Damian Lewis on WOLF HALL – interview
The actor talks playing Henry VIII in the new PBS series
Damian Lewis won an Emmy for his portrayal of Nicholas Brody, a U.S. Marine turned terrorist turned counter-terrorist assassin, during his three years on HOMELAND. The London-born actor, who previously starred in two seasons of LIFE, is now back on television playing no less an historical personage than England’s King Henry VIII in PBS’s six-hour WOLF HALL, which premieres Sunday, April 5. Adapted from Hilary Mantel’s novels, WOLF HALL explores the relationship between Henry and his spy master, the common-born Thomas Cromwell, played by Mark Rylance, as well as the marriage of Henry and second wife Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy).
AX: Was part of the appeal of WOLF HALL that Henry’s very in control of what’s going on around him and it’s a nice change from three years of playing Nicholas Brody, who very often got knocked hither and yon by everyone around him?
DAMIAN LEWIS: Yes. Well, Henry is someone who struggles for control. He’s not always in control, but certainly he’s less of a pawn than Nicholas Brody was, that’s true.
AX: And playing Henry, you’re less likely to wind up doing scenes naked and wet in a tenement …
LEWIS: I hope not. It depends on who I’m naked and wet with, of course [laughs], but yeah. Henry was a revered and admired Renaissance prince. He was a man of his time that Erasmus and commentators all through Europe said, “This is the most wonderful living embodiment of royalty, of what a modern young king should be like.” He was a composer, he spoke many languages, he was the best jouster, huntsman, falconer, archer in his era. He was an architect, a designer, he was a man who wrote bad love poetry, I hasten to add, but he was the embodiment of a Renaissance prince, and he surrounded himself with a court of men who he demanded had those skills. It was a return to a chivalric time of [Thomas] Malory, a sort of Middle Ages time, the eighth or ninth century, of Arthur and his Round Table of knights, the Gawains and the Lancelots. He consciously tried to create that idea of a chivalric court. And he was a wonderful, brilliant, childlike at times, boyish man.
AX: We have this image of Henry as this heavyset man in middle age, but in his youth, he was supposed to have been quite good-looking …
LEWIS: There are lots of comments. He was vain. Oh, my God, certainly he was vain. Commentators, they commented on his beautiful pale complexion, that he had the most beautiful skin of any prince they’d seen. He was tremendously proud of his calf muscles in a childlike way. He lorded it over Philip the Fair of France, saying, “My calf muscles are better than yours.” He was a kid on one level.
AX: How are your calf muscles?
LEWIS: They’re not that good! [laughs] Which is why [WOLF HALL costume designer] Joanna Eatwell put me in thigh-length boots, to stop my pale, skinny English white legs poking out. No, I would definitely have had to use handkerchiefs or something to pad out my stockings if I was to have the exemplary calves that Henry the Eighth had. Henry the Eighth was a broad man with a big chest, and what’s so extraordinary about Joanna’s costumes is, she creates that size for me. She made me that size, and it looks natural. It looks like it’s me.
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