Jonathan Rhys Meyers discusses the role of Henry the VIII, his career, and the making of the series
Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as Henry the VIII in the new Showtime original series The Tudors. He recently took time out of his schedule to discuss his role as Henry the VIII, his career, and the making of the series.
This is not the first time he has played a king. He starred as Elvis in the 2005 TV movie about the king of rock and roll. Jonathan Rhys Meyers has several film projects scheduled for the future, but is currently focusing his energy on his television series.
Did Henry VIII dislike Katherine of Aragon?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: No, my (character's) relationship with Katherine of Aragon was very, very loving and it's very, very difficult for Henry to do this to her. And they were married for a very, very long time and had a really close emotional attachment to each other. And that's why, you know, you hurt the ones you love the most. Because it hurts you the most. And sometimes he seems like he doesn't like her but he has to - to get what he wants he has to make himself not like her against his better nature and his better judgment. And I think he loves her and she loves him more than anybody else in the whole piece.
You're showing a totally different Henry the VIII. What did you base that on?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: On what I would do myself if I had absolute power at 28, 29 years old. I didn't have the physicality - of Henry, you know? And so I had to do it all internally and bring it outside so I had to create this incredibly strong, powerful man without being sort of like 6' 4" and 300 pounds, which immediately would give you a sign. I had to make his intellect bigger than anybody else's. I had to make his ambition bigger than anybody else's. I had to make his energy bigger than anybody else's. And I had to make him the most dangerous man in court.
How do you want people to receive the character? Do you want them to love him or hate him or fear him?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: I want people to love to hate him. I mean, he's a bastard but he's an interesting bastard. And, you know, through the costumes and the way they lit it, they made him an attractive bastard. And that was very interesting to watch. I mean, nobody's going to be interested in the good guy for 10 hours. I mean it's not fascinating, you know? Everybody sort of like - likes these dangerous characters so I think, it's, you know, people are going to like him against their better judgment. Or they're going to hate him but still want to watch.
And are you drawn to those types of characters?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Well, you know, I was drawn to Henry the VIII because he's so fantastic. I like playing good guys as well. - But bad guys are certainly more fun.
The marketing of this has been very much youth oriented with the rock star of his time as the tag line. How do you think that that plays out in your performance and in the show itself? What it is about this that makes it a young historical fiction as opposed to maybe what we're used to seeing other than of course the age of the characters?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Well, Henry's court was an incredibly young court. You know, when people ascended to the throne at 11 or 12 years old. By the time as what we would view as young 28, 29, they didn't view as young at all. You were a fully grown man at that point. Most people died by the time they were 50. So in your thirties, you'd be middle aged. So I think the whole concept of young has changed in history. Now we live much longer so we view 28, 29-year-olds as young people. They didn't.
Also, you know, there's the sort of - the Richard Burton, the (Robert) Laughton, the Keith Michell, it's already been done. And, you know, we didn't want to redo something that's was already done. We wanted to give it a vibrancy, a youthful impetuousness, an energy. We wanted the characters to be athletic and raw and very, very vibrant and volatile. Because there's a long way to go in Henry's story. In the first season he hasn't even married Anne Boleyn. He's got a very, very long way to travel. So we wanted to start it young so it could grow as the characters grow in age as well.
What are we doing to appeal to young audience other than just the whole sex factor?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: I think sex factor probably has a lot to do with it. I think the costumes probably have a lot to do with it. We stayed away from doing big layered costumes and things that look ridiculous. Because, sometimes how people dressed at that time just wouldn't be appealing to an audience today. So we wanted to make it very streamlined and from a look point of view and it's quite stylistic.
But in many ways, we have to get the audience interested in the time and have to be attractive to an audience because otherwise it's going appear very stiff and that's the problem with doing things in the period is that you get too into the period and then it gets stiff and not vital. You know, we live in a very, very fast world and Henry's court at the time was the fastest court in the world at the time. It's - and why (they) kind of like say he was the rock star of his time because if you weren't in Henry's court - if you (weren't) in a court, you were nobody. And everything revolved around him. It was the be all and end all. It was the place to be. It was the Mecca of learning. It was the Mecca of style. It was the Mecca of fashion. It was the Mecca of entertainment. Everything happened around his court.
He had 150 palaces that he used to move his whole (retinue) from one to the other every four months because of course after four months of living there it would smell so badly they had to move on to another palace. But of course Henry moving was like - it was like moving an army. He took all his furniture, all his clothes, his (retinue), his ladies, everything went with him. So it was quite a circus and he was the center of it.
