I’m currently reading Finding Truth in Fiction: What Fan Culture Gets Right–And Why It’s Good to Get Lost in a Story (Oxford Press). Chapter 3 of this book focuses on actors, their roles, and the social psychology of narrative person perception. The following writing is from a doctoral assignment that required students to apply Chapter 3’s concepts to their own storytelling consumption experiences.
Narrative Person Perceptions Inspired by English Actor George Bladen and His ‘Sun King’ Portrayal
Much of what I’ve read from Chapter 3, On Actors and Their Roles: The Social Psychology of Narrative Person Perception, reminds me of my own storytelling consumption and observations while watching the decadent period drama, Versailles, produced by Canal+.
I’ve always been rather partial to history-angled dramas but nothing prepared me for my transportive and flow experiences with Versailles.
The main character in Versailles is, as one might expect, King Louis XIV — famously known as The Sun King, and the scandal-filled period drama centered around him unfolds at his royal court circa the 1650s.
King Louis XIV is played by English stage and film actor George Blagden, a talented actor most of Hollywood may not typically consider a member of the ‘beautiful male elites,’ such as George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Jason Momoa, Will Smith, and the like. Blagden, in fact, lacks tanned or bulging muscles, rugged good looks, or other such attributes for which Hollywood leading men are internationally known.
Authors Dill-Shackleford and Vinney (2020) explains that desirable physical attributes for Hollywood actors are in high demand because we, as a society, still highly regard physical beauty, even if we no longer value it for its role in helping us produce and raise children (p. 9).
The authors expand this idea further by explaining that physical beauty is one of the keys to interpersonal attraction (p. 8). Such value placed on beauty or attractiveness gives rise to the belief that because we see “beauty as good,” then “a beautiful person must also be good” (p.8). This thinking results in the common physical attraction stereotypes, which are often very much in line with Hollywood’s casting practices.
Yet when a relatively unknown and unchiseled Blagden is cast as the leading male for the Versailles series, what this tells me is that the series was clearly not aiming for a blockbuster leading male or a stellar-biceps-and-washboard-stomach kind of depiction for the Sun King.
As we learned from Chapter 3, when physical attractiveness attributes become secondary, the next attributes we often seek out go deeper than surface appeal. In our quest for mates, we also long for “emotional intimacy, personal growth, and helping others” (p. 10). These intrinsic attributes should not be underestimated as viewers of films or shows want more than attractive actors; audiences often want actors with substance.
In other words, physical beauty will draw us into a story, but it’s the substance or a character’s intrinsic attributes that help us to care about the character and keep us glued to the narrative.
While Blagden may have been a more physically-demure lead choice for the Versailles series, this is not to say he would or could not be ‘transformed’ into a ‘more attractive’ individual.
In fact, when Blagden is adorned in ornate royal attire, takes on a regal air of nobility, speaks elegantly about royal court matters as well as his own aspirations, and expresses a wide range of varying emotions in relation to the constantly twisting plot, Blagden becomes ‘more beautiful.’ His alluring physical presence, coupled with his character’s quirks and vulnerabilities, transforms Blagden into a highly desirable, magnificent, and attractive Sun King. This actor-to-character transformation speaks to how powerful the pairing of attractiveness, or extrinsic value, and substance, or intrinsic value, can holistically transfix us to a character. Dill-Shackleford and Vinney (2020) explain that it is the deeper values that attract us to both mates and friends as well as to media characters and personalities (p. 11).
Blagden’s physical appearance does not match much of my own personal male/mate-seeking criteria. I personally, for example, have historically found taller men of a bulkier build more attractive. Yet while in character as the Sun King, I found myself strongly drawn to Blagden, even though I absolutely knew I probably wouldn’t feel as strong a physical attraction to him in real life. But it was the deep nature of Blagden’s character as the Sun King that completely clutched me. His noble arrogances would gently mute or mitigate altogether with profound moments of sincere, emotional vulnerability. I was struck by the Sun King’s eloquence and elegance and lured in by his charisma and flair.
