When one thinks of Henry VIII — he of the six wives, most of whom did not have happy endings — adjectives like lecherous and fat come immediately to mind. These images are spawned, no doubt, by the famous paintings of a rotund monarch with tiny eyes all but obscured by a fleshy face. Though this was Henry only in his last years — after a jousting injury forced a formerly athletic man into a sedentary lifestyle — it’s the king we know from films and television specials. Fortunately for Henry, the Showtime series The Tudors, beginning its third season — and wives three and four — on April 5, has given the monarch a sizzling makeover. When The Tudors first premiered in 2007, I spoke with some of the actors and creators of this regal series, including Natalie Dormer, the then unknown actress who played the doomed Anne Boleyn.
The Young King
“No one ever painted Henry when he was alive, so nobody really knows what he looks like,” actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers asserts. “And anyone who spent that much time hunting and bedding women is not going to be this round-looking, chubby guy. … I’m playing Henry from a very young age; he’s a very athletic and physical guy, the ultimate shooter, alpha male.”
Rhys Meyers is no stranger to regal roles. He gave a scene-stealing performance as King Philip in the 2003 version of A Lion in Winter and triumphed over 300 actors to land the coveted role of “The King” in Elvis. According to The Tudors co-executive producer Morgan O’Sullivan, following the actor’s Golden Globe-winning performance as Elvis, no one else was considered for the role of Henry.
“He’s a very down-to-earth young fellow,” O’Sullivan says of the actor. “[But] there can be … that sort of inner intensity. The great ones can almost burn through a lens with it, and he can do that.”
And burn he does, whether he is in an impromptu wrestling match with the French king (an implausible scene which proves that fact can be stranger than fiction), shamelessly facing Queen Catherine at the party he hosts to celebrate the birth of his son by his mistress, or in a jousting match where he unseats his opponent. But he has a troublesome problem for one so virile: He cannot produce a male heir. Anne Boleyn reinforces his growing belief that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow, may have cursed him. But after his marriage to Anne, who tries and fails and fails again to give him any heir but a female one (later Elizabeth I, arguably the greatest monarch in English history), she must be disposed of as well — and not in so humane a fashion as the powerfully connected Catherine.
It is said that Anne Boleyn had bewitching eyes. If so, choosing young British actress Natalie Dormer in the role of Anne was a stroke of brilliance. Her exotic eyes and looks make it clear why the king was smitten from the moment he noticed her.
Dormer was, as she tells me, just three years out of drama school, “a grasping actress” when she auditioned with Rhys Meyers for the role of Anne. They did a series of scenes, she explains, covering the arc of the story from their first meeting to the time when the king’s interest in her is waning. It was to look for the spark necessary to ignite the romance that is at the heart of The Tudors.
“The way I looked at it when I came out of the audition was, ‘I’ve just been flown to New York. I just had the most incredible auditioning experience with a great and talented young actor in a close one-on-one situation with him. Whether I get the job or not, I’m ecstatic because I had an amazing experience.’ But obviously in my heart of hearts, I wanted the job desperately.”
Dormer says of the role, “To play a real person, alive or otherwise, you just want to do right by that person. … There is a centuries-wide gap between Anne’s life and mine, but I have done my research and read so much about her, and I am so much in awe of her. She was such a courageous, intelligent, fiery young thing, so ahead of her day.”
When asked about her sizzling scenes with the hot young actor, she laughs, “I did notice,” she says. “A wonderful thing about the story — and hopefully what will make it incredibly gripping — is that in spite of this ridiculously intense consuming passion for him, [his passion is] her only card. She doesn’t give much away for as long as possible, which she progressively finds as frustrating as he does.
“[Rhys Meyers] is just the most incredibly intense, compassionate young actor, and to be staring into those enormous intense eyes.” She pauses, then adds, “In all fairness, it wasn’t me; it was Anne. It’s my job as well as Jonny’s. One has to draw that line; otherwise one would be incredibly frustrated.”
Those Sexy Clothes — And All That Bling
From historical events to the costuming of its stars, accuracy was at the forefront of the production. O’Sullivan tells of visiting the costuming department, where hundreds of costumes were kept, and realizing the vastness of the production.
