Leader of the Tudor Rat Pack
By Gayle MacDonald
Globe and Mail, October 8, 2007

Like most of us, Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers carried around the image in his head of King Henry VIII as “quite repulsive, overweight and racked with illness,” a stereotype reinforced by the official royal portraits painted in the latter days of the bloated king’s 38-year reign.

Reached in Dublin, his birthplace, the 30-year-old star of Showtime’s hit series The Tudors (the 10-part first season is now airing on CBC-TV) says he never dreamed he’d be approached to play the first English king to be addressed as Your Majesty. “As a kid, frankly, I was always repulsed by him.”

But when the show’s creator Michael Hirst (who wrote the screenplays for Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age) approached Rhys Meyers about portraying Henry as a vibrant, sexual, intelligent, athletic young man who was the magnetic leader of a Tudor Rat Pack and had the pick of any nubile woman he laid eyes on, he jumped at the opportunity.

“It allowed me to play this incredible alpha male, this complete package of testosterone,” says Rhys Meyers of the libidinous king who sired 11 children (three named Henry) and had six wives (“two beheaded, one died, two divorced, one survived,” as the rhyme goes).

“He wasn’t a nice guy, but I found the time he lived in, his relationships and the absolute power he wielded fascinating,” says the actor, who is currently filming the second season of the Irish-Canadian co-production by Toronto-based Peace Arch Entertainment and Ireland’s TM Productions in association with Showtime and CBC.

“I liked messing with the horses, that’s always good fun,” adds Rhys Meyers. “The women were fun, too, but the horses were more.” In the first episode alone, the lusty king beds three different women.

Toronto’s Jeremy Podeswa, who shot two episodes of the lush drama filmed in Ireland, says Hirst wanted to “re-imagine” Henry and remove him from “fried-chicken jokes.

“There was a quote about Henry VIII that said he was the ‘handsomest man in Christendom,’ ” says Podeswa, whose latest feature film Fugitive Pieces opened this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. “We wanted to be more accurate about who he was [in the prime of his youth and reign].”

The director ( Rome, Six Feet Under) says Rhys Meyers was perfect for the lead role in the two-time Emmy-winning show. “Jonathan is unbelievably magnetic,” says Podeswa, referring to the actor whose chiselled good looks and searing blue eyes landed him the gig as the face of Versace as well as Hugo Boss’s new fragrance.

“His eyes are incredible, and he’s extremely commanding. There’s something about Jonathan that is imperial when he wants to be. He brings all the things we were looking for — humour, sexiness and a large personality.”

Rhys Meyers’s family moved to County Cork from Dublin when he was about a year old. When Jonathan was 3, his father left the family, leaving his mother to care for “Jonny” and his three younger brothers.

Not a formally trained actor, Rhys Meyers’s first movie break came in 1996 when director Neil Jordan cast him to play the assassin in Michael Collins.

A talented singer and musician, Rhys Meyers soon after got rave reviews for his performance as Brian Slade in 1998’s Velvet Goldmine. Since then, he has appeared in Bend It Like Beckham, Vanity Fair (with Reese Witherspoon), Woody Allen’s Match Point and Mission: Impossible III. He was also Emmy-nominated (and took home a Golden Globe) for his performance in the TV movie Elvis.

The actor, who’s made a couple of trips to rehab, says he could identify with some of King Henry’s raging demons. “Henry was a young man who wanted to do what young men did. But he had very little freedom. As he grew older, he started to grow more powerful, and his ego grew with it. Was he spoiled? Of course he was. He turned out like young men today who are handed everything. It damages and corrupts a person.”

More than 80 Canadians worked on the series as cast and crew, including Kris Holden-Ried, who plays the king’s best friend William Compton, and Henry Czerny, who plays the Duke of Norfolk.

But over all, it’s a truly international cast, including New Zealand’s Sam Neill (Cardinal Wolsey), Britain’s Jeremy Northam (Sir Thomas Moore), Natalie Dormer (Anne Boleyn) and Gabrielle Anwar (Princess Margaret), and Ireland’s Maria Doyle Kennedy (Queen Catherine of Aragon).

Reached in Los Angeles, Czerny ( The Boys of St. Vincent, Fido) says Hirst emphasized the lushness and brutality of the era for one simple reason. “He made it so it would sell, and people would watch it,” said the actor. (The program drew an audience of over 950,000 when it premiered last week on CBC). “They spent a lot of time and money gathering costumes, building sets with the intent to film something that was — first and foremost — a vehicle to appeal to our most surface selves. It’s a story about egos, and it’s lavishly and sensually shot,” adds Czerny, who attended Montreal’s National Theatre School.

CBC had to edit the program — which ran longer than an hour on Showtime last spring — for length. CBC spokesman Jeff Keay denied the network whittled out scenes with breasts and bottoms to make it more PG-friendly. “In so doing, we may have lost some of the saucy bits, but that wasn’t the point of the exercise. In fact, we re-shot scenes to ensure creative integrity was maintained.

“For example, when our boy beds Lady Blount in episode 1, we eliminated a several-second pan along her body, but we think the scene remained appropriately erotic nonetheless. We weren’t squeamish.”

Having tried to walk in young Henry’s shoes, Rhys Meyers says he’s come to the conclusion he was both a good king and a bad one. “You have to put your head into the 1500s,” he says. “This was a time when bumping someone off was not a major catastrophe. It was an extended arm of politics, and people who opposed those in power, either usurped them or were dead. It really was that simple.

“Henry VIII could be very kind, gregarious and he could surely love,” snickers Rhys Meyers. “But he wasn’t all bad. There is no human out there who is all bad. They may do bad things, but that doesn’t make the whole of them bad. Henry was a human king with a god-like ego.”

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