When Versailles star Noémie Schmidt was a child visiting European castles with her parents, she would imagine herself dressed in gowns befitting a princess.
“I would climb up the [castle] stairs and on the way down fantasize that my dress would flow over the stairs,” she said. “Now I actually get to do this for real.”
The Swiss actress plays Henriette, an English princess who is married to Philippe, Duke of Orléans, in the international hit currently airing on Ovation.
Now a resident of Paris, Schmidt had never been to Versailles before filming of the series began. She’s a bit embarrassed about that fact, but shouldn’t be. She seems perfectly placed in the royal court of King Louis XIV, Philippe’s brother and her character’s lover.
I spoke with Schmidt on the phone in late July as she and cast members George Blagden (Louis) and Alexander Vlahos (Philippe) were doing press in Los Angeles. We talked about Henriette’s position as a 17th Century woman, her love for both of the brothers, and Schmidt’s favorite castle around Paris. (It’s not Versailles.)
Your character is sort of stuck in a strange position, isn’t she?
Noemie Schmidt: Yes, totally stuck.
What about her and her situation got you interested in playing the role?
When I read the part, I read scripts for the first and second [episodes], I thought Henriette is really [stuck] in the middle of these two brothers. She has to make her way through the situation that she’s in. She has to try to survive being the lover of one and the wife of the other. Henriette triggers this jealousy and kind of the hate and love relationship that they have. She’s kind of like the impersonation of that relationship.
After I got the scripts for 3, 4, 5 and so on, I realized that she has a much deeper personality, and that she had an influence that went really way beyond the two brothers. Also, by reading the books about her and the historical backgrounds, I saw she had a really big influence on France. She negotiated a treaty and she had a political influence beyond the psychological influence that she had on the two brothers. That came as a surprise to me. I didn’t know her and reading everything about her was really interesting and fascinating.
I love these kind of historical dramas, even if they aren’t 100 percent accurate. Is that something that you enjoy? And do you enjoy the research?
I love the whole research part with our job. It’s so much fun to be able to go into history from that point of view. What I always say is that if I had watched “Versailles” as a kid, I would have learned so much more about French history than I did at school. It’s so much more interesting to impersonate these people that were actually living. It’s also more interesting to link it with your personality, or the personalities of people you know. This modern world has changed, of course, but in a psychological point of view it hasn’t changed so much. We all love and fear and envy the same way they did.
Do you feel Henriette was a victim of sorts, or do you think that she found a way to chart her own course within the confines she faced?
I think as a woman, you can’t really say she wasn’t a victim, because all women were kind of stuck in that world. It’s still kind of the same now. Being a woman is never easy, and at that time it was even [more difficult]. I think Henriette was a victim of the fact that she was politically interesting, so it made her a political pawn in Louis’ game. She didn’t have a say often because she was a woman, which still happens today. Women often aren’t listened to or taken seriously.
Her strength was this influence that she had on Louis and his brother. They had grown up together. They were childhood friends, so she knew them very well. She was probably one of the closest persons to the two brothers. Psychologically, she was very subtle. She wasn’t manipulative, but she knew how to get her way.
Also, she was very sweet, very gentle, very pure. I think that this personality that she had was a way for her to escape the whole horrible place that she lived in, you know?
She seems quite genuine and has influence without playing for power.
She wasn’t like [Madame de] Montespan or Beatrice or all these women who were very drawn by power, by sex. They were very manipulative. Henriette enjoyed swimming, she enjoyed reading, and being quiet. She [learned] a lot about everything, and she tried to be free in that way. Her area of freedom was to try to find quiet. She didn’t have to [seek power] because she already was daughter of a king, so she didn’t have to climb up the stairs of power. She’s already powerful.
Do you feel that she loves both of the brothers?
Oh yes, for sure. She loved Louis like every woman loved him. Everyone loved him. Every woman at court was raised to love the king. They thought he was the most beautiful, talented, marvelous person in the world. She loved him that way, but she also loved him in a more personal way because she knew him. Henriette felt that it was fate for him to express his feelings to her. She knew everything about him and she loved him dearly.
With Philippe, it was more like a brother-and-sister relationship. I feel like she loved him like a brother. She hated him like a brother, and she loved him like a brother.
How do you think she feels about having to share each of them with their other lovers?
I think she knew what the deal was. She was born at the English court, which was exactly the same. She knew from the beginning that it was that way. … The show doesn’t show this, but historically she also had lovers. One of them actually was one of her husband’s lovers.
I read that in my research as well. The French really did enjoy their sexual relationships.
[Laughs.] They were crazy. (Read more about the sex at Versailles.)
Tell me about her relationship with Chevalier (Evan Williams). He really is very charming, but very threatening to her, isn’t he?
