English Actor George Blagden as The Sun King, aka King Louis XIV via Canal+ series, Versailles. https://www.canalplus.com/series/versailles/h/5751633_50001

Social Psychology: The Narrative Person Perception Of Actors & Their Roles

Chapter 3 from Finding Truth in Fiction: What Fan Culture Gets Right–And Why It’s Good to Get Lost in a Story (Dill-Shackleford & Vinney, 2020)— a book about the rich value we derive from consuming fictional stories— focuses on actors, their roles, and the social psychology of narrative person perception. The following writing applies the narrative person perception concepts explained in Chapter 3 to my own fictional story consumption experiences inspired by the period drama series, Versailles, which debuted its first episode on November 15, 2016.

Much of Dill-Shackleford’s and Vinney’s (2020) Chapter 3, titled On Actors and Their Roles: The Social Psychology of Narrative Person Perception, reminds me of observations I personally experienced while watching the decadent period drama, Versailles, produced by Canal+ back in 2016.

While I’ve always been partial to history-themed dramas, nothing prepared me for the transportive and flow experiences I would encounter while watching the three Versailles seasons, which aired from 2016 through 2018.

The main Versailles character was, as one might expect, the ‘sun king’ himself, King Louis XIV, and the series centered around his scandal-filled royal court circa the 1650s.

Physical beauty and attractiveness

King Louis XIV was played by English stage and film actor George Blagden who, while charismatic and unquestionably talented, did not share the overall look typical of Hollywood’s leading men, such as George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Jason Momoa, Will Smith, and the like.

Authors Dill-Shackleford and Vinney (2020) explain 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 on 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, despite the value we often place on physical beauty, a relatively unknown and unchiseled Blagden —rather than a blockbuster male — was the selected actor chosen to portray 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, Dill-Shackleford and Vinney (2020) point out 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.

© Thibault Grabherr / Canal+

Deeper intrinsic values

While Blagden may have been a more physically demure lead, this is not to say he would or could not be transformed into a ‘more attractive’ individual.

For example, when Blagden is adorned in ornate royal attire, takes on a regal air of nobility, speaks elegantly about royal court matters, poetically articulates his character’s 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) underscore this notion by explaining that’s it’s the deeper values that attract us to both mates and friends as well as to media characters and personalities (p. 11).

This deeper values concept is one I also experienced during my watching of Versailles. Blagden’s physical appearance, for example, doesn’t match much of my own personal male/mate-seeking criteria. I tend to find much taller men with a bulkier build to be more attractive. Yet while in character as the Sun King, I found myself strongly drawn to Blagden, even though his physical attributes were atypical to what I may usually gravitate towards in real life.

Along the same deeper values vein, Blagden’s colorful depiction of Louis XIV’s extraordinary arrogance and occasional, kingly tantrums were annoying yet tolerable and even forgivable because they were balanced or surpassed by profound moments of sincere, emotional vulnerability.

© Thibault Grabherr / Canal+

Actor and character distinctions

When the lush, French period drama 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 do for a time.

But in a matter of a few short months, I eventually unfollowed Blagden; not because of anything specific he posted, but more because I realized I was more 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 Dill-Shackleford’s and Vinney’s (2020, p. 12) premise: 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 may depend per individual.

For example, I don’t recall ever sitting 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 character had moments of depth and vulnerability that did make me wonder how Blagden would be capable of such 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 a Season 1, Episode 5 scene where a concerned King Louis XIV runs after his flustered brother Phillipe, who won glory on the battlefield but had been traumatized and changed after the war.

Their dialog in this singled-out scene is as follows:

© Thibault Grabherr / Canal+

King Louis XIV: Brother?! (calling out and walking briskly behind a distraught Phillipe). Brother! (Phillipe then falls to his knees ahead of King Louis XIV in anguished silence, then softly speaks to his king brother 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 his king brother and asks) Would you do that for me? I wondered …

King Louis XIV: I would, but you? (he readily quips)

Phillipe: I do not know. (replying softly)

(King Louis XIV then stands up urgently, forcefully 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, the king brother then admits…)
A King does not live the life he wants.
(Louis XIV then puts both hands firmly on Philipe’s shoulders as if to center his gaze straight at him and confesses with emphasis and trembling 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 wonder 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 saw throughout the Versailles series may actually be elements of the real Blagden himself.

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References

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.

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Thanks for reading!

I write about human-technology interaction, mediated technologies, cyberpsychology, positive media psychology, narrative psychology, social psychology, brand psychology, transmedia storytelling, neuro design, behavior design, and so much more.

And once in a very blue moon, I’ll also creatively write about completely random stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with my profession :)

Mayra Ruiz-McPherson, MA, MFA
left 🧠: Media Psychologist • Cyberpsychologist • Brand Psychologist
right 🧠: Neurodesigner • Visual Artist • Creative Writer

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