When Henry VIII Was Young, Beardless, Even Thin
By Alan Riding
New York Times, October 11, 2006

With a cornucopia of sex, politics and religious conflict, the life of Henry VIII seems well suited to dramatization on screen. After all, even in the rollicking 16th century, it is impossible to find another king who had six wives, executed nobles and prelates at a whim and provoked the Vatican into ordering his excommunication.

Yet if high drama seems assured, casting the right actor to play the lead is trickier because, unlike the case with most English monarchs before Queen Victoria, we know exactly what Henry Tudor looked like. And he was no matinee idol. As seen in Hans Holbein’s famous portraits, he was square-headed, bearded and seriously overweight.

In other words, he did not look at all like Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, the handsome 29-year-old Irish actor who is playing Henry in “The Tudors,” Showtime’s 10-part series, currently being filmed in and around here and scheduled to be broadcast in the United States early next year.

“I, too, had to overcome the image in Holbein’s paintings,” said Mr. Rhys-Meyers, whose recent credits include Woody Allen’s “Match Point” and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of another king in the mini-series “Elvis.” “That was a hurdle, but I think it’s now very much my Henry, 29 or 30 years old, dealing with not being human, with being a king.”

Youth, in fact, became the way around Henry’s heft: while Holbein portrayed him in his mid-40’s and definitely past his best, in “The Tudors” he is an energetic and attractive young man, both athletic and cultivated, still married to his first queen, Katherine of Aragon, six years his senior, and given to bedding young maidens who catch his eye at court.

And all this happens to be true. Or, rather, about 85 percent of “The Tudors” is true, according to Michael Hirst, the Briton who wrote the screenplay for “Elizabeth,” the story of another Tudor monarch, and who has also written this series.

“I wasn’t writing a documentary,” he said in a telephone interview from his home near Oxford. “I was being paid to write an entertainment. And I hope I have done that. But, having said that, it’s based as much as possible on historical research. And I am very proud of that.”

Henry was just 18 when he came to the throne, in 1509, and he was soon as famous for his love of jousting, hunting, wrestling, tennis, dancing, music and women as he was for his skill in maneuvering to prevent either France or Spain from becoming too powerful. For 20 years he also had Cardinal Wolsey, played here by Sam Neill, whispering and scheming in his ear.

“The Tudors” opens in 1520, with Henry still given to enjoying himself, but increasingly troubled. Soon after his accession to the throne, he obtained papal dispensation to marry the widow of his elder brother, Arthur, who had died in 1502. But while Katherine (Maria Doyle Kennedy) has given him a daughter (the future Queen Mary I), five sons have died — and Henry is now worried that God disapproves of his marriage.

Politics are also growing complicated. Wolsey is eager to seal an alliance between England and France against Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, but Charles is Katherine’s nephew. At Wolsey’s urging, Henry tries to impress King Francis I of France in a prolonged and extravagant summit in northern France known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. The two monarchs even wrestle — and Francis wins.

Mr. Hirst said he found so much rich material that by the end of the 10th episode, the story had only reached 1530. By then, Henry was seeking papal approval for his divorce from Katherine so he could marry the lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer), who, he hoped, would give him a male heir. (Instead, her only child would become Elizabeth I.)

But in 1530, much of what would earn Henry his place in history — his succession of ill-fated wives (two were beheaded) and the break with Rome, one of the pivotal events in the Protestant Reformation — still lay ahead.

Not surprisingly, then, Mr. Hirst and the on-site executive producer, Morgan O’Sullivan, are eager to carry the story forward in a second series of “The Tudors.” Mr. Rhys-Meyers, Ms. Dormer, Ms. Kennedy and other crucial players have already been contracted to continue in their roles — if the first series is well received. And Showtime has shown its confidence by investing some $38 million in the project to date.

Indeed, this is a big production by any standard, with location work in the countryside and castles of Ireland complemented by scores of sets built in Ardmore Studios outside Dublin; the sets were inspired by the likes of Wolsey’s own Hampton Court, outside London.

The look of 16th-century life has also been carefully recreated by Tom Conroy, the production designer, in furniture and tapestries, in pewter, silver and porcelain tableware and in musical instruments. Joan Bergin, the costume designer, has in turn researched Tudor-era paintings to add authenticity — but not too much — to the 2,500 costumes that have been made or rented for the occasion.

“They didn’t want a rigid BBC costume drama,” Ms. Bergin said, “not least because our Henry is a young man. I showed that in private moments — we could have him in a collarless shirt. I have used black leather and wool, with touches of gold and white, to evoke the rat pack of young aristocrats trying to gain a place in court.”

Still, this set, like the court in the 1520’s, is dominated by Henry. And because five different directors are doing two episodes each, Mr. Rhys-Meyers has the responsibility not only of creating his royal character but also of assuring a smooth transition as he changes, and the narrative advances.

“You have to be careful not to repeat yourself,” he explained between breaks in filming a scene with Mr. Neill and Ms. Dormer. “You have to remind the directors of what has happened. It’s up to me to give continuity to my character.”

Alison Maclean, a New York-based director, said she spent four weeks on the set before completing the seventh and eighth episodes in just 20 days. “I watched the previous director” — Brian Kirk — “working and spent a lot of time with the writer,” she said. “There is a shooting script, and it changed quite a bit.”

Along with the cast, Mr. Hirst, the writer, has been the constant. “This is a writer’s movie,” Mr. O’Sullivan said. “Michael’s whole approach has a contemporary feel about it. It’s not stiff and starchy in the way they normally do period dramas.”

For Mr. Hirst, who is working in television for the first time, it is also a novelty to enjoy more power than the director. He is on the set almost all the time. “I think it’s unusual in that most television series are written by a staff of writers,” he said. “Here, it’s very much my baby. When they started filming, I still hadn’t finished episodes 9 and 10. I was literally the only person who knew what was going to happen.”

He then added with a laugh: “And I won’t say how it ends.”

But he did, sort of.

“We end on the precipice, looking into the void of what becomes the Reformation and the end of Catholic faith in England,” he said. “I am desperate to dramatize that.”

Evidently, he hopes — perhaps expects — to be wrestling with the Tudors again quite soon.

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