Nineteen British prime ministers and numerous princes have passed through the hallowed halls of Eton, but no king of our country has been an alumnus of the ancient college. Yet Damian Lewis believes his time at the elite public school was the perfect training for his role as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall (starting on PBS Masterpiece).
Lewis, who’s previously admitted keeping his education secret to avoid typecasting, says that his experience of his alma mater has given him a deep understanding of aristocratic life. “I think there’s no question it helps having had the kind of schooling that I’ve had to play a king. Just the sort of court structure, hierarchies, the way they’re set up. It’s something I feel I implicitly understand.”
The former Band of Brothers and Homeland star admits that, aside from the nature of his own education, there are other areas in which he felt a close affinity with the Tudor monarch. “The more I read about Henry, the more I was happy — and alarmed — to find that I did share character traits with him,” he says. “I suppose everyone else will be the judge of it, but certainly sitting in the clothes, it feels like a canny piece of casting, because I do find similarities between myself and him.”
While the average viewer’s knowledge of Henry may extend no further than a vague recollection of a yearning for a male progeny and a propensity for uxoricide, Lewis is keen to dispel the stereotype of the king as a “womanising, syphilitic, bloated, genocidal Elvis character.
“Actually the truth is, though it might be an odd thing to mention, that Henry had a 32-inch waist — and he remained that way for quite a long time. He was the pre-eminent sportsman in his court. He was much taller than anyone else. His beautiful, pale complexion was often remarked upon by commentators.
“And so I think what I’ve found is that the grandiose, more paranoid, self-indulgent, self-pitying, cruel Henry emerged in the period after this series. What we’re trying to concentrate on is just to give a more varied portrait of Henry, and that’s really how this is written.”
“Henry craves the normality of that kind of interpersonal relationship with other people, while at the same time wanting to be the greatest man, the greatest king, a God-like king presiding over the greatest court of all time.”
Wolf Hall begins on PBS Masterpiece on Sunday 2 April at 10/9c