Henry VIII, infamous king of England in the 16th century, is often remembered for his gluttonous form, the string of wives he beheaded and his disharmony with the pope. But Damian Lewis, star of the BBC’s new miniseries “Wolf Hall” — a six-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning novels that will premiere in the U.K. on January 21 and on PBS’ “Masterpiece” on April 5 — plans to introduce viewers to a different sort of monarch.
“He was generally regarded as the preeminent sportsman of his era,” said Lewis on Sunday afternoon, at a quaint tea held to honor the series at the Los Angeles home of British Consul-General Chris O’Connor. “He was one of the best hunters, horsemen, jousters, archers. And he was an incredibly trim, fit man — very proud of a fine pair of calves that he had. He used to boast that his calves were better than Philip the Fair’s of France.”
How did Lewis, fresh off of “Homeland,” hone his own physique for the role? “I stuck handkerchiefs down there,” he joked (of his calves), before adding, “No, I wore boots to cover them up.” He also grew a beard and donned square-toed boots, which he thinks “might set a new fashion.”
Weight gain, however, wasn’t a prerequisite. “He had a 32-inch waist for a lot of his lifetime, and he only really ballooned much later on, after a jousting accident… All this ‘tearing bits of chicken flesh and throwing them over your shoulder’; it’s all nonsense,” added Lewis, who brings a charisma, intelligence and sensitivity to the slovenly ruler depicted in portraits.
A fan of the books, Lewis had previously worked on a BAFTA-winning drama about the war in Bosnia with “Wolf Hall” director Peter Kosminsky, who approached him. “The stars lined up,” said the London-born actor, who’s next headed to the Berlin Film Festival with one of his three upcoming films, Werner Herzog’s “Queen of the Desert” (also starring Nicole Kidman and Robert Pattinson), before taking on TV movie “Billions” with Paul Giamatti and returning to the West End stage.
And while he misses his “Homeland” friends and family, he had his fill of Nicholas Brody. “He was very draining to play, but also… it’s right that he’s not in the show anymore,” Lewis said.
At the center of his new family is co-star Mark Rylance, the renowned British stage actor who plays Thomas Cromwell. “Traditionally [Cromwell] has been a sort of secondary character in the wings, always painted as a villain,” said producer Colin Callender, who assembled the team for what he terms “a historical drama for the post-‘Sopranos,’ ‘Breaking Bad’ era” — rife with politics, power, betrayal and loyalty. “But in Hilary Mantel’s books, he’s centerstage. He’s this complex, rich character who’s the adviser to Henry VIII… who’s trying to navigate the moral complexities of the exercise of power, and he’s trying to do the right thing and yet survive,” he said. “It’s a sort of Ray Donovan — it’s like the character Kevin Spacey plays in ‘House of Cards.’”
Rylance wasn’t available for a year — but waiting wasn’t even a question. “He’s a character, who, in his stillness, can tell a million stories,” raved Callender of the actor who won a BAFTA for his last collaboration with Kosminsky (“The Government Inspector”) and will next star in Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG.” “Most great actors can do two or three good things at the same time… he can pay a thousand emotions all at once.”
Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of “Masterpiece” — currently the No. 1-rated show on PBS — agrees. “It’s not an easy book to adapt,” she said, of the task handed to Peter Straughan. “It’s very writerly, and it’s very interior, and there’s a lot of politics, and a lot of characters, and what you have to do is be drawn like a moth to a flame to Thomas Cromwell. You have to really care, and Mark Rylance is that kind of actor.”
Rylance himself is far more modest. “[It’s] not that I try to bring anything to the role, as much as just bring it to life,” said the esteemed star, whose interest in the book peaked after watching his wife get emotional while reading it. Of his character, who presumably had a hand in the genocide and dissolution of the monasteries, he summarized: “The book starts with something like, ‘So, get up, so get up,’ his dad is saying to him, having beaten him to the floor at age 12 — nearly beaten him to death. ‘So get up.’ So he’s the kind of guy that gets up.”
There is sympathy in the portrait of Henry, who was handed the thrown after the death of his brother. Noted Kosminsky, “Having watched the previous century England torn apart in civil war, [Henry’s] main objective was to secure succession, so that England would not be ripped apart by another battle for supremacy between the powerful land-owning families. And that’s why he was so obsessed with having a male heir — and all the wives were really an attempt to get a male heir,” he explained. (“That’s what they all say,” quipped Rylance.)
Kosminsky’s series charts the triangle between Henry, his confidant Cromwell (“the man who rose to be the second most powerful man in England from being the son of a blacksmith”) and Henry’s second of six wives, Anne Boleyn. “We’re so used to looking at these people within the sweep of history, as sort of epic characters. Hilary’s triumph is to make us see them as just ordinary people living their lives. And our job is to try and reflect that in the way we made the show,” said the director, who shot these six hours of television in 85 days at landmark Tudor and medieval locations around England.
But don’t think they took any liberties. “This is historically accurate in a way that previous TV dramas have not been,” said Callender of their hard work to preserve authenticity in wardrobe and set design. “The story is told through Cromwell’s point of view, but the drama is very thoroughly researched. It’s shot on real locations where events took place; it’s very much the story as it happened.”
(Pictured: “Wolf Hall’s” Colin Callender, Damian Lewis, Mark Rylance, Rebecca Eaton and Peter Kosminsky)