“All of history [is] written by the winners, and also usually written by the men,” said “Dangerous Liaisons” actress Alice Englert during a recent interview with IndieWire via Zoom. She’s certainly not wrong, and it’s a key reason why she thinks audiences consume historical dramas in general and Starz’s new adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ novel in particular. The series, a prequel to the book that follows the future Victome de Valmont (Nicholas Denton) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Englert) when they are Pascal and Camille, before they become the duplicitous scheming characters we know from the various adaptations — is an attempt to look at historical dramas free of artifice.
“You have these images and these artifacts that are, in their own way, distorted and have kind of historical Photoshop,” said Englert. In a way, this filtering of history as glamorous enhances the manipulation that is at the heart of the series. Englert went on to discuss how the show tackles the white privilege of its era, as well as the best advice her own mother, director Jane Campion, gave her.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
IndieWire: What excited you about playing Camille?
Alice Englert: I love a romantic history. I love the backstory, and all the collateral damage of Valmont and Merteuil’s relationship and love has wreaked havoc on Paris and society in the “Dangerous Liaisons” that we all know. When I first watched the film and got familiar with the book, it’s such a presence, the history of them is so powerful. And the fact that it’s intangible, that it’s so buried in time, they elevated it to something completely unattainable. They want each other but they can’t bear to let reality infiltrate their delusion of each other, of there being some final prize. I thought that was such a great proposition to explore. And also baby villains! People who you know who they become [and it] has nothing to do with who they think they’re going to become. I think that’s fascinating and tragic.
Everyone has seen at least one version of the movie, but did you look to any of those or de Laclos’ original novel in preparation?
I’d already read about half of the book as a teenager during an obsession with it. I’m quite sensitive, so the caustic nature of it got to me after a while. I love some Sarah Michelle Gellar. I love all the versions of it, especially because I feel like the characters themselves, the way that they’re written, is so powerful, so potent. It’s like they’re still manipulating from beyond the grave, not that they ever lived. My feelings about society are somewhat entrenched in some of my “Dangerous Liaisons” obsessions, just how savage and the kind of viciousness and vulnerability that the story is secretly advocating. It’s like the best kind of spoonful of sugar making the medicine go down I’ve ever tasted.
De Laclos wrote it about Marie Antoinette’s court and it almost feels timelier these days.
In his time it was kind of outrageous because people were so disgusted that these protagonists were dastardly, but also that they got away with it. I’d much prefer not to be them than [to] be them. But it challenges the comforting narrative that bad people get what they deserve, eventually, and I think that’s why it was so instrumental in bringing about that kind of fever and revolutionary spirit. Apparently, Marie Antoinette had a copy, which I love. I also love that de Laclos was not like them at all. I was so relieved to hear that. He points out how dangerous the boredom of aristocracy is. Without having real connection, indulgence just turns into mental illness. In the [show], they’re at a moment where Camille thinks “I’m going to be a Trojan horse. I’m gonna come in here and I’m going to take you all.” If you’re trying to play the game and try[ing] to win the war, you are kind of a prisoner of it no matter what. You have to accept that losing could actually be the most freeing.
Why do you think we love period pieces like this?
We are so obsessed with the past. I kind of see period almost like fantasy. All the references that we have from that time, from all of history are written by the winners and also usually written by the men. You have these images and these artifacts that are, in their own way, distorted and have kind of historical Photoshop. I love that we don’t really know what people look like. I love the layers of complicit deceptiveness of society in general. Consensual reality, I guess. I think that’s why it’s so good to challenge what we think period pieces are like, what a historical narrative really looks like because it always has been a kind of fan fiction.
Camille has such privilege, regardless of class, as a white woman. How did you look at the show’s acknowledgment of that and finding the fantasy within?
Oh my god, absolutely. It should evolve past where it is now, and I think it will. One of the things I was so attracted to about playing Camille is I didn’t want the story to excuse her behavior. I didn’t want understanding her to excuse her. That’s the most powerful and fascinating part of playing them — ultimately, they are culpable. Ultimately, they will continue the cycle of abuse that they were also victims of. That’s so much more interesting to me [and] it’s something that I thought was really heartbreaking, seeing the world that Camille is moving in and how that moves her away from the kind of love and hope that she and Victoire’s relationship could have provided. They’re both living in separate fantasies of what their friendship can become. We were very, very keen to make sure that that could be as present as possible in this series. Kosar [Ali] is an absolute star, and it was such an incredible, beautiful thing to work with her. She was also the age that I was when I started, and just being around someone who’s so incredibly intelligent and also aware that they still deserve to be a kid.
What was the first day working in full costume like?
It was interesting because, for women, [the clothes] were a kind of bondage. They were sort of a straitjacket, and at the same time, they could also be weaponized as some kind of protection. It was a really interesting experience how much the sex scenes are the moments where there was actually like this “I want you” with Valmont. That was actually true escapism because I’m comfortable. It was a really interesting thing to experience because I’m quite a comfortable dresser. I really love Nick [Denton as Valmont] and we are so not afraid of being awkward. We just feel really safe with each other. There’s no performance for each other and that was what we wanted for them as well. We wanted it to feel like they actually enjoy what they do and that they enjoy each other as people. There’s so much performance amongst everyone in that society and, for them, they know they’re manipulating each other and so, in some ways, it does feel like a respite. They get to mock it.
I have to ask about your mom, the fabulous Jane Campion. Do you two talk about acting?
She’s very strong in her work, her art and her artistry, she’s very articulate. When she started to notice that I was wriggling around in that realm [of acting], we have a lot of rapport in the work of it all. That’s how we have got to know each other really deeply, because you get to be so frank. You get to be so curious when it’s stories and characters, it feels like mom, and daughter, and school, and all of that. I really, really respect her. I think she’s an amazing director. I just always kind of understood what she was on about. She always made sense to me in that way and so, yeah, I do listen to everything she said.
Is there any advice or techniques she’s imparted you’ve brought to your projects?
At this point it’s kind of osmosis, you know what I mean? One of my favorite things that she’s always said, which I always think is so good, is just not to try and do it again. Stay in that space. Just keep feeling out what is available inside. Perfect is completely beside the point.
“Dangerous Liaisons” airs Sundays on Starz.