Original article at WSJ Magazine
HAS THERE EVER LIVED a lustier, more murderous cast of characters than the Tudors? The infamy of the English dynasty owes largely to the treacherous 38-year reign of Henry VIII, but an even more compelling character may be his enabler and brain for hire, Thomas Cromwell, the commoner who rose in his court to become a kind of Henry whisperer, an advisor renowned for his ability to read the king’s mind like a book. For 500 years, Cromwell was viewed as a great heavy in the Tudor drama, a character whose lure became irresistible to the British novelist Hilary Mantel. “When I was researching, I started off with a fairly conventional viewpoint: that Cromwell’s a villain but an interesting villain,” Mantel says. “Then I began to discover other things and modified my view very fast.” Cromwell was the consummate fixer—in Mantel’s words, “the man to cut through some legal entanglement that’s ensnared you for three generations, or talk your sniffling little daughter into the marriage she swears she will never make.” Mantel also found him unusually sympathetic: After the deaths of his wife and daughters, he went on to support his large extended family. She devoted eight years and a thousand pages to novelizing the first 51 years of Cromwell’s life with Wolf Hall, released in 2009, and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, published three years later.
The books made Mantel a literary star—the first British author to win the Man Booker Prize twice. Naturally, film producers came calling. “There were many suitors, yes,” she says. But her books are serious works of historical fiction. The Tudors—notably in the Showtime series of the same name and the filmed adaptation of The Other Boleyn Girl—had been transformed in the popular imagination as characters scheming and copulating through airbrushed Hollywood bodice rippers (“bonkbusters,” as the genre is known in England). Mantel feared what would become of her Cromwell in the wrong hands, how tempting it might be to drown him in an orgiastic, Game of Thrones–style bloodbath.One suitor stood out from the rest: Colin Callender, the British-born producer who’d just left HBO after 21 years to start his own production company. As the president of HBO films, Callender had overseen the production of John Adams, a miniseries based on David McCullough’s biography. Mantel loved the seriousness of the project—the fact that it starred Paul Giamatti, not Tom Cruise—and that it made colonial life look as cold and austere as history tells us it was. Callender, she trusted, wouldn’t make the Tudors, in her word, too “cute.”
While devouring Wolf Hall, Callender recognized something novel, but also enticingly familiar, about Cromwell. As he’d seen firsthand at HBO, The Sopranos had irrevocably darkened the public’s taste and tolerance of its television protagonists, opening the doors for the likes of House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, Ray Donovan and, Callender imagined, the centuries-despised Thomas Cromwell. “Audiences are increasingly interested in characters who live on both sides of the moral equation,” Callender says. “I thought, here was the way to reinvigorate the television historical drama for the post–Sopranos,Breaking Bad world.” The rights to Mantel’s book became the first acquisition at Callender’s Playground Entertainment. Now he just needed actors with the gifts to sell Mantel’s portrayal of the insatiable Henry and his deft consigliere, Cromwell.
THERE ARE MANY who swear that Mark Rylance, the man Callender tapped to play Cromwell, is the greatest actor alive, that seeing him embody the small-time drug dealer Johnny “Rooster” Byron in Jerusalem is as close to a religious experience as the theater can offer. At lunch on a Pasadena, California, hotel patio, Rylance blushes, looking at his feet while Damian Lewis, who plays Wolf Hall’s Henry VIII, testifies to his brilliance. “I don’t know who the greatest actor is—it’s kind of a ridiculous notion—but if you haven’t seen Mark onstage, I’m here to tell you he’s extraordinary,” Lewis says. “He’s kind of cornered the market in redefining characters that we think we know.”
As they are both actors who spent their early professional years performing the Bard at the Royal Shakespeare Company, it might be tempting for American audiences to toss Rylance and Lewis into the same classically trained British actor bin. But just eyeballing them sitting next to each other suggests that their social circles rarely intersect. Rylance, who arrived wearing his trademark fedora, comes across as a theater bohemian, with silver Navajo bracelets on each wrist (he’s actively involved in Survival International, a group committed to protecting tribal people around the world) and a short-sleeved patterned bowling shirt; Lewis, the Eton-educated, St. John’s Wood–reared son of London privilege, is chic in a tailored dark blue shirt, designer jeans and a Rolex, and carries himself with a natural masculine confidence. Given that Rylance has spent his life projecting his voice onstage—he’s won three Tonys and two Oliviers—it’s surprising that he speaks so softly one has to lean in to hear him, even sitting a few feet away. (As a child, Rylance suffered from an intense shyness that kept him from speaking a word until he was 6.)
