'You walk in thinking I’m Catherine in a tracksuit from Coolock, how the hell am I going to be Maintenon today?' - Catherine Walker on filming final series of Versailles
The Irish actress plays a pivotal role in the third and final season of the lush BBC series
"When do you ever get to live in Paris? That was the greatest story of my life."
There's a sense that Catherine Walker feels she'll be hard-pressed to top the experience of starring in lush, raunchy, big-budget BBC series Versailles.
Playing Madame de Maintenon, the real life figure who held King Louis XIV, and the whole of France (and Europe at one point) in thrall, has proven to be one of the most high profile and interesting gigs of the Dublin actress's career.
When filming wrapped last year, she says, "I went through that sadness of letting go of the character and the journey and the whole experience of it. It was really, really wonderful, working with incredible people, living in Paris. When do you get to live in Paris? That was just the greatest story of my life."
Maintenon was a rather reticent character in the second series, slowly building her relationship with King Louis (played by Georges Blagden), but the third series sees her rise from nanny to the position of queen, albeit a secret one (their marriage was never publicly announced).
"When I got the role I had no idea how significant she was and how important she is to the French," says Catherine, "So that was a great honour and also a responsibility.
"And what was wonderful was we worked with historians, and we would shoot on location sometimes in the Palace of Versailles and we were brought around the rooms she was in, and I sat behind her writing desk. It was a great privilege. All of that went to create a really incredible once in a lifetime experience."
Catherine (42) completely immersed herself in researching the character and is fascinated by her real rags to riches tale.
"At one point they said that she held the whole of Europe in her hands, such was her power, and what was extraordinary was she came from nothing. She was not of nobility at all. In fact she was born in a prison. She came from poverty. Her father was a criminal," she reveals.
"She was very brilliant and intelligent woman and she used every opportunity she was given in her life. That was her great intelligence. And she becomes very pivotal in season three."
While Catherine wanted to play the "long game" with viewers and have Maintenon hold back in series two, she says it was difficult to do.
"She’s the nanny and you don’t really give her that much attention and that was what I wanted but it’s always hard to do that. An actor’s ego wants you to go another way.
"But it was important to me because of so many people binge watching the show, and I thought how brilliant that suddenly you go, ‘What? What the hell?’ because that is exactly what happened. How this woman goes from poverty to being the most powerful woman is extraordinary and the story is completely true."
However, Maintenon had a darker side, too, which Catherine says we see echoes of today.
"What she has as well is this very strong religious belief and it ticks into something extremely dangerous, this absolutism and zealot-like belief that we’re all experiencing in the world today," she says.
"She has the absolute unwavering belief in the divine right of kings and it’s so dangerous when God can justify everything for you. She goes to some very dark places and she has blood on her hands and has done all that in the name of God.
"But she went on to do extraordinary things which we don’t see in the series, amazing things for women. She founded schools for impoverished girls. She was way ahead of her time.
"But she was also responsible for an awful lot of hardships of the protestants. Ironically she was born protestant so she converted. She's really really complex."
Bidding au revoir to the French queen was tough, but there's one aspect of playing Maintenon that Catherine won't particularly miss, and that is the authentic corset she had to wear on set, although she speaks fondly of her relationship with costume designer Madeline Fontaine, who also designed the costumes for Jackie, starring Natalie Portman.
Madeline created an entire palette for Maintenon's costumes based on Catherine's colouring.
"Not many characters have that journey of going from an ordinary person to nobility to being the queen, albeit a hidden queen. We had a great sartorial journey together," she says.
Of the corsets, she laughs, "The corsets are not made more comfortable for you! The French really pull you in. You are pulled in and there is no room to expand. I had done quite a bit of corset work on stage and on other productions and I kind of went in thinking, oh yes, I’ve done loads of corset work, but these were a whole different level.
"We were shooting through the summer. It’s tough. They’re hot. Not to be overdramatic, but you do worry about your rib cage!"
Catherine faced 4.45am calls and spent two hours each day being transformed into her character.
"You arrive in bedraggled in tracksuit bottoms and then for two hours you sit there and these people working on hair and make up are phenomenal and you watch yourself and the character being created and it’s a brilliant gift for an actor," she says.
"You walk in thinking I’m Catherine in a tracksuit from Coolock, how the hell am I going to be Maintenon today? And she is created for you. You walk on set a completely different person. It’s a great gift. You don’t have to do a lot of thinking. You stand in all of this stuff – and the gigantic hair goes on and gets larger and larger and heavier and heavier as the series progresses!"
Since filming on Versailles wrapped, Catherine has returned from Paris to Dublin where she has bought a house "so it's more of a permanent thing".
She filmed a Scandinavian drama, Rick 45, then went to London to perform in a stage production of Fanny and Alexander, and is currently filming a series in the Shetland Islands off Scotland. Her career has seen her flit from TV (The Clinic, medical drama Clinical, and RTE's Acceptable Risk) to film (Patrick's Day, Leap Year, Dark Touch) to theatre (Phaedra, Miss Julie, Hedda Gabler).
"I feel lucky that I can do that. I like to do that," she says. "By the time I finish one thing I crave the other. When I’ve finished something very intricate, smaller acting that’s just about thinking on screen, suddenly I want to get my body more involved and be on stage again.
"Fanny and Alexander was my first time back on stage in about two and a half years. I had done Hedda Gabler in the Abbey and wanted to take time off from the stage but actually it felt interesting going back, it felt it had been too long. I hope not to ever leave it that length of time again. There’s nothing like sitting down in the company of actors and creating a play. I suppose my very first love is theatre, that’s where I did my apprenticeship. I always like to go back. It pushes you in a different way. It challenges you the most."
Catherine trained at the Gaiety School of Acting before moving to London and joining the Royal Shakespeare Company. She has come full circle from Dublin to London to Paris and back again to her hometown, and she's perfectly content with that.
"I always want to get back to Ireland. Ireland is home," she says. "I’m lucky to get to work in London but there is not home to me. I always have to get back to Ireland and to work in Ireland is very important to me, working with Irish artists and writers who are the best in the world."
Versailles series 1-3 box set releases on August 13.