She’s very scared of him because she knows he’s a snake. He charms everyone, but to bite them better. She’s very innocent, but she knows that. Henriette also fears that he will manip
ulate her husband. She knows that her husband is very strong, but also kind of weak in a way because he’s so in love with Chevalier. She kind of fears for her husband and herself because of that.
Is he basically her biggest fear?
Oh yes, and Chevalier hated her. He hated her to the guts. He was very jealous that she was sharing her bed with Philippe, and that he would care about her. … She was everything he wasn’t. She was pure and he was awful. Henriette had power and he didn’t. She had a psychological inf
luence on the brothers that he didn’t have.
What did you think of Alex dressed in drag? [Read my Out interview with Alexander Vlahos here.]
I have to say, I kind of love Philippe that way. I think he looked fantastic.
This production is the biggest thing you’ve done. How did you react when you got the part and when you first got there to start filming?
I was camping in the south of France and I was really happy. It was great for me to be part of this. I didn’t realize it would go to the U.S. I just heard, “You’re going to be part of ‘Versailles.’ ” I was like, “Wow, this is amazing. I’m going to be able to act in English with this international cast that’s incredible, with these costumes.”
It is a production the size I’ve never seen before. It was great that people trusted me to be able to do this. I never realized it would go so far and air on Ovation, and that people would love the show like they did in France and in Britain. I’m really super excited.
How much do the costumes and the wigs and the locations help you get into character?
They are very helpful. … I remember one day we were having one of these feasts. I think that’s in the second episode. There were candles and these circus artists and we would eat these things for real. I was really suffering because of my corset that night—it was too tight and I couldn’t breath. I was looking around and thinking, “Wow, this is my job, what I get to do. It’s so amazing.”
Also, the cast was so wonderful, and I got along with every director. The production was amazing. David [Wolstencroft] and Simon [Mirren], the showrunners, were just so interesting. They were so into it. Everyone, even the person at the back of the trailer who would take my hair to put it back behind my ear, was so driven by the project and so committed. As an actor, you feel when the team is committed—and everyone was so committed. Everyone wanted the show to look beautiful and to be great. I think we succeeded.
I understand you shot in built sets but also at the real Versailles. How was that?
Yeah, we had sets and we shot in different castles around Paris and at Versailles. I’m ashamed to say it, but it was my first time in Versailles. I was born in Switzerland, so that’s kind of my excuse. It was my first time and I thought it was just terrific.
Actually, there’s another castle that we shot in—the Vaux-le-Vicomte, and I thought it was even more beautiful than Versailles. Versailles is gigantic and it’s all golden. It’s very excessive in a way. This Vaux-le-Vicomte is [from] the same period, but it’s more subtle, more sobe. It’s wonderful and beautiful. I’ve heard that in history this castle, Vaux-le-Vicomte, was owned by one of the ministers of Louis. Louis was very jealous of that castle, and he put the minister in prison because of that. It’s a very well known story in French history.
You’re a trained singer. I was wondering if you and George ever got to break out in song on set?
George would never sing in front of me. He sings for his fans. We have never done that. I sing only classical music. I wouldn’t be able to do what George does or play guitar. And I don’t sing ballads. I only sing opera, lyrical music. I’m a soprano.
Wow, you really are a “trained” singer.
Well, it’s a process. It takes too much time, but I’ve been singing ever since I was 10.
I read that you didn’t speak English before you took this role. Is that true? I have my doubts because your English is very good.
Thank you. That’s because I’ve been two days here [in the U.S.]. It was really much harder when I just got out of the plane. I couldn’t even say hello because I’ve been speaking Spanish for a month now. It’s very confusing.
I’ve been here before in the U.S., so I kind of learned. We learned in school, obviously, and since then we are very quick at getting languages because you speak four languages in our country. I spoke English but I got much better, I think, working on “Versailles.” Obviously, I auditioned in English so I knew how to speak; I could get around. The main thing for me in “Versailles” was to master the British accent, which is very different from the American, and I’d been learning English in America. It’s easier for me to speak with an American accent.
I find it interesting to hear non-English speakers who have learned it by way of Britain.
It’s so hard to coach. Our language coach would follow me around and tell me, “Oh, this sounds American, be careful. This sounds French, be careful. This sounds British, that’s fine.”
It’s odd that you have to learn how to speak British English to play a French-speaking woman.
The funny thing is that Henriette is English. So it’s all backwards. [Laughs.] This is a mess.
Being a European actor I imagine you deal with that a lot. You said you just finished a Spanish movie. You potentially could be speaking a different language every other project.
That’s also something I love about my job.
How has your life changed since doing this production?
I know more about French history, which is a plus. I’m in Los Angeles right now, which wouldn’t have happened. I’ve had more auditions. The great thing for me is to prove that I can act in English because I really want to do that. I felt more free acting in English than acting in French, which is kind of weird, I know, but it’s the way I feel. I just hope I can do this kind of project again.
More Noémie Schmidt and Henriette at Ovation