doing his job but it’s such a high-pressure job, I think it’s really almost impossible to comprehend the pressure of that position.
Today [that type of security] would be done by a committee and entire secret service armies. But this is one guy, essentially, with a few musketeers, having to perform all these duties that are essentially ahead of their time. It’s kind of a nod to modern secret service.
When the bandits shoot the little girl, all his walls sort of melt away. Even if it’s just for a brief second, he seems to be more human.
I felt like when I read that third script, it really meshed well with the back story that I had been writing. I essentially connected to that side of him that was a lonely orphan. The crimes committed toward innocent children at that time where horrible; they were just treated like animals, put into slavery and other things.
I think the death of that girl really had a deep personal connection to him and it’s one of the arcs in the first season where it makes him go a little crazy. He loses control and becomes less the cold-hearted interrogator and more kind of vengeful and impassioned.
When they find the survivor of one attack, at Fabien’s insistence the doctor saves him by amputating the leg. Fabien then pops out his eye and mentions the little girl when interrogating him. I shouldn’t be laughing but …
[Laughs.] No, he really crosses the line because he’s genuinely disturbed by the death of this girl and he needs to find who did it. It’s not just for the security of the palace and the king, but it is now a revenge mission. There’s a personal vendetta that he has toward whoever did this.
I like that you’re not portraying him as “the king’s henchman.” There’s a nice deep well there. Do you think he’s lonely? Does he have any friends?
I think he trusts and respects Bontemps [Stuart Bowman] a lot. Although they’re often at odds in the series, I think there’s a friendship there that grows as their story progresses. But I do think he is quite lonely. It’s kind of like the lone samurai. It’s an honor serving the king, and that kind of quells his pangs of loneliness. It has to be quite a lonely place. I think his relationship with Beatrice partly stems from that loneliness.
I was going to ask about his relationship with Beatrice and how that came about. She seems like the most paranoid character on here and, well, we know what’s coming.
I think that sense of loneliness helps him connect with her. She’s quite devoted to her daughter, obviously, but also she seems lonely and kind of melancholic and I think that they have a connection right away from that. I also think that he sees how much she sacrifices for her daughter and, although he doesn’t know yet all the inner workings behind that and what she’s actually doing and how manipulative she is, I think at first he really respects and admires her self sacrifice, as he sees it, for her daughter. I think they have a genuine love that starts forming but isn’t meant to be.
What is the saying, “Love can make you blind?”
Yeah, for sure. He’s choosing to avert his gaze. He’s choosing to ignore evidence and dismiss following some paths with his investigations because of his feelings toward her, for sure. In the end, it can’t be denied and duty must come first.
Fabien is such a meaty role. How much do you love it?
It’s been incredible, honestly. It’s just the role, the writing, the material, the cast they’ve assembled. An international cast from all corners has come together and everyone just has so much passion and dedication to the project that it’s continually a joy to be involved and to play an integral part in the show. It’s just great and I love having time with my horse and my riding, the forests in France. There are moments where I just can’t believe where I am. I have to look around and really take it all in because it’s pretty amazing.
And the mud and the blood?
The mud and the blood! Yeah, those dank dungeons that we film in, some of it’s not so bad but there are a couple locations that are really just smoke-filled, dank and musty. They just smell of rot and decay and, man, that really puts you in the scene. [Laughs.]
I bet it does. Did you grow the ’stache and the little whatever that’s called under your lip for this? Or is that a regular Tygh thing?
No, that was grown for this, although I’ve kept it. I’ve kept it as much as I can. I kind of like it.
It looks good.
Yeah, it looks like I’m going to have to shave it here for another thing. But I kind of like it. Also, I fit in with the other hipsters in Silver Lake. Basically, it goes completely unnoticed. Yeah, a musketeer mustache, cool.
How has the experience been for you working with these other actors?
I love working with them. It’s been a great pleasure to work with Amira. I thought that she brought a lot of truth to her portrayal and I thought it was a very strong female character and dynamic. Yeah, it was a huge pleasure to work with her and with George and Stuart. We essentially just hit it off right from the start. … The three of us lived in the same neighborhood, partly by design I think, to create this triangle between us. We would debrief at the end of every day and ride to work and discuss the scenes and essentially just drew so much inspiration from one another. I certainly did from them and just had a great time working on this rich material together in Paris.
I’ll just say one of my great memories of Season 1 was our last day of shooting, a lot of people had already wrapped and gone home. Some characters were dead [laughs]—only a few of us were left. Myself, George and Stuart were riding horses in a forest and it was just this incredible day. You’re starting to let go. You’re starting to release. It’s coming to an end after such a long journey together, seven months filming in a foreign country together, a lot of pressure, a lot at stake. Our big release was just the three of us galloping through these horse roads through the forest and that was an incredible feeling.
Did you have the same horse, Minos, for Season 2?
Yeah, he’s quiet a character. He’s a real scene-stealer, actually. They’re so well trained by Cavalcade, the company, and Mario Luraschi and Chino and the guys who do the horses for “Versailles.” They’re just like Ferraris, so responsive and sensitive so you don’t even really need to use any hand commands. They’re just so finely tuned and sensitive. It’s really upped my horse riding for sure.
Minos is kind of a scene-stealer. It’s funny to watch him between takes. He’ll have flies on him and he’s tossing his head around and chomping at flies and being a horse and as soon as he hears “action” he puffs out his chest and he strikes this stoic pose.
Yeah, and he doesn’t move. The flies are still there but he does not move. He plays the scene and then when he hears “cut,” it’s straight back to the flies. It’s amazing to watch. I love that guy.
Had no idea that would be the case.
I know, right? I don’t think they actually train them to do that exactly but he does. I’ve been meaning to ask; it has to be a part of their training. It’s quite an amazing experience to work with them.