The costumes were found in Italy and Spain, he says. “We found an opera company that had a marvelous collection of costumes from the period, though they were more Renaissance than Tudor. And it gave [the actors] that kind of contemporary sexy look, particularly for the women, who look just fantastic.”
The Tudors portrays young Henry as the equivalent of a 16th-century rock star, complete with tight leggings, loose flowing shirts and a lot of bling — ornate jewelry being something Henry was known for.
As for the women’s costumes, Dormer could not have been happier. “Absolutely divine,” she calls them. “The detail. The femininity. They’re incredible pieces of art in and of themselves. I think we completely gutted Europe of all its costumes to the extent that The Other Boleyn Girl, which started shooting towards the end of our run, was at a loss for costumes.”
But though the accuracy is there, this is no costume drama. “Regardless of the era, some things are universal. Sex, violence, power, greed, passion; this is not subject matter that you can confine to a particular time and period,” Dormer says. “We were told early on that we were trying to counter anything that might be perceived as affected or stilted — your stereotypical costume drama — to keep it real, raw and human. And therein, hopefully, lies the draw for the audience.”
And, she adds, “To anyone skeptical, especially the boys out there who say, ‘I don’t like costume drama or chick-flicky period pieces,’ I would say, ‘Banish all thoughts from your head.’ Watch it. It’s intense. It’s gripping. It’s violent and it’s dirty. For any preconceptions of what an historic piece would be, this is not.”
Tudors: How Long Can It Last And How Thin Can Henry Remain?
When I did the 2007 interviews, The Tudors had not even begun Season One, Peter O’Toole and Max Von Sydow had not signed on to play, respectively, the pope in Season 2 and Cardinal Von Waldburg in Season 3 and Anne’s head was still firmly attached to her body. But the creators were already optimistic about the series’ future. “Several of our chaps were offered fairly major films,” O’Sullivan says. “They all turned them down in the expectation that The Tudors will go to a second season.”
Of course, the series is about to begin it’s third season, but it’s hard to know how long it can last.
First off, Jonathan Rhys Meyers has reasserted that he would not play a fat old Henry. So, in spite of the scene in last season’s final episode in which Henry is seated at a banquet table digging into more food than the average English peasant likely consumed in a year, don’t expect the porcine monarch to put in an appearance anytime soon.
“No, I’m not going to turn into the Holbein painting,” Rhys Meyers insists. “In school, I was instilled with this food-guzzling, beer-guzzling, womanizing, rotund monarch. Well, he was a tyrant. He was a bad politician. He was a lapsed religious man who was completely out of touch with his spirituality by the time his reign ended. And he went through a lot of turmoil within that reign, but I had to play him my way.”
But that’s not to say that Henry won’t have his share of problems this season. First off, he’ll have a new adversary, Cardinal Von Waldburg. The cardinal’s mission is to defeat the Reformation movement, including Henry’s Church of England. Henry must also deal with wives three and four: Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves.
Jane was played in the closing episodes of last season by Icelandic actress Anita Briem. Now Annabelle Wallis steps into the role of the uncrowned queen who may have been Henry’s greatest love, if only because she bore him the son he so wanted. But her triumph was also her downfall, since she died just a few weeks after giving birth to Edward. Soon Henry’s most trusted advisers are playing matchmaker, directing the king into the arms of German noblewoman Anne of Cleves (singer Joss Stone) with a scheming not unlike that of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich looking for the right pawn to fill President Obama’s Senate seat.
These parallels between history and the political present are not lost on Tudors creator Michael Hirst. “All presidents, all kings, are the victims of their advisers, the people they depend on to tell them the truth. And of course, advisers very rarely do tell them the truth. The only person in Season 3 who will tell Henry the truth is his fool, and that’s what fools were for, actually,” he says.
So where does The Tudors go once Henry exhausts his wives? Elizabeth has been overexposed in so many films and series but, Hirst notes, Mary has not. In addition, she’s been a strong character throughout the first seasons and they may want to tell her story as well. As Hirst says, “Don’t forget – the series is called ‘The Tudors‘….not ‘Henry’. Think about that!”