Chiseled, not grizzled
By Kristin Hohenadel
Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2007

[View Photos]

Jonathan Rhys Meyers creates a young HenryVIII with brawn enough to lure 12 wives in ‘The Tudors.’

Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland — FORGET the red wig and the fat suit. For his starring role as King Henry VIII in the new Showtime series “The Tudors,” Jonathan Rhys Meyers makes do with his own cropped brown hair, sculpted silhouette and Hollywood teeth.

“Listen,” said the pillow-lipped 29-year-old Irish actor on a chilly summer afternoon on set at Ardmore Studios outside of Dublin. He wore loud green sweats and a pale gray sleeveless shirt, smoked, drank tea with milk, an-nun-ci-a-ted like a thespian and bounced his leg up and down so hard that his trailer was shaking. “You’re trying to sell a historical period drama to a country like the United States of America, you do not want a big, fat, 250-pound red-haired guy with a beard. It doesn’t let people embrace the fantastic monarch that he was, because they’re not attracted to the package. Heroes do not look like Henry VIII. And that is just the world we live in.”

The king’s image has been immortalized by the surviving portraits of a bloated, middle-aged tyrant known for his half-dozen wives and predilection for chopping off heads. But changing standards of beauty aside, the makers of “The Tudors,” which debuts tonight at 10 p.m., insist that Rhys Meyers is a fitting choice to play the young and apparently once-sexy king of 16th century Tudor England. “A number of sources testify that as a young man, Henry was the handsomest prince in Christendom,” said Brian Kirk, an Irish director who was shooting episodes five and six. Henry was also an excellent hunter and jouster who often spent whole days out riding. “Jonny’s very handsome, very athletic,” Kirk said. “He kind of utterly epitomizes the chivalric ideal.”

Written by English screenwriter Michael Hirst (“Elizabeth”), the first 10 episodes are co-directed by Kirk, Charles McDougall, Steve Shill, Alison Maclean and Ciaran Donnelly. The producers urged Hirst, who had never written for television, to study “West Wing” episodes and to think of “The Tudors” as a kind of 16th century “Sopranos,” with Henry as the kingpin.

Robert Greenblatt, president of entertainment at Showtime, cast Rhys Meyers after working with him as an executive producer on the 2005 CBS miniseries “Elvis.” His Golden Globe-winning performance as one iconic King convinced Greenblatt that he was capable of playing another. “We wanted somebody really visceral on screen who has a touch of madness about him,” Greenblatt said. “Jonny’s very intense.”

“The Tudors” is the most expensive dramatic series Showtime has produced, with help from financial partner Peace Arch. The network is making a big bet on the historical series — spending a reported $3.5 million per episode and sharing Sunday cable prime time with an arguably bigger character than Henry: Tony Soprano.

Too much on his plate

THIS Henry VIII is not merely a tyrant and a ladies’ man, but a cultured, multilingual, artistically minded and literary young man who liked to hang out with the guys and design and landscape palaces in his spare time (he went through 60 by the end of his nearly 40-year reign). Henry’s father had left him an enormous inheritance, but little guidance on how to rule the nation. So he relied on a political inner circle that included the humanist philosopher Sir Thomas More (played by Jeremy Northam) and the avaricious Cardinal Wolsey (Sam Neill) as he struggled to be a just ruler and to ensure his own glorious legacy. “The position of being a king warps Henry as a man,” Kirk said. “It’s hard to grow up when no one ever says no to you. Without acquiring wisdom and maturity, it’s hard to rule in a just manner. He’s quite a heroic figure, but on the other hand he’s quite a dysfunctional figure. There’s a central tension in his character that ripples throughout the whole universe of the court.”

During Henry’s age, a king was not only an omnipotent ruler, but a divine figurehead anointed by the church. Henry believed that God had appointed him to the job, and Kirk said that Rhys Meyers brought to his performance “a wonderful mixture of youthful naiveté and a sense of entitlement and regal arrogance that comes with having been born to be a king.”

“The Tudors” spans an early decade in the reign of Henry VIII, who, at 17, unexpectedly inherited both the throne and his older brother’s wife, Katherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Much of Season 1 focuses on the love triangle that changed world history as Henry seeks to divorce his wife for failing to give him a surviving male heir and falls hard for Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer), eventually leading to the break with the Roman Catholic Church over his divorce.

Hirst said he remembered a conference call with the network after having turned in the first several episodes, in which Greenblatt said: “We really only have one question. Is any of this true?”

About 85%, it turns out, apart from a few name changes and a bit of chronological fudging and filling in of dramatic blanks in the name of artistic license.

“When people ask, ‘Is it historically accurate?’ Well, it’s not like any of the historians were actually there,” Hirst said. “So what you read in history books, is that historically accurate? Not necessarily. I’m not writing a documentary.”

