For more than two centuries, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the epistolary 1782 novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, has inspired myriad adaptations—an Oscar-winning film starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich among them. So when Alice Englert first received an email about a new Starz adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons in late 2019, the Australian—who considers Close’s performance in the 1988 film one of her all-time favorites—rebuffed, wondering what more she could possibly contribute to the scandalous story. But it wasn’t until a year later, when the actress agreed to audition for the female leading role in the new series, that Englert realized producers sought to tell the origin story of literature’s most calculating couple, whose all-consuming game of seduction leads them to destruction in French high society.
“I would just like to say, I was wrong,” Englert, who has now joined the likes of Close, Annette Bening and Sarah Michelle Gellar by taking on a version of the role of Marquise de Merteuil, tells W over Zoom with a laugh. If people are going to do more versions of Dangerous Liaisons in the future, I am going to consume them.”
Created by Harriet Warner, the sumptuous series—which premiered on November 6 (with a new episode airing every Sunday) and has already been renewed for a second season—reimagines the future Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont as Camille (Englert) and Pascal (Nicholas Denton), two passionate young lovers in 18th-century Paris on the eve of the revolution. While Camille, who is taken in by the current Marquise of Merteuil (played by Lesley Manville), uses powerful secrets to carve out her own path in a world of dangerous men, Valmont is hellbent on regaining the title that was recently taken from him. As a result, they’re both forced to use their skills of seduction and manipulation of the French nobility—and eventually, of each other—to ensure their own survival.
Dangerous Liaisons might mark Englert’s first time leading a show, but she insists she did not do it alone. Within days of getting to know each other on set in Prague last year, Englert discovered that she and Denton, who is thankfully “not like Valmont at all” and, instead, has “a deep and not-at-all performative love of women and people in general,” were on the same page about Camille and Pascal’s mutually destructive relationship. “Neither of us were convinced they were in love with each other,” says Englert, who believes their characters leave all kinds of collateral damage in their wake by perpetuating the same cycles of abuse they’ve experienced themselves.
“We thought they were in an emotional, traumatic entanglement with each other in a world where everything is ready to destroy you, even if it’s just tuberculosis or the plague,” she explains. “They both know the most thrilling thing is something that feels true, and I think they seek that [in each other]. Everywhere else, they have to keep up the performance of who they should be, and they have to respond to other people’s performance of themselves. But together, they can admit it’s a horror show. They accept and fascinate each other, but I don’t think they love themselves, so they don’t love each other.”
For as long as she can remember, Englert wanted to be a storyteller—and one could say it was always in her blood. As the daughter of Oscar-winning filmmaker Jane Campion, Englert spent her formative years between her hometown of Sydney and various cities around the world where her mother’s films were shot. She spent countless hours in the editing room with Campion, who quickly realized her daughter “was also stubborn and headstrong and had a viral imagination that wouldn’t cease to interrupt,” Englert says with a smile. “We connect a lot through work. [Filmmaking] has been a language for me to get to really know her. People who know her work feel like they get a sense of her, and in some ways, you do, because I think that’s almost like her heart.”
After deciding to leave high school to pursue a career in entertainment, Englert made her feature film debut opposite Elle Fanning in Ginger & Rosa and, in addition to acting, has spent much of the last decade writing and directing her own short films. Having started her professional career working with her mother, Englert is well aware of her Hollywood lineage—but she has begun developing the chops to chart her own path.
“I was born with a foot firmly wedged in the door, and I’m trying to keep the foot in there with all my heart,” says Englert, whose previous screen credits include The Serpent, Ratched, and Top of the Lake. “I don’t think this industry is managed in a fair capacity, and I’d never want to prove I deserve anything. But I do try my absolute best, because this is all I’ve ever wanted to do. This is all I’m good at.”
Englert recently wrapped production on her feature directorial debut—a feat that, she admits, she still can’t believe she can talk about after years of working on the screenplay. An independent film shot in New Zealand, Bad Behaviour follows Lucy (Jennifer Connelly), a former child actress who seeks enlightenment at a retreat led by a spiritual leader named Elon (Ben Whishaw) while she also navigates the close yet tumultuous relationship with her daughter, Dylan (Englert), a stunt performer. (Englert’s mother, Campion, also makes a special cameo.)
“Shooting this was one of the biggest joys of my life,” Englert says. “Jennifer Connelly is the maverick—warm and funny in a way that is terrifying and exciting. Ben Whishaw is our enigmatic spiritual leader of the film, and I, at times, wanted to just scrap it all, start a cult, and follow him, then wait until Netflix came and made the docu-series about us to get the money back.”
“The story is about the search for enlightenment and a failure to launch. I wanted to write something that felt mundane and epic all at once, which is what life feels like to me,” explains Englert. “This woman is on a hero’s journey that ends with a lot of clarity, but it’s not super complimentary; I also wanted to write something that was about the beautiful, wild fierceness I see in women I love. But I didn’t want it to excuse [that part of] them.”
Exploring the inner lives of complicated women seems to be Englert’s modus operandi; she says she wants to continue working behind the camera as much as she possibly can as a writer and director, in addition to taking on work in front of it. Having recently listened to an episode of The C-Word, Lena Dunham and Alissa Bennett’s podcast that reexamines women who have historically been dismissed as “crazy,” Englert says she would one day love to play Anna Anderson, who gained notoriety in the 20th century for impersonating the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia (otherwise known as the lost princess of the Romanov dynasty). “I want to be part of telling stories that shift how we feel about our own narratives—stories that can open up what’s possible in the way we structure our thoughts and feelings about the world,” she says. “Maybe we can devise kinder and more real ways of seeing ourselves, and break down some of that good-and-evil binary along the way.”