Stuart Bowman, like his character in Versailles, doesn’t mind sleeping at the foot of a king’s bed. The rewards of playing Alexandre Bontemps, King Louis XIV’s powerful valet, are greater than any sacrifice.
Bontemps, as history and Ovation’s opulent historical drama show, was Louis’s most trusted adviser—protecting the king’s secrets and guiding him through a thicket of conspirators and social climbers in the royal court. Although Louis lavished his valet with rewards, Bontemps asked for nothing in return for his service.
“What he got back … was a closeness to the king, a loyalty to the king, who he must have dearly loved and thought of as a god,” Bowman said. “It is incredibly interesting for me as an actor to try to understand what it is to believe that this man is God’s representative on earth. It’s a massive leap from anything that we can, in the modern day, relate to.”
The Scottish actor says that although the two men probably weren’t technically friends, they shared a personal relationship as close to friendship as a king and his subject could.
“I’m thrilled to say that that’s exactly what’s grown between George and I,” said Bowman of George Blagden, who plays Louis. “I consider him one of my very dear friends.”
I chatted with Bowman over the phone form Los Angeles shortly after Donald J. Trump won the presidency. We talked about what today’s politicians might learn from Bontemps, the joys of playing such a fascinating historical character, and how his 5-year-old son now speaks better French than he does.
The two-hour Season 1 finale of “Versailles” airs at 10/9c Nov. 19 on Ovation.
What did you think of our election?
Shocking. It’s shocking that a man such as that is in the Oval Office. It’s unthinkable.
Bontemps is a powerful man but history tells us he was a nice guy. Could politicians today learn a thing or 20 from him?
Could politicians learn a thing from Bontemps? God, absolutely. What’s surprising in the show and historically with Bontemps is that he kept his decency. I guess there is a parallel with the White House now, that one hopes that this man will be surrounded by people who do have moral codes and do have decency at their cores who will guide him in the right direction on certain issues.
If I can take any hope from the last couple of days, it probably is that. I’ve just been playing somebody who has been steering an absolute despot in the right direction. Bontemps has been able to find the goodness in people. I think that that’s kind of what we all have to do at the moment is to, somewhere, find goodness and steer this in a better direction.
What made you want to play him?
I just believed in this world and was fascinated by it. I didn’t know a huge lot about the period of history or about the Sun King. This character is so extraordinary, the character of Louis XIV. He was so successful—the longest reigning monarch in European history to this day. Our Queen’s got another 10 years before she catches up with Louis. Bontemps, who is there with him, is absolutely crucial to the tides of history in his ability to influence somebody as powerful as that.
The writing was so believable. It is beautifully written. There’s a poeticism that comes from being set in France and in this period. Simon and David, the showrunners, chose their words incredibly carefully and they use beautiful metaphors throughout the thing. There is a sort of Shakespearean element to the language, but it’s got a narrative drive that is modern and exciting.
I just wanted to read more. Well, no, I wanted to be in it straight away. That doesn’t always happen. You kind of steel yourself for not getting a part, so you kind of find ways of disliking a piece. There was nothing about this I disliked. There was no way I could do that and I could steel myself about not getting the part. I just had to get the part. Thank God I did.
What qualities does Bontemps possess that attract you?
He’s a decent human being. I love his humility. He enjoyed doing favors for people. He didn’t enjoy getting praise for it, though, or getting thanked for it. Bontemps actually would shun people who openly thanked him for doing favors. It was all under the radar. We don’t maybe see that much in the show, but I learned it from our historical advisor, Mathieu Da Vinha, who has written a book about my character. I’m so lucky to have a source to go to really for any details.
That’s interesting when you consider who he serves.
That quality always stood out to me about Bontemps. I think it’s one of the reasons he was so successful in his job and why Louis was so loyal to him. He was given all of these jobs by Louis in order to repay his loyalty. He was in charge of the Swiss Guards and was the mayor of Versailles and Marly. He had huge amounts of responsibility, but he still slept at the foot of Louis’s bed for three months of the year and did these essentially menial tasks. …
Do you think that Bontemps considers the king a friend in the common meaning of that word?
I don’t think he would allow himself to say that they are friends. In the way we understand friendship, I don’t think Bontemps has any friends. He has a role that he is able to fulfill, to make function because of his ability to charm, his ability to understand the politics, to read people. He’s a master at these things and he’s aware of these things.
I don’t think he would be counting his Facebook friends on one hand. Never mind one hand, on one digit! I don’t think Bontemps would be on Facebook.
He wouldn’t have time for it.
Well, he wouldn’t have time for that, but he certainly wouldn’t even be interested. Friendship is something that people with time have. His relationships are in order to serve the king. He takes that deeply seriously
He also can teach us something about sacrifice and service. Do you agree that he gives everything up for the king?
Well, it’s an interesting thing. I don’t believe in altruism. I don’t believe that people in all walks of life do anything that doesn’t make them feel good. If they’ve got choices, they want to do the thing. Even if that thing is to do the right thing that is apparently a sacrifice, they will be getting something from it. If you’re lucky, you have a moral standard. If you’re lucky then doing the right thing makes you feel better, feel good.