Hirst wasn’t the only member of the cast and crew who seemed eager to stress that this wasn’t a history lesson, but entertainment based on a true story so juicy and surprising that you couldn’t have made it up.

“It’s part history, part soap, part romance,” said the tall, shy, slow-talking Neill in his trailer, having slipped out of Wolsey’s gleaming red cardinal’s robes and into a black-wool sweater and cream-colored cords. “Above all, it’s about sex, I think. Sex drives everything, including Wolsey, who had a mistress. The vow of celibacy didn’t mean a lot to the good cardinal.” He chuckled softly. “Yes, sex drives everything. That’s what makes it such fun.”

The Tudors were no prudes, and Irish costume designer Joan Bergin said this inspired her to go for “a sexy, modern Tudor look” with faithful silhouettes and slightly lowered necklines. “We’re all conditioned to think of Victorian morality, where women couldn’t show their ankles,” Bergin said. “But in Tudor times, it was a lot more open. Ladies went to court to find a husband and you tried out quite a few before you decided.”

“The Tudors” begins in 1520, a little over a decade into Henry’s rule, with the legendary Field of the Cloth of Gold meeting between the English king and King Francis I of France. It was shot on an estate in a steep valley in the beginning-of-time countryside in Luggala, with its fern-covered, boulder-scattered rolling hills. Episode 10 ends with the death of Wolsey in 1530 — which leaves plenty of history to mine in future seasons if the series gets picked up. “I hope this will go on for years,” Greenblatt said.

Tax incentives had lured the American makers of this very English story to Ireland, and Irish production designer Tom Conroy said they had worked around the lack of native Tudor architecture by building sets and choosing “period neutral” locations and turning the 12th century Christ Church Cathedral, a busy Dublin tourist site and working house of worship, into a “mini-studio” that had been set-dressed as royal and country chapels and whose crypt had been reincarnated into a French court dormitory, among other things.

At Ardmore Studios, royal chambers had been built, lined with plaster, painted and stained to look like ornate wood; period beds had been carved; working fireplaces glowed; and thousands of euros had been devoted to commissioning handmade, double-wicked beeswax candles to provide authentic lighting for the interior spaces. Conroy said he tried to make the production as Tudor-looking as possible. But the straw that would have covered interior floors tripped the steady cam and looked so odd it was deemed too distracting and, for the most part, it was removed. The rooms were less bare than they would technically have been in Tudor times — with more furniture and character-revealing objects such as Henry’s spheres and maps scattered around his chambers and not locked away in cupboards as they would have been. “We’re editing history, in a sense,” Conroy said, “creating a parallel universe.”

Conroy’s office was stacked with reference books and much of the cast and crew had been reading works by popular historians such as Antonia Fraser and Alison Weir to get themselves in the period mood.

But the self-taught Rhys Meyers, who recently finished shooting “The Children of Huang Shi” set in China during the 1937 Japanese invasion, claimed he didn’t believe in homework. “I can only work with the material I have in the script,” he said. “Anything else is just clouding my mind. I think about myself as Henry. How would I react if I was a young king, if I needed an heir, if I wanted to divorce my wife — not because I didn’t love her anymore, but because she was old and I was no longer attracted to her. When I agree to take on a role, then I pretty much become what that role is for a period of time. So this isn’t the Jonny you’ll meet in six months’ time.”

Celebrity then, celebrity now

KIRK, 38, who directed an episode of “Brotherhood” for Showtime and whose first feature, “Middletown,” was shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, said working in Hollywood was the best crash course in Tudor court dynamics. “Henry was the ultimate star and everyone was flocking to get a piece of him and to try and climb the ladder themselves,” the director said. “Jonny has done the Hollywood thing. I think that’s the closest we’re gonna get in terms of an experience. And I think he’s really able to bring his knowledge of, you know, the star system in America to bear on the court and how that impacts upon people’s perceptions of you — the danger of that and also the power of it. He’s very aware of the problems that Henry has as a youth trying to be a man trying to be a king. He has a parallel experience to draw on.”

“From a very young age, Henry is pushed into situations,” Rhys Meyers said, and narrowed his wild, watercolor-blue eyes. “And so you’re not allowed to be a youth. You have been taken out of your childlike environment and been pushed into an adult world that you really aren’t ready for. And for me it’s like I was pushed into — well, I wanted to be — but I found myself on film sets from the time I’m 17 until you see me today. And it took me an awful lot of time to learn how to handle that.”

He drained his tea. “But the main reason I kind of wanted to play Henry is that, you know, Elvis you can kind of see,” he said, “Henry, you can’t. And the joy of getting a role like that is that nobody ever thought you would play Henry VIII. And then suddenly you are.”

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