'Knightfall' Star Julian Ovenden on His Character's Epic Escape and Why He's Not the Villain (Exclusive)
By Jennifer Drysdale
Julian Ovenden is the first to admit that his character's been naughty on Knightfall, but the last to call him a villain.
The Downton Abbey alum plays William de Nogaret, scheming advisor to King Philip (Ed Stoppard), in History's new drama, who finds himself on the brink of death thanks to Philip's equally cunning daughter, Princess Isabella (Sabrina Bartlett).
Fans of the series saw de Nogaret epically escape his hanging on Wednesday night's episode after Isabella revealed it was he who murdered her betrothed, Prince Luis of Catalonia. But according to Ovenden, a couple of murders does not a villain make -- and his storyline is far from over.
"He is quite naughty, but I tried to play him not like the villain, really, and sort of like the antihero... because life had a different value then," Ovenden explains. "His motives were different and there were bigger things at stake."
History buffs know that the real de Nogaret was responsible for modernizing France and marrying Isabella into the English royal family. On Knightfall, however, the calculating character is currently between a rock and a hard place, disgraced by the French and betrayed by Isabella, who originally sought his help in killing Luis.
"Did I think I was going to be killed off? Nowadays, with television, there's always a chance you won't make it through the episode or the season, especially a show that's set in the Middle Ages," Ovenden jokes. "I think what I appreciated and what excited me was the fact that he was able to kind of manipulate things to a certain degree, and he was able to get out of tight spots and use his smarts to get people to behave in a way he wants them to."
"It's a complicated reaction, because he's always two steps ahead. He's sort of able to filter through initial feelings of shock and betrayal, and able to go beyond that and understand why Isabella [betrayed him]," he continues. "[Isabella] is sort of as dark as I am, really, and the relationship between us is slightly sexual, slightly avuncular. You don't really know who is pulling whose strings. He sees her as the future of France, and she sees him as the guy who's going to make it happen."
"He sees her as an equal. He sees her potential. And I think he's able to overlook what she did for the greater good of France," Ovenden says. "It's a fascinating moment in the drama, and it really kind of gives different colors to their relationship as the show goes forward."
While de Nogaret and Isabella are now at odds, she's not his only adversary. Ovenden, who prepared for his role with help from a historian on set and research material -- though admits he used a lot of his imagination to bring the character to life -- reveals that atheist de Nogaret's battle with Pope Bonaface VIII (Jim Carter) is far from over.
"They both know each other very well, and they're very well matched, so it's constant swordplay. It does get tense, toward the end," he teases, adding that the "political intrigue" his character brings to Knightfall will come together with the action-heavy Knights Templar's search for the Holy Grail.
"They do intertwine, and intertwine in a way that you're not going to expect. There's great twists," he promises. "There's a couple of new characters that come in towards the end of the season that change things somewhat. I think we're really proud of the last episodes, because the intensity racks up, and everything's on the line."
"It really builds to a satisfying climax," he insists. "It's lovely to play something that's not obvious. I'm really proud of the way we tell that story."
Knightfall airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on History.