For many moviegoers, King Henry VIII conjures the image of a burly, bearlike and paunchy monarch, but Showtime gives him a startling new makeover in "The Tudors," a 10-part series premiering Sunday, April 1.
The project, which presents Henry VIII at an earlier stage in his life, stars Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who won a Golden Globe Award playing Elvis Presley in a 2005 CBS movie. That part may actually have provided some good training for his role in "The Tudors," since this young Henry VIII is depicted as being the rock star of his time.
"The portrait of Henry here is different from the big, fat, red-haired guy type of image," says Rhys Meyers, 29, "but it's very accurate to the historical record. It's a more attractive and physical Henry that I am playing, but it's true.
"Henry spent many years when he was young sleeping in his father's (Henry VII) bed, and his father would tell him everything about life in court -- who was scheming, how to behave, what to do and not do -- so he was very well-schooled. He was also very well-read. So he was very familiar with cutting-edge thinking and writing of the time.
"He was a modernist in many senses, even more so than he realized. He founded the Church of England, which the Queen of England still heads today. He introduced divorce into the equation of marriage. And in his effort to have a son, he gave us Elizabeth I, a kind of founding feminist and one of the most amazing queens the world has ever known."
Executive producer Morgan O'Sullivan says the creative team for the series wanted to make the story immediately accessible for a contemporary audience.
"The drama that happened in the palace was pretty similar to what happens in 'The West Wing,' and if we had a template, it's probably 'The West Wing,' because all of us certainly were such big fans of Aaron Sorkin's writing." he says. "We wanted to make it accessible, not a stiff European drama. All of us came to it with that attitude in mind. That and the pacing were very important."
"In my research, I was always looking for historical scenes which would seem quite contemporary even though people were in costume," adds writer-creator Michael Hirst ("Elizabeth"). "We didn't want another Royal Shakespeare Company or 'Masterpiece Theatre' kind of thing -- all these English actors in period costumes with elaborate and totally contrived mannerisms. We wanted them to be and sound real and think real."
Costume designer Joan Bergin ("The Prestige") says she tried to deconstruct Tudor fashions in subtle ways that would make them sexier and more relatable to modern audiences.
"Henry was a rock star of his time, so we use a lot of leather and a lot of fabrics which are almost modern," Bergin says. "The cut of the collar is high and flattering, with garments cut close to the body to accentuate his physique. He was the Mick Jagger of his day."
It helped that Rhys Meyers is something of a clotheshorse himself, Bergin adds.
"He has a figure great to dress," she explains. "We've kept his clothes quite simple and pared down and spent a lot of money renting the most fabulous jewelry from Laba in Italy, all copies of original work."
Bergin also made work a real joy for actress Natalie Dormer, who plays Henry's ill-fated second wife, Anne Boleyn. After she catches Henry's eye, Anne's position in the court skyrockets, and her costumes reflected that rising status.
"Joan and I had a fantastic time, because as Anne's status grows and she comes further and further into Henry's favor, my costumes just got better and better and better. That was so wonderful, because it helped inform my characterization," Dormer says. "As the weeks passed I would look into the mirror and I would see this glee come over my face, because the jewels were getting brighter and the feathers were getting bigger -- really girlie things, but it must have affected how Anne felt at the time."
In addition to the love triangle involving Henry, Anne and Henry's first wife, Katherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy), "The Tudors" also depicts a political triangle of sorts with Henry, Cardinal Wolsey (Sam Neill) and Sir Thomas More (Jeremy Northam).
Neill's multilayered performance as Wolsey will come as a revelation to viewers who previously have seen the character played mainly as a villain, but there clearly is more to Wolsey than that, Neill says.
"This was a man who ran, albeit ruthlessly, the country extremely effectively for over 20 years," the actor says. "This was a consummate politician, and you don't get to be that good just by being nasty. Henry had some extremely able people around him, although some of them had their careers terminated ahead of time. But he was good at picking able men, and this was an extremely interesting and expansionist period of English history. There were some smart people running the place, and Wolsey was the first of them."
The veteran actor has high praise for his young TV monarch as well.
"He is an extremely accomplished actor, but more than that, he is an extremely charismatic actor," Neill says. "You either have that or you haven't, and Jonny has got that in spades. We got on very, very well. Certainly Henry had that in spades as well. I think that's what suits him best for this role.
"I was quite surprised when I heard he had been cast as Henry VIII, but the closer we got to it, the more sense it made. Jonny is a young, sexy guy, and all the girls loved him, and that was true of Henry as well."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times