I think as far as Bontemps’ sacrifice, we have seen this, haven’t we? It’s very little I doubt whether family was very important to him.
Although he was saddened by his son’s death.
We get the sense that he cares for him. I certainly felt that he cared for his son, but he quickly went back to work. He was back at work, I would imagine, the same that that boy died.
I can’t remember the diarist’s name that wrote about Louis XIV and court life. He wrote that Louis asks Bontemps how his wife was at one point and Bontemps just shrugged, as if to say, “I have no idea and really do I care?” That’s probably harsh and might be tongue-in-cheek. I think he did care, but his loyalty was absolutely to the king, and that’s what he was showing with that shrug as well. It’s not as important as this.
It’s complicated. I think that the sacrifice that he’s making, he’s happy to make. It doesn’t feel like a sacrifice to Bontemps.
Bontemps had so many things going on, as you mentioned. We haven’t even seen half of it, have we?
Bontemps had a wing of Versailles. If you come in the gates at the beginning, there’s the beautiful marble courtyard. You see the two wings that make up the envelope on either side of the entrance. The top floor of the right-hand wing was entirely Bontemps’. It housed his quarters, his offices; his life was run from there. I didnt know quite how massive his quarters were until Matthieu pointed it out to me. … It’s always a tricky one with writing an historical drama. There’s so much source material. The great difficulty is including everything.
He could have his own show!
Yes! Let’s talk about that. Great, OK, let’s just talk about where that could go!
Bontemps often brings Louis off the ledge when he’s upset or paranoid. Do you imagine he knew what he was getting into?
There’s a deep decency and an understanding. He’s 12 years older than Louis. The father figure element of it is deeply informing for me as an actor playing it. You’ve seen this boy growing up and become a man and a king. He will never not be that child who needs protecting to Bontemps.
He had to have just a deeply smart political mind to be able to protect Louis, but not protect him naively and let him live his life. My admiration for Bontemps is immense. I love him, and that’s lovely to be able to say about a character because it doesn’t always happen. Actors have to see the humanity even when playing a serial killer, but I do really enjoy this character. He is genuinely a decent human being.
Have you learned anything about him as you were playing scenes that you didn’t expect?
As we were doing the scene in the ballroom when Louis tells Bontemps he doesn’t trust him and he wants him gone, I saw the pain in Louis when George turned around and sat down. I saw his eyes, and just where he was in that scene. It was the most emotionally raw that I’d seen George. The feeling at that point, the deep love and pain to see one’s charge in that state … That was when I understood the friendship between the two of them, the love my character had for him. That was a moment where it just came to life. Those are rare moments in an actor’s life. It was a wonderful day that day.
You are in a lot of scenes because Bontemps always is at the king’s side.
Yeah, I think both seasons have had 112 shooting days, and I’m in 80 of them. I think George is in 88 or something. I’m pretty much there the whole time, which is just fabulous. When you’re filming in locations in France like that, you want to be in every day.
Have you enjoyed living in Paris for half the year?
Well, I’m living there pretty much full-time now. I have a 5-year-old and 2-year-old—two boys. They all came over with me for the first season. My 5-year-old, who was three-and-a-half at the time, went to French school. We took kind of a gamble. The gamble totally paid off; he’s now completely bilingual and a fluent French speaker. At five-and-a-half he patronizes me. He tells people to speak to him because his dad doesn’t speak French. I [experience] an odd mixture of emotions. He’s done a hard thing. He’s gone into French school and he’s learned a new language, and he knows that, and he’s proud of that. I’m proud. … He’s now bilingual and he’ll have that, hopefully, forever.
We’re living in Paris now so that he can carry that on. We’re pretty much guaranteed a third season, so he will have had three full years at French school by the end of the third season. What an adventure. It’s a wonderful adventure for my whole family.
Do you enjoy using the costumes and the wig?
The wigs are so beautifully made and fit so well. Miguel Santos, who is the wig master, has just done such a magnificent job with everyone. These wigs are absolutely phenomenal. Mon chapeau est éteint—my hat is off—constantly.
The costumes are equally incredible. You put Madeline Fontaine’s costumes on and you just feel right in every detail. The cuffs are exactly the right length. They fit beautifully—as if they were made for you. And they look as if they were made for powerful 17th Century people. Therefore you feel like a powerful 17th Century person once you put these things one.
Everything is there to support us. That isn’t always the case. It just is 100 percent special.
Has working on “Versailles” opened other doors for you? You’re in L.A. now. Are you having some meetings as well as vacation?
I recently finished a show in Glasgow, which had nothing to do with Versailles. I did a sitcom in the UK called “Gary Tank Commander,” which became kind of a cult hit in Scotland. So much so that the writer then thought, “We can do a stage version of this in a stadium.”
We just did three shows in front of 10,000 people a night of this two-hour stage version of the sitcom. It was as close as I’ll ever get to being a rock star. It was phenomenal. Ten thousand people! I will never forget the guttural roar as I walked onto the stage in character. It was fabulous.
But to answer your question, I am now in Los Angeles having meetings with people. That certainly would not been happening without “Versailles.” I always said I wouldn’t come over to LA without something to back me up and something to take to people. I’ve got something now. That’s a lovely thing.