“IT’S GOOD to be King!” said Mel Brooks in “The History of the World, Part I.” It’s good to be Jonathan Rhys Meyers, too. This young actor — only 30, though acting since his teens — has hit his stride. He plays a new kind of Henry VIII in Showtime’s opulent and sexy “The Tudors,” which begins its second season Sunday. I met with Jonathan down in Manhattan’s Soho, at the trendy 60 Thompson Street hotel. He looked, head to toe, like a page from men’s Vogue. He is impossibly handsome. His features are startlingly lush; the eyes, the famous mouth. Like a matinee idol of years past — Tyrone Power, perhaps — even if Jonathan weren’t a famous actor, he’d stop any room he entered. (The Dublin native began his career playing a glam-rocker in the cult classic “Velvet Goldmine” and he exudes a slightly decadent, ambiguous rock-star glamour.) The star is kinetic, and at first, almost disconcertingly intense. He laughs, “Oh, I know it. People always say to me, you’re so jittery, you can’t sit still, you’re nervous. But I’m not nervous. I’m just a very excitable guy. I’m enthusiastic. I can’t help myself.” He says that when he made “Mission: Impossible III” with Tom Cruise, he found somebody else with a similar powerful energy. “I had a great time on that, and when Tom and I were together it was like, whoosh!, all the air in the room evaporated. He was terrific to work with because he is so committed and professional. I mean, 17 hours a day. You have to respect that.”
I REMIND Jonathan that we’d met briefly once before, at the premiere of his Woody Allen thriller, “Match Point.” I hadn’t been able to talk at length with him that night. But, when I passed him at the party, I said, “Great film, great performance, but what a sociopath your character is.” Jonathan stepped back and barked, “He’s not a sociopath, he’s just a guy in a bad spot.” I didn’t pursue further niceties. So now I ask, was Henry VIII a sociopath or “just a guy in a bad spot?” Jonathan says: “Neither. He’s a megalomaniac, somebody with absolute power who has been corrupted by it, absolutely. He was a great King in many ways, and did great things. But he also did terrible things. Not just to his women, but to his people. In the matter of divorcing Catherine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyn, challenging the church, he gave his people no choice. Choose the Pope or the King, be excommunicated by the Pope or excommunicated by the King. And God help you if you choose the Pope! I’m trying to show how he became what he became, why he was so paranoid, why he was so ashamed. He was paranoid because everybody wanted to be King and the knives were everywhere, literally. He was ashamed because in the matter of Catherine and Anne, he knew he’d done wrong. He never doubted the legitimacy of his marriage to Catherine. He wanted Anne, period.”
JONATHAN, slender, toned, not towering in height, is a very different Henry than we’ve seen before. “I had some trepidation, when offered the role. You know, when I played Elvis, I could look in the mirror, and sort of see Elvis in myself. But Henry the VIII? So, you know, I decided I’d play it more from here,” touching the smooth plane of his semi-bare chest. “I do think we’ve sort of changed the game. When I saw photos of Eric Bana as Henry in “The Other Boleyn Girl” I thought, “Fuck! He doesn’t look that dissimilar from me. I worried a little how I’d stack up. He’s so tall; he’s got that overpowering quality. And I’ve met him. He handed me my Golden Globe for ‘Elvis.” I remember just looking way up! But this is the 21st century. You have to have a hot Henry VIII! Nobody wants to see a 300 pound man making love to a beautiful woman. Maybe on some strange Internet site, but otherwise audiences demand eye-candy all around.”
The network is already planning a third season, minus the unfortunate ladies, Anne and Catherine, who meet their respective ends this year. Jonathan says, “I hope season three focuses on the rebellion in Scotland, where you see Henry fight for a change.” I wondered if the series would touch on the pathetic Katherine Howard, the second wife to lose her head? Jonathan couldn’t say, but did remark that Mistress Howard “absolutely deserved to be beheaded. Anne Boleyn was executed because there was no other way to get out of that. She couldn’t give him a son and that was the reason for the marriage. But Katherine Howard earned her beheading. She was a little nymphomaniac. She had over one hundred lovers in the palace!” Now, I begged to differ with Jonathan; she’d had a number of indiscreet affairs before and, alas, during her marriage to Henry, but a “nympho” a “hundred lovers?” The actor was adamant and I let it go — you don’t argue with Jonathan Rhys Meyers! He did soften slightly, “Well, she was very young and silly, the poor thing had no concept of ‘wed and bed’ — she didn’t see she was doing anything wrong, Henry being rather gross by then.” Jonathan spoke glowingly of Maria Doyle Kennedy, who plays Catherine, and infuses her every moment with dignity and strength, “Isn’t she magnificent?!” he exclaimed. And of the delectable Natalie Dormer, as Anne, he insists, “season two belongs to her. She owns it; she plays it like a harp and broke down walls with this performance.”
On the bigscreen, Jonathan will soon be seen in “The Children of Hunag Shi,” in which he plays a reporter covering the infamous Japanese occupation of China in 1937. And then comes “Mandrake,” based on the comicbook character, Mandrake the Magician.
HE STUDIED when very young at the foot of the great Italian director Lucino Visconti…He helped form the iconic operatic career of Maria Callas and became one of her intimate friends…He breathed new life into Shakespeare with a beautiful version of “Romeo and Juliet” in 1967, using actual teenagers playing teenagers…He gave Elizabeth Taylor a lusty shot at the Bard in “The Taming of the Shrew”…He offered Cher her last good movie role in his autobiographical film “Tea With Mussolini”…He raised the TV miniseries genre to a new level of quality with “Jesus of Nazereth.” I do mean the one and only Franco Zeffirelli. On Saturday, at the Metropolitan Opera, Franco will receive a special plaque during the opening night intermission of his production of “La Boheme.” This lush version of Puccini’s tragic tale is the most performed production in Met history. It has been staged 346 times! Believe me, even if opera is not “your thing,” Zeffirelli’s concept conquers all. When Franco’s Mimi coughs at the start of the third act, you realize that NyQuil won’t help.