Through Wolf Hall, Rylance has taken on the job that Mantel began—redefining Cromwell, saving him even, almost 500 years after he was beheaded on trumped-up charges of treason. Rylance, best described as sprightly, might not be the first actor who comes to mind to play Cromwell; in Wolf Hall he’s a physically imposing brute who had likely killed a man or two in close combat during his mysterious younger days and was depicted in the enduring Hans Holbein likeness as a bruiser, fleshy and austere under his black bonnet. “I’m aware I’m not so big as Cromwell is physically, but I can take on psychological weight,” Rylance says. Playing bigger isn’t a problem for an actor of Rylance’s gifts; in fact, just the day before, he’d been sitting with Steven Spielberg, discussing how he will play the titular big friendly giant in The BFG, the director’s upcoming adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book. He’s thought deeply about the mechanics of the Cromwell-Henry relationship and came upon an unexpected insight when he encountered a man who keeps grizzly bears in Montana. “He said to me, the thing with bears is they are incredibly emotional, they’re made of emotions,” Rylance says. “You have to be very clear and very loving towards this bear, which is emotionally like a 15- or 16-year-old autistic child. I compare Damian’s Henry to that.”
Given Rylance’s and Lewis’s different career trajectories, it’s no surprise that the two had never met before showing up to rehearse for Wolf Hall. If fans weren’t stopping Lewis on the street regularly enough after he’d been plucked from obscurity by Spielberg to play Major Dick Winters in HBO’s 10-hour World War II miniseries, Band of Brothers, his three seasons as Homeland’s Nicholas Brody has made his face world famous. He and his wife, the actress Helen McCrory, are frequent paparazzi targets when they are out near their London home with their children, Manon and Gulliver. After settling down at lunch, his eye catches a phone being trained at him from a neighboring table. “Sorry, it’s a little off-putting, OK?” Lewis says to the amateur photographer. Rylance says he almost never runs into this problem: “I only get recognized in theatrical districts, like around Broadway or the West End.” Rylance is a theater actor and seems to want to keep it that way. “All my life agents have told me you must be a film and television actor to be a full actor,” he says. “But I thought, I’m really happy being a stage actor.”
A full decade elapsed between Band of Brothers and Homeland, during which Lewis spent a few years in and out of L.A., doing what seemed the logical next step—movies. His big pivot into film was Dreamcatcher, a gory Stephen King adaptation in which Lewis was possessed by a homicidal alien. “I found the experience lonely and unsatisfying,” he says. “I wasn’t ready for it. After Band of Brothers, I was in L.A., sleeping in my agent’s spare room, reading scripts that I simply didn’t think much of. So I decided I could sit in Hollywood and make movies that I was not very proud of until one maybe came along that was really great. But I ran away, fearful that I’d lose my integrity.” His experience doing television at home in England—in PBS’s period drama The Forsyte Saga—proved far more nourishing, so joining Wolf Hall was not a tough call for him, especially since he would be able to avoid playing, as he’s put it, the “syphilitic, philandering Elvis” of Henry’s later years and people’s imagination; instead, he embodies the young, athletic Henry, a man apparently quite vain about his calves. “He was always boasting how his calf was bigger than Philip the Fair’s, of France, in a sort of schoolboyish way,” Lewis says.
Landing Rylance for Wolf Hall proved trickier. If his accent is hard to place, it’s because he was born to English parents who relocated the family when he was just a toddler to the United States, where his father had taken a job teaching English at Choate, the Connecticut prep school. His family soon moved to Milwaukee, where Rylance spent much of his youth. “I got beat up at the ice cream diner that Happy Days was based on,” he says. “We went round there and I was dressed up in a tuxedo or something from a theatrical thing at the high school stage. You don’t go into Milwaukee to a diner with a top hat and tails on.” Obsessed with Shakespeare and possessed of a rare talent, he repatriated himself at 18 to attend London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
After his time at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where his Hamlet made him a star of the theater, Rylance became the founding artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1995. The Globe, a faithful reconstruction built near the site of the 1599 version, is where he first earned a reputation for being a stickler for authenticity; the troupe became well known for its “original practices”—staging the plays as they would have been originally performed, with men dressed as women, wearing costumes free of Velcro, zippers or other modern contrivances, and, thanks to the musical scholarship of Rylance’s wife of 25 years, Claire van Kampen, accompanied by music played on original Elizabethan instruments, such as sackbuts and citterns. His tenure became controversial and polarizing after he voiced doubts about whether Shakespeare had actually authored the plays attributed to him. “A number of very intelligent people came out with the extremely offensive comparison of those of us who question a bit of theatrical history as being equivalent to 9/11 questioners or Holocaust deniers,” he says. “It is not only offensive to me but offensive to Jewish people that these two issues should be in any way comparable. So yes, it was very difficult for people to feel I was the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe but didn’t completely believe in the creation myth.”
In the midst of being hammered for this in the press, Rylance made a rare foray into film, to star in 2001’s Intimacy. Though the film won the Berlin International Film Festival, its sex scenes—in particular, graphic, non-simulated fellatio performed on Rylance by actress Kerry Fox—became tabloid fodder at home, sending Rylance into a deep funk and causing understandable stress on his marriage. He felt that he’d given his all to the performance, only to be taken advantage of by the director, the late Patrice Chéreau. “It soured me on my life two months,” he says. “It’s my mistake, but I felt Patrice put undue pressure on me on set to do that. And at that point I didn’t have the confidence as a film actor to say no. Now I think a lot of actors that people say are difficult are actually just being sensible.”
