Categories Interviews Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall: Damian Lewis and Mark Rylance on bringing the intrigue of the Tudor court to life

Just a note: The article incorrectly states he’ll be doing a play in February when he’ll be working on the Showtime pilot Billions in January/February.

Blinded by the dominant Holbein portrait of a later, more corpulent Henry, I was initially surprised by the casting of Damian Lewis. But striding across Broughton Castle’s lawn, fully costumed and ready shoot a banqueting scene, the red-haired Homeland star looks every inch the Tudor monarch. “Henry was always painted as this larger than life roistering, philandering, syphilitic sort of Tudor Elvis,” says Lewis. “Although there might some truth in that towards the end, he started with a 34-inch waist and was regarded as a great athlete.

“I think he’s also very biddable, very impressionable, because he doesn’t concentrate on the affairs of state,” he continues. “And anyone who was concentrating – like Wolsey and Cromwell – and were quietly working the angles, were able to easily influence him.”

Although he filmed his role in the spy thriller Our Kind of Traitor just before Wolf Hall, that John le Carré adaptation won’t be released until later in 2015, and with King Henry, Lewis couldn’t have chosen a better role for putting distance between himself and Sergeant Brody. “Projects like Homeland are one in a million,” he says, “and if you happen to be in something that garners global acclaim that rapidly then it’s very heady… like a forest fire… and quite overwhelming at times. But it’s also a little bubble that exists on its own… it doesn’t really have much to do with the rest of my career.”

Brody was written out of Homeland after three seasons, leaving Claire Danes to go it alone. “I only expected to be in two series and then got another season, which was a bonus and brilliant,” he says. “And then quite rightly my head was lopped off – or I was strung up at least [Brody was hanged by the Iranian authorities in the season three finale]. That was absolutely the right decision. Anyway, being in anything for seven years makes me very nervous; I think it probably does for most actors… most British actors anyway. I had said that I didn’t want to do any more TV because the hours are very long and I have two very little children and I wasn’t going to move everyone to North Carolina.”

The two small children – Gulliver and Manon – are with Helen McCrory, his wife of seven years and the star of Skyfall, the Harry Potter movies and Peaky Blinders – the couple juggling parental duties between acting jobs. Lewis’s next assignments are both in theatre – a Broadway run of Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana in February, and a new West End production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo in April. Does he feel that he has to actively reconfigure his career after the star-making success of Homeland?

“I might be a bit wary of playing another soldier,” says Lewis, whose television breakthrough came in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers, and who also played a British Army major in Peter Kosminsky’s 1999 Bosnia-set drama about UN peacekeepers, Warriors. “But if the personality of that soldier and the context of that soldier is different – then who knows?” In fact, since we spoke, Lewis has been cast opposite Nicole Kidman as a Victorian soldier in Werner Herzog’s upcoming film about the explorer Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert.

“People do keep asking me to do comedy and I love doing comedy and I’m always thinking about it,” he says. “I suppose I get my comedy kicks doing Have I Got News for You, and also it’s hard finding funny comedy. I quite like the idea of the immediacy of sitcom acting, and I would have loved to have been in something like The Office. Even Friends… when Friends was good it was really good.”

Lewis may also have a go at directing, and he hints at a project “that I could mention but I’m going to wait”. If the world seems to be his oyster then that is of course largely thanks to Homeland – leaving him in a similar position to his friend and fellow Old Etonian, Dominic West, when West’s career-changing stint in The Wire came to an end. “Of course it’s exciting to have had that success, and, yes, it does raise your stock,” says Lewis. “And that’s for the good because how can it not be?”

“I think it was a brilliant move on the part of Damian Lewis to go from Homeland into a role that’s completely different and a world that’s completely different,” says Wolf Hall producer Colin Callender, although Lewis himself argues that there is a thriller element in Hilary Mantel’s tales. “You’ll just see the machinations of courtly life, and that should unravel like a thriller,” he says. “You should get the feeling that no one quite knows if they’re safe or not, from whims of this magnetic but capricious king.

“Really what dominates Henry is this idea that he must secure his succession,” continues Lewis, “and that can only be done in his eyes through a son; ironic of course that his daughter ended up being one of our greatest monarchs… he needn’t have worried so much.”

‘Wolf Hall’ starts on 21 January at 9pm on BBC2

Source: The Independent