On a sunny September day near Killruddery House, an Elizabethan mansion outside of Dublin, Jonathan Rhys Meyers strides imperiously across an immaculately seeded lawn. Clad in a purple velvet cloak and an elaborately embroidered rose-colored doublet, he looks every inch the king he is portraying.
Relaxing in his trailer later, the 29-year-old actor admits that the spirit of King Henry VIII, his role in Showtime's new 10-part series, The Tudors (Sundays at 10 pm/ET), has inhabited him so thoroughly that his demands — mainly along the lines of "Get us a cup of tea, love," he says — have become more regal, too. "There is a certain level of arrogance that has to seep into your system if you are playing the king," Rhys Meyers says with a smile. "Although I'm sure it was there before."
For those whose memories need refreshing, Henry VIII ruled England from 1509 until his death in 1547 at age 55. He is famous for bringing about the Reformation; infamous for having had six wives whose fates spawned the children's rhyme, "Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived."
While the most commonly held image of the British king is as a fat, bearded, middle-aged man, The Tudors, which premiered April 1, focuses on the life and loves of the young, twentysomething royal, who was lithe, attractive and excelled at jousting — on the playing fields and in the bedroom.
"Henry had an injury [later in life] that left him very sedentary and fat, and he drank too much," says executive producer Morgan O'Sullivan. "But in his day, he had a sort of brat pack around him. They were out to drink, chase women and have fun — and we're showing all of that."
The series — which also stars Sam Neill as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Jeremy Northam as Sir Thomas More and Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn — spans 10 years and has the hallmarks of classic soapy drama: power, money, sex and betrayal. "It was a period of great extremes," says screenwriter Michael Hirst, who also wrote the 1998 film Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett. "Life was short, but it was extremely passionate. I showed the script to Bob Greenblatt, head of Showtime Entertainment, who read it and asked, 'Is any of this true?' I said, 'About 85 percent.' There was a long pause and he said, 'S--t!'"
Rhys Meyers, a Dublin native, says he knew very little about Henry before donning the crown. "I knew that he beheaded Anne Boleyn, but I didn't know the intricate details about why he did that. Now I know it was because he needed a son."
While Rhys Meyers says he doesn't like to watch himself on screen (he has yet to watch his Golden Globe-winning performance in the 2005 CBS miniseries Elvis), his turn as Henry has earned him the respect of his bosses. "Like Henry, if you're in his company he makes you feel special, but he can switch from being affable to steely," Hirst says. "So I wrote scenes to reflect that."
But don't expect stilted historical language or for the series to get bogged down in esoteric politics. Ultimately there are as many scenes in the royal bedroom as there are in the throne room. "Henry is just a guy caught between two women. He runs a big company called the Country," Hirst says. "This is a young man with absolute power, and ultimately he is f--ked up by love."
That love is Anne Boleyn, who became his second wife after he dumped Katherine of Aragon. The on-screen chemistry between Rhys Meyers and Dormer is undeniable, and sparked at her audition. "I basically spent an hour kissing Jonathan," she recalls. "I walked away thinking, 'Well, if I don't get the job it doesn't matter — I've kissed Jonathan Rhys Meyers!'"
It's not just kissing her costar that Dormer, 24, is enthusiastic about. She likens her role to "every girl's dream," partly because of the fabulous dresses. The costumes — bejeweled velvet gowns, ermine robes and pearl-encrusted brocades, silks and organzas — are among the costars of the show. "The Tudors' motto was 'More is more,'" explains costume designer Joan Bergin. "King Henry spent the equivalent of millions of dollars on jewelry in a year."
When the afternoon's filming starts, Rhys Meyers canters furiously on horseback toward Dormer for a reunion between Henry and Anne. The two lovers kiss passionately. The director calls, "Cut!" but their lips linger together for several moments. Eventually Rhys Meyers swaggers away, bristling with virility.
It seems that — despite the surrounding cast, crew and cameras — the spirit of King Henry lives on.
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