Wolf Hall’s Damian Lewis on “almost cartoonish” Henry VIII and why Anne Boleyn is a feminist icon

As the Homeland actor takes on the role of the Tudor monarch on PBS Masterpiece, he details what he's learned and why the former king's tale keeps us hooked

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Damian Lewis is stepping into the breeches of King Henry VIII in the upcoming PBS Masterpiece adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies – and has learned there’s plenty to uncover about this memorable ruler.

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The tale charts the unprecedented rise of Thomas Cromwell from a blacksmith’s son to Henry VIII’s closest advisor, as well as detailing the religious upheavals of the Protestant reformation and the King’s tempestuous relationship with Anne Boleyn.

Bafta-winning Peter Kosminsky (The Government Inspector, The Promise) is in the director’s chair as two-time Olivier and three-time Tony Award winner Mark Rylance takes up the role of Cromwell. 

The Tudors are a dynasty that continue to fascinate us, and actor Damian Lewis has learned plenty about Henry VIII during his portrayal of the fiery monarch:

There’s a sportier side to the King that’s often forgotten…

“I think we all have this understanding that he was this womanising, syphilitic, bloated, genocidal Elvis character. And actually the truth is, though it might be an odd thing to mention, he had a 32-inch waist and he remained that way for quite a long time,” Lewis explains.

“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 in Henry is that the grandiose, more paranoid, self indulgent, self pitying, cruel Henry emerged in the period after this series actually. What we’re trying to concentrate on a little bit is just to give a more varied portrait of Henry, and that’s really how this is written.”

The ruler showed sociopathic tendencies 

“What drives Henry – and it is central to our story as well – is his obsession about a male heir. I see in Henry nothing psychotic, I don’t see a psychopath there. I don’t think psychologically that’s true of him. But I think I do see a sociopath, someone who I think is capable of great love; great affection and I think craves that. He craves the normality of that kind of inter-personal relationship with other people, whilst at the same time wanting to be the greatest man, the greatest King, a god-like King who presides over the greatest court of all time.”

Cromwell’s straight-talking nature appealed

“What you see in Hilary’s version of Henry, in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, is that he develops a real affection for Cromwell. I think he likes this man who is humbly born, son of a blacksmith, born in Putney, has more worldly experience than any of the nobles that he’s surrounded by – because Cromwell was a merchant banker, he was an early prototypical merchant banker. 

“This is a man of the world. And I think Henry is utterly taken with his straight talking, no nonsense approach, his intelligence and his legal mind. Henry just becomes wholly dependent on him.”

On the King’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn

“Anne Boleyn was a formidable woman and she had an extraordinary power over Henry. 

“He desired her and he wanted her. I think he also was struck by her undoubted intelligence and her strength of will. I hadn’t realised to what extent Anne Boleyn is something of a feminist icon – that’s something I have learned doing this.”

On our continued fascination with Henry VIII

“It’s very easy to be interested in Henry VIII – he was a memorable, almost cartoonish King. In terms of his achievements, he laid the way for the Common Book of Prayer, the translation of the Bible into English; in a slightly violent way, he created the Church of England and it was his daughter who so expertly then mediated and created and allowed Anglicanism to thrive.

“He made important adjustments to Parliament at the time and music flourished, literature flourished in his reign. But of course the reason we’re interested, is in the six wives and the fact that two of them were beheaded and the obsession with having a son.”

Wolf Hall starts on PBS Masterpiece on Sunday 2 April at 10/9c. See the trailer:

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