Damian Lewis and Mark Rylance revel in a new take on king and countryman in Masterpiece Theatre's Wolf Hall.
Forget what you think you know about Henry VIII. Do like Damian Lewis and consider a new interpretation.
The former Homeland star plays the monarch in Wolf Hall, the BBC-Masterpiece Theatre six-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel's 2009 novel of the same name as well as its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies (2012).
The books are the first two of a trilogy about Henry's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, and both won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction.
It was Mantel's refreshing take on the monarch (which writer Peter Straughan adapted for television) that first drew Lewis to the project.
"There were interesting surprises there," he says, noting that the king "is in many ways a change from the popular image we have of Henry as a chicken drumstick-chewing, roistering, boisterous sort of carousing king."
Also, aside from "a little padding" added in the later episodes, Henry appears svelte, vital and young.
"I'm actually relieved by the knee-length boots I was given," Lewis admits, "so no one can compare my scrawny chicken legs to his famous calf muscles."
What's more, Lewis asserts, contrary to the brutishness of Henry's historical reputation, "I think that he loved women. He loved the idea of romantic, courtly love, that a woman would love him back and he would love her.
"There was romance involved," he adds of Henry's couplings. "It wasn't just contractual. And he wrote love letters and went about it as clumsily as any of us."
Good to know about the monarch whose desperate attempts to produce a male heir resulted in six marriages and two spousal beheadings. The political and religious tumult caused by Henry's battle, and eventual break, with the Catholic Church over his repeated need for annulment is an oft-told tale.
Yet Mantel made it newly compelling with a humanistic, intimate narrative and a choice to view the story not from Henry's perspective, but through the rise and fall of lawyer, statesman and consummate palace operator,Thomas Cromwell,
Stage and screen actor Mark Rylance stars opposite Lewis — a fellow Brit — in Wolf Hall, airing April 5 through May 10 on PBS.
It is a production imbued with political intrigue, lushly appointed with a dizzying spectacle of period wardrobe and propelled by the cream of the U.K. acting crop. Executive producers include Rebecca Eaton and Colin Callender; Peter Kosminsky directed.
Lewis sees Henry as a tragic figure.
"He was a true Renaissance man," the actor says. "He wanted to be hunting, writing poetry, learning languages and designing castles. He lacked the concentration for the details of governance. This meant that people could just whisper in his ear — and sow seeds of doubt, conspiracy and political unease — and he listened."
He was a pawn, of sorts, Lewis continues. "Henry is beholden to his chromosomes. And Cromwell — and everyone else — is beholden to the king. It's a time of great danger for everybody, when powerful men are caught in a situation not of their own making."
In Cromwell, Henry sees an ally — at least for a while — and something close to a mentor.
"He likes him because he speaks the truth to power and is unwavering," Lewis observes. "Cromwell is a modern man. He's the epitome of a man able to rise through the ranks from humble birth to assume a position of power. It's an American idea, really, and the first time in modern European history that this kind of man was able to exist."
For Rylance, the two characters have, initially at least, a relationship akin to that of siblings.
"Henry seems to be flung around a bit the way a 13-or 14-year-old in a religious school would be flung around," he says. "Suddenly he's been cast into a mainstream high school where he's expected to f—k all the cheerleaders."
Conversely, he says of Cromwell, "I feel [he is more] like the older brother... certainly more traveled and experienced than Henry."
The characters' cross-generational bond somewhat mirrors that of the two actors. Lewis makes no secret of his admiration for Rylance. "He's developed a reputation for great invention and original ways of looking at roles," Lewis says. "He's tremendously exciting, he's brilliant, and he's a big reason that I took on the part."
Rylance, who will likely be a revelation to many American viewers, has a decades-long reputation among theater audiences in both the U.K. and the U.S.
His family emigrated to the U.S. when he was two, and he spent his formative years in Milwaukee before applying to London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Since then, he's made his home in England, where he was the artistic director of the Globe Theatre for a decade, until 2005. He regularly jets across the pond for Broadway productions, which have garnered him three Tony Awards.
Americans will soon be more familiar with his film presence. Sean Penn requested Rylance as his costar for the recently released The Gunman, and he is on board for the next two Steven Spielberg films, a yet-to-be-titled Cold War thriller and an adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel The BFG.
Having been only scarcely acquainted with Cromwell's historical import before reading the novels, Rylance was grateful for Mantel's deep dive into such a complicated figure.
"She gives you a huge amount of material about what he's thinking, how he thinks, how he's weighing and calculating what each person is about. It was great to have so much of that backstory and internal dialogue, which was not apparent on the surface but was going on underneath."
Of his cross-pond upbringing, he notes: "When I'm in England, I tend to be aware of having an American mentality, and when I'm in America, I'm aware of having an English mentality. I'm a participant and a witness, which is not an unnatural state for my profession."
That dual role of insider and outsider also makes him an apt choice to play — as Lewis puts it — an arriviste, or social climber, like Cromwell.
But might American viewers struggle to relate to a drama about life under a monarchy?
In response, Rylance refers to the upcoming U.S. presidential race: "I hear President Bush's brother is going to run against Hillary Clinton. It's moving pretty quickly to the idea of a few privileged families who throw up a relative, and the privy council decides which one will get the backing and become the king — er, president."
Photos by Maarten De Boer