When the lush series came to an end, I remember being pretty sad about it, as were countless other #SaveVersaillesSeries fans. And so I thought I’d stay connected with Blagden by following him on Instagram, which I did for a time. But in a matter of two or three short months, I unfollowed Blagden; not because he’s not also as amazing as a real individual (because he seemingly does appear to be) and not because of anything he posted, but more because I realized I was missing the fictional character he had portrayed as King Louis XIV and not necessarily George Blagden the real person behind the character (no offense to Blagden who does very much appear to be a truly delightful and caring human being).
This distinction between the actor and their role points to the fact that, as Dill-Shackleford and Vinney (2020, p. 12) indicate, when we take in a film or TV show, there are two different people the viewer can relate to, even though they occupy one body: the character and the actor.
And while I agree with Dill-Shackleford and Vinney (2020, p. 19) that our impressions of an actor, based on their public persona and the characters they play, may help us predict an actor’s behavior (while sometimes not always accurate), I think this depends per individual.
In my Blagden-Sun King example, I personally never sat around wondering if Blagden the person was like the fictional Louis XIV in real life, although I do understand some fans — not limited to the Versailles series — may go down those enthusiastic lines of thought.
That being said, as I think about this possibility between actor and character more, the Sun King’s character had moments of depth and vulnerability that do make me wonder how Blagden would be capable of such soul and reach in his King Louis XIV depiction if he himself did not bring that level of depth into his acting from his own real-world experiences.
The art of acting
An example of Blagden’s emotional acting capabilities is epitomized in Season 1, Episode 5 where King Louis XIV runs after his brother, who has won glory in the battlefield but has since been traumatized and changed after the war.
Their dialog in this scene is as follows:
King Louis XIV: Brother? (walking briskly behind a distraught Phillipe). Brother!
(Phillipe eventually falls to his knees on the ground ahead of King Louis XIV in anguished silence, then softly speaks to his king brother who is now kneeling closely next to him)
Phillipe: On the field, I saw a man, young like we were. He carried his brother in a sack over his shoulder. He told me he had promised their mother to take him home.
(Phillipe quivers in sadness in a paused moment, tears befall his eyes as he turns to Louis and slowly asks)
Would you do that for me? I wondered …
King Louis XIV: I would, but you? (he quickly quips)
Phillipe: I do not know. (replying slowly and softly)
(King Louis XIV then stands up urgently, grabbing up his brother as if to make Phillipe understand, and speaks with conviction while staring straight into Phillipe’s eyes and frustratingly says…)
King Louis XIV:
You think because I’m King, I’m not also a brother?
That I have everything and want for nothing?
(Before Phillipe can say anything, King Louis XIV then admits…)
A King does not live the life he wants.
(King Louis XIV then firmly puts both hands on Philipe’s shoulders as if to center his gaze straight to him and confesses with emphasis and envy in his voice…)
It is you who lives those moments for me.
You live the life a King yearns for!
This emotional scene (one of my favorites) underscores the range of both actors but namely Blagden as he is the focus of this writing. It is also this type of arresting exchange — one of many across three seasons — where Blagden demonstrates great empathic ability through his character, the Sun King.
Such a scene speaks to what Dill-Shackleford and Vinney (2020, p. 24) describe as “the art of acting,” which is the embodiment of a character so thoroughly that it’s hard to tell where the line between the real person and the role lies.
This is exactly why, while we all know Blagden is acting and, therefore, pretending, it’s difficult to not think or conclude that some of his own rich humanity is being infused into his King Louis XIV’s character portrayal; that somehow, some of the fictional King Louis XIV we see throughout the Versailles series may actually be elements of the real Blagden himself.
Dill-Shackleford, K. E., & Vinney, C. (2020). Finding Truth in Fiction: What Fan Culture Gets Right–And Why It’s Good to Get Lost in a Story: Oxford University Press.
Versailles. (n.d.). Ovation TV. https://www.ovationtv.com/versailles.
Versailles: Season 1, episode 5 script. (n.d.). Subs like Script. https://subslikescript.com/series/Versailles-3830558/season-1/episode-5-Episode_15.
© Thibault Grabherr / Canal+
Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.