Damian Lewis Talks Henry VIII and Masterpiece's New Wolf Hall Miniseries

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Power-hungry hangers-on, backroom dealings, betrayal, and sycophants currying favor all go into the mix of Masterpiece’s new six-part, miniseries Wolf Hall. And while it may sound like it’s set in modern-day Washington à la House of Cards, the new show actually takes place during the 16th Century, at the court of Henry VIII.

It turns out, the story of the much-married king and his cohorts simply cannot be told too many times. In its Masterpiece incarnation, the narrative is presented from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance, The Gunman), who plays a kind of king whisperer—the power behind the throne.

“Cromwell was the first civil servant really,” Damian Lewis tells Paste. He stars as Henry VIII in the series, which is based on the historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel.

“This was a guy who didn’t rise to prominence through being an aristocrat, or through the ranks of the church. He was a blacksmith’s son who became the second-most powerful man in the land, and was essentially Henry VIII’s fixer—making use of Parliament in a way that it hadn’t really been used before. I think, that’s why this feels so modern. It is the beginning of modern life as we know it.”

Wolf Hall, which takes its name from the famous Latin phrase “man is wolf to man,” follows the career of Cromwell, as first he serves Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), and then deftly picks his way through the complex machinations—helping the king to free himself from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley) in order to allow him to marry Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) and, hopefully, sire a male heir—that were necessary to survive in the court of Henry VIII.

“I think Henry is a capricious, mercurial man, and a man who, I hope, in this rendering of him, isn’t simply the syphilitic, philandering Elvis that people have tended to think he is,” Lewis says. “Actually, he was a more complex man than that, and needed these two great lieutenants in his life—Wolsey, initially, and then Cromwell. He needed them for the minutia, the detail of everyday governance, because he liked to go hunting. So I hope we’ll see a more rounded picture of him.”

During the period in which Wolf Hall is set, Henry was much admired and revered as a Renaissance man. He was a composer. He spoke many languages. He was an excellent jouster, huntsman, falconer, and archer. He was an architect, a designer, a composer, and a man who wrote bad love poetry. And so, to have company in his endeavors, he surrounded himself with a court of royals with similar qualities.

“He demanded those skills,” Lewis says. “It was a return to the chivalric time of Thomas Malory, and also a sort of Middle Ages-time, like in the 5th and 6th century with Arthur and his round table of knights, the Gawains and the Lancelots. He consciously tried to create that idea of a chivalric court. And he was a wonderful, brilliant, childlike—at times boyish—man.”

Lewis is following in the footsteps of numerous other actors who have played Henry—Charles Laughton, Robert Shaw, Richard Burton, Ray Winston and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. And like Meyers, Lewis is playing the young king, who was famous for his red hair and was considered to be one of the most handsome princes in all Christendom. It wasn’t until later in his reign and after a terrible accident that Henry became the corpulent king as depicted in the portrait by Hans Holbein.

“Henry had a 32-inch waist,” Lewis says. “He had a waist like mine. He was a svelte guy into his 40s when his horse rolled on him in a jousting accident. He was unconscious for two hours, and he came back from the dead. They had proclaimed him dead, and he came back after two hours. But after that he became slower, fatter, and he ended up with a 54 or 56-inch waist. He really ballooned.”

So how does Lewis have all this Henry VIII trivia at his fingertips? He read a great many history books and immersed himself in historical documentaries for the role. What he didn’t do was watch the performances of Richard Burton or Ray Winston. Those, he felt, wouldn’t be useful.

What was helpful, of course, was growing up in the United Kingdom where he attended English boarding schools. Naturally, history was a required part of the curriculum.

“I started at King Albert burning the cakes in the 9th century, and went through Plantagenet history, which for us is the Richards,” Lewis says of his school days. “Everyone knows Richard III. The end of Plantagenet history was 1485, which is six years before Henry was born in 1491. His dad [Henry Tudor] famously fought Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Richard said, ‘My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse,’ and Henry Tudor fished the crown out of a thorn bush. That’s just a part of history. It’s the mythology that we all learn.”

Masterpiece’s Wolf Hall premieres the first of six episodes on Sunday, April 5 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on PBS.