LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Murder, greed, orgies, corruption. The Borgia family did it all, 500 years ago, muscling their way into the papacy in a ruthless bid for power.
The notorious family and their sensational exploits have inspired dozens of plays, films and TV series. The latest treatment, making its debut on U.S. cable channel Showtime on Sunday (April 3), sees the "The Borgias" as 15th century precursors of the Italian Mafia.
The 10-part series stars British actor Jeremy Irons as "the original Godfather" -- Rodrigo Borgia, who bought off his enemies and got himself elected Pope Alexander VI in 1492, despite having mistresses and children.
Borgia's daughter Lucrezia, who became a byword for female villainy, is billed as "the original mob princess" in the series, which marks the entry into television drama of Irish film director Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game").
The Borgias, a family of Spanish immigrants to Italy, bribed and clawed their way into the highest echelons of power during the Renaissance.
But Oscar-winning actor Irons said that despite the corruption, poisonings and lechery portrayed in the new TV series, audiences will see his character as a man "who we are not able to simply judge as totally outrageously evil, but a pragmatic man with a great appetite for life."
The Borgias were infamous in their own time and later inspired everything from operas (Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia") to videogames and the novel "The Family" by Mario Puzo, author of "The Godfather."
But Irons told Reuters that many past depictions of the family had been based on "salacious gossip."
"I tried to find the truth behind all this history and gossip," Irons said. "Rodrigo Borgia was a man who wants a job very badly, and will do anything to get it. He did do some good. He strengthened and reorganized the (Catholic) Church amazingly."
Lucrezia Borgia, played in the Showtime version by rising British actress Holliday Grainger, "was in fact an amazing woman who outlived them all and was greatly loved by the people. What's come down to us in history is the slightly warped version," Irons said.
But as a Spaniard, Rodrigo Borgia was disliked by the Roman aristocracy who saw him as an upstart and hated the fact that he allowed women into the Vatican and publicly acknowledged his children. "Many clerics had children but they were kept out of the public limelight. He gloried in that and in that way was non-hypocritical," the actor said.
Irons, 62, has built a reputation for playing sinister characters. He won an Oscar as socialite and accused wife murderer Claus von Bulow in the 1990 movie "Reversal of Fortune", and he courted controversy as a professor attracted to a 14 year-old girl in "Lolita" in 1997.
"I am interested in people who stray beyond the pale. I think one of the things drama can do is to allow us to see people behave in a way we would not necessarily dare to behave and see the outcome of that behavior," he said.
Even so, when he was approached to play Rodrigo Borgia, Irons was not instantly convinced.
"I googled Rodrigo Borgia and I said, 'I am nothing like him physically.'. He was a big big man of voluptuous appetites, and I didn't want to have to make myself look like him by wearing a lot of padding and a false nose."
"But Neil Jordan said the part was all about power, how you react to it, how it changes you, and you can play that."
Shot in Hungary with lavish costumes and richly decorated sets, "The Borgias" takes a no-holds barred approach to violence and sex. And Jordan said he didn't have to invent a thing.
"They were one of the most notorious families to have lived. The entire family were pretty hot and lascivious. I didn't have to manipulate events really to make it dramatically engaging or to make them salacious or interesting as people," he said.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte