History comes alive on 'The Tudors'

History comes alive on 'The Tudors'
OH, HENRY! Jonathan Rhys Meyers, signed through Season 3, makes a slim ’n’ sexy Henry VIII in Showtime’s “The Tudors.” (Jonathan Hession / Showtime)
NEW YORK -- "The Tudors," the racy, richly appointed series that returns to Showtime on Sunday for its second season, has never purported to be obsessed with authenticity.

But creator and executive producer Michael Hirst admitted he took substantial liberties with a line he penned for a scene in the upcoming 10-episode arc, in which a frustrated Anne Boleyn scolds King Henry XIII for maintaining ties with his wife, Queen Katherine.
"The Tudors": An article in Friday's Calendar section about the Showtime series "The Tudors" referred to a scene in which Anne Boleyn scolds King Henry XIII. She scolds King Henry VIII. —

"You can't have three people in a marriage," the king's mistress beseeches him.

If that sounds familiar, perhaps it's because Princess Diana of Wales made a similar remark about her own troubled marriage in more recent times.

"I was very naughty," Hirst said. "I had Anne Boleyn say it because it was an extraordinarily similar situation. I like the fact that I can put in these contemporary references, just to point out that things don't change that much."

For Showtime, the lavish drama's resonance with a 21st century audience has been at the center of its appeal. For all of its ornate costumes and elaborate court customs, the show's sensibilities -- and sexual obsessions -- feel remarkably current day.

"There's a romantic nature to the period and the clothes and the glamour that's historical," said Robert Greenblatt, Showtime's entertainment president. "But we've also positioned it in a way that feels very modern.. . . . We unabashedly call this a soap."

This season's pathos may be compounded by the fact that many American viewers are apparently unaware of Boleyn's dark fate, something the network discovered when it held focus groups to test the series' marketing campaign.

"They're not hooked into every detail, which is a good thing for us, because we can tell the story the way we need to tell it and much of it is fresh to people," Greenblatt said.

For the most part, the story line hews to historical record. When "The Tudors" resumes, Henry (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is still locked in a tense conflict with the Catholic Church over his demand for an annulment so he can marry the bewitching Boleyn, played by Natalie Dormer. The ensuing power struggle leads to Henry's break with the church and the English Reformation, only to have the king order his new queen beheaded after she fails to produce a male heir.

This season, veteran Irish actor Peter O'Toole joined the cast as Pope Paul III, who excommunicates Henry after he marries Anne without the church's permission.

In fact, it was Pope Clement VII, who preceded Paul, who rejected Henry's request for an annulment. (Hirst sped up the succession to create a new role for O'Toole.)

The longtime actor said he wasn't bothered that the series deviates from history.

"Give me a sense of antiquity, by all means," O'Toole said. "Give me a whiff of the period. But I worked with too many boring designers and boring directors who say, 'But we didn't have horseshoes in those days.' Come on! As long as you don't walk around in a pair of Bermuda shorts."

Rhys Meyers, whose Henry is far more lithe than the iconic images of the rotund king, said, "You have to make Henry for an audience today, otherwise they're going to be bored."

Still, unlike other actors who have assumed the role, "I have to work harder internally, because I'm not 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, where you immediately go, 'Henry!' " he noted. "I have to be a king inside out."

Channeling the intensity of a young royal coming into his own made the second season more taxing than the first, said the 30-year-old actor.

"He takes on a hell of a lot more power than he had," said Rhys Meyers. "I think I'm probably the first actor to play Henry so young. Most actors don't come to Henry till they're 40 years old, so they don't have to go through the impetuous mistakes that Henry made. They only ever see the all-powerful, all-great Henry. But he has to get to that place, and I took him there."

The king comes across as "a very, very flawed, greedy, selfish man" in Season 2, added Rhys Meyers, who is unconcerned that the unsympathetic portrait will turn off viewers.

"I don't care," he said flatly.

For her part, Dormer said she hopes her portrayal of Boleyn will help shift perceptions about Henry's second wife, who spent most of the first season scheming to supplant Katherine.

"I very much hope that in the arc of the second season, surreptitiously, without the audience realizing it, they're increasingly empathetic for Anne," said the 26-year-old. "She becomes a maternal, loving human being, and as the walls close in on her, I'd very much like to think that the audience comes around to being with her, so by the time you see her death, everyone is moved by it."

Dormer, who read four biographies about Boleyn before taking the part, said she felt a powerful emotional connection to the character. On a visit to the Tower of London, where Boleyn was executed, the actress said she was overcome and began weeping.

"I find it a heartbreaking story," she said. "I really do feel that this role is one for the sisterhood."

Dormer lobbied Hirst to add more references in the series to Boleyn's influence on the Reformation, based on her research about the doomed queen.

"She truly was an evangelical," she said. "There's a faith there. I get quite upset when people just label her as an opportunist."

In Season 2, Boleyn contends with an abrupt loss of the king's affections when Henry moves on to new paramours, including queen-to-be Jane Seymour.

Despite his avid libido, the much-remarked-upon steaminess of the first season has been somewhat toned down.

"That was one of hooks to get people in the door," Greenblatt admitted.

But the new episodes don't lose any of the show's rich gloss. Costume designers created around 1,500 pieces for the sumptuous production. It's the most costly series undertaken by Showtime, with episodes running about $4 million each, a tab split among the show's Irish and Canadian co-producers.

The network believes the investment is worth it. Last season's premiere episode averaged nearly 1.48 million viewers, Showtime's highest debut of a new series. If this season fares well, executives hope to produce two more installments covering the last four of Henry's wives. (So far, Rhys Meyers is only signed on for one more season.)

If the series goes that long, "we do need to see a physical change in Henry," Hirst acknowledged, but he promised that "we're not going for the fat look. We're going to do it in different ways."