“Mark is a passionate enthusiast,” says his friend and Wolf Hall’s director, Peter Kosminsky. “He sinks himself body and soul into what he does. If one is wide-eyed and open about one’s enthusiasms, it’s very easy to deride and belittle one’s sincerely held passion. Our press here in England can be pretty brutal.” His limited subsequent film work was not much happier, including a supporting role in a 2011 Jason Statham thriller called Blitz. “It was a terrible film,” he says. “Afterwards, I got rid of all my agents and said, ‘That’s it; I’m not going near film and television again.’ ”
Callender became fixated on the idea of Rylance as Cromwell. He was certain Rylance had the gifts to carry the project, since he’d have to be in virtually every scene, but he also loved the idea that Rylance was unknown enough to the vast majority of television viewers that no baggage from past roles would distract from the performance. “Mark’s got this extraordinary face, and we haven’t seen it, apart from a couple of exceptions,” Callender says. Convincing him wouldn’t be easy, as he found when he first sat down with him in London. Rylance was clear that he wanted to avoid falling into the traps of overly romanticized, oversexed Tudor adaptations—he’d played Thomas Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl, and the production’s lack of attention to historical accuracy unnerved him; he once said that after test audiences reported hating the film’s scene in which Anne Boleyn is executed, “One of the producers said, ‘Wait a minute. Does she have to die? Why can’t he just give her a holiday home down the coast?’ ”
Rylance said he might be convinced to do the part, but only if he were working with a film or television director he really trusted. At the top of this very short list was Kosminsky, who had directed Rylance in The Government Inspector, a made-for-television movie about David Kelly, the British weapons inspector
‘I thought, Here’s the way to reinvigorate the television historical drama for the post–Sopranos, Breaking Bad world.’
who killed himself in the first months of the Iraq War. For Rylance, it had been a rare positive experience, for which he’d been awarded a Best Actor BAFTA. Although Kosminsky was primarily known for his documentaries and contemporary political films, Callender signed him up. Kosminsky chose carefully in casting Lewis as Henry VIII and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, the two characters who would share the most screen time with Rylance. “Mark is the best actor we have currently,” says Kosminsky. “And when you’re dealing with Mark you feel you’re dealing with nothing so much as a thoroughbred. Thoroughbreds can be highly strung, of course.” He’d given Lewis his first major role in 1999’s Warriors, about the war in the former Yugoslavia, and he’d just worked with Foy in 2011’s The Promise, about Britain’s role in the creation of Israel.
There was a moment after accepting the role when Rylance, forever the purist, considered suggesting that Wolf Hall be scripted entirely in Early Modern English and local dialects. “I thought that would be very interesting for everyone to have regional dialects and to get experts in who have come up with theories of how people spoke,” he says. He kept the idea to himself. “In the end you’re still telling a story to an audience and if you go up your ass with authenticity, the story may not get across the bridge to them.” Still, at Rylance’s insistence, Wolf Hall’s music is all period appropriate, and the cast spent hours going over proper bowing techniques. They spent nearly a week on eating etiquette. “The spoon was just coming in to use at the time,” says Callender. “Whether or not a spoon would be used at a particular moment became an issue that people could write a doctoral thesis on.” The series was shot in Tudor-vérité light—in night scenes, the characters move through darkness, their faces illuminated only by the flickering of fires or candlelight. Rylance, during the early promotion of the show, suggested that Wolf Hall’s codpieces hadn’t been sufficiently large, on orders from a PBS executive. “Mark was misinformed,” says Callender. “There’s no secret PBS memo about codpieces.”
When it aired in England earlier this year, the reception for Wolf Hall was rapturous, with one or two critics even suggesting that, thanks to the performances, the show equaled its source material. Authors are notoriously finicky about adaptations, but Mantel is unreserved in her praise. “I like it very much, yes,” she says. “It’s really a privilege to have such a skilled and thoughtful adaptation. It’s a beautiful work in its own right.”
Which naturally brings about talk of sequels, and whether Lewis and Rylance will be able to finish the job with Cromwell, who, at the conclusion of the miniseries, is still four years from meeting his gruesome end. This would require Mantel to deliver the third book in the Wolf Hall trilogy, but she’s been busy, primarily helping with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s staged adaptation of Wolf Hall. “Now I’m just part of the team,” she says. “There’s all those clichés about the theater being a family.” Becoming part of a troupe apparently agrees with her so much that she’s joining the new cast in New York this month to prepare them for their Broadway debut.
Lewis is willing to continue in the role—though not, he says, to gorge himself enough to arrive at Henry’s latter-day girth (by the time he died, he had a 54-inch waist). “Don’t worry,” Lewis says. “There’s a very good fat suit which is doing the rounds.”
Rylance, who, at 55, is the exact age Cromwell was when he died, doesn’t seem to be holding his breath that he’ll get to finish the job. “Hilary’s finding it difficult to get herself into that lonely corridor that you have to sit in,” he says.
“There has never been a deadline,” Mantel admits. “I know from experience that novels don’t work that way. Sometimes you need to let a project breathe.” Or, for that matter, a character: As long as she holds out, Cromwell—who has become an intimate, if not a friend—gets to hang on to his head.