You have of course played a different rock star of his time in Elvis. Could you talk about sort of the differences of playing a character like Elvis where there is so much video footage to work on as opposed to a character like Henry where people think they know what he was like but they maybe don't?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: I think it gives you a hell of lot more to play with. With Elvis, I really had to stick to what Elvis was. And with Henry the VIII, I could play him how I want him to be. It's how I see Henry. The thing with playing a part like this is there's no good or bad way to play it. There's only interesting and not. So all I have to do as Henry was to make him as interesting as possible - you know, to make his energy exciting so people want to go on this journey with him. He's got flaws. He's not a nice guy. He's not a nice guy either but he's dangerous. He's a dangerous person with absolute power. And that's kind of fun to play with.
What do you think the not interesting way to play the part would have been?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Well, you could have made him sort of like very uptight, very prudish because Henry was actually quite prudish. And you could have done what everybody else has done. I could have copied the Richard Burton or the (Robert) Laughton performance or the Keith Michell performance or the Ray Winstone performance. But I had to make it my performance. It's my interpretation, not imitating anybody else as Henry. It's my interpretation of what it would be like to 29 years old, athletic and have absolute power to do whatever you want.
And was that hard for you to figure that out - what it would be like that age and with those attributes?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: No, it was kind of fun to figure it out to tell you the truth. It's nice being king.
Michael Hirst (the writer) is already working on a second season of The Tudors and covering the (reaffirmation). Can you imagine the series going even longer than that and you're playing Henry late into his reign? Would you have to put on a fat suit or something?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: I don't know. I think - I'm just going to take it as it is. No, I think it'd be stupid to put on a fat suit anyway. I don't think we would ever go that direction. I think - if I want to go and continue it on I would actually put weight on - put an amount of weight on. But I would never (sort of like do the) fat suit suddenly go from Henry as I've played him to, you know, miraculously in once season he becomes the Hans Holbein painting. That would be stupid.
I think what I would do is I would gradually make him gruffer and gruffer and gruffer. But listen, I'm never going to be Henry the VIII as you see them in paintings. It's not going to happen even if you took us to his death; it's not going to happen. I would have to do it my way I suppose. Because everything that I've done about Henry the VIII in this series has been the way I've envisioned him, the way that the directors have envisioned him, (the way) that the VP has envisioned him and the (way the) other actors have envisioned him.
We've all worked to compromise together to make him this element. So I think I would continue along the path that I've chosen. I wouldn't try to change it drastically - and drastically to make it more physically historically accurate.
Once you took the role, what kind of research did you do?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Well, I started reading a book about the reformation and then (series scribe Michael Hirst) stopped me. And he was like no, that's not yet. So I actually stopped - I spent, instead of going off and reading books and researching from books, I spent an awful lot of time with the scripts that Michael had written and with Michael himself who was a complete knowledge on Henry.
And then, it was just like hearing it from the horse's mouth of the man who's actually written the piece. Because the thing about doing research outside of the script is that you can go off and you can read things and research that aren't in the script. And you want them in the script. It's better to work with the text at hand rather than trying to fill yourself with things that really don't matter to the production because you're not going to see them. And if you're not going to see them, they might as well not have existed. It's - I've always believed that it's not good to cloud your mind with things that really aren't vital to what you're doing in the now. And I was very much sticking to the now of Henry.
Along those lines, what about the short hair? That seems a little surprising at first. Is that historically accurate or...
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Yes, it is historically accurate.
That he had short hair?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Henry shaved his head. And it was a hygienic thing more than anything else. Hair carries lice. And - but yes, they all had shaved heads. And I kind of modeled my physicality and how I saw him looking with the costumes and (series Costume Designer Joan Bergin) and the hair and makeup on how (Chris Eckelston) looked in Elizabeth as (Norfolk).
What were the sex scenes like? Are they hard to do?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Yes, they're far less interesting than they look because of course, you're doing sex scenes, you're doing it repetitively and you're doing with a crew of like 100 people in hot camera lights and cameras poking in all sorts of areas. So there's - and they look a lot more fun on screen than they are to do, but they're not that difficult.
Can you get the concept across without having a sex scene every 15 or 20 minutes? Or do they say no, you really need that to convey what we're trying to do with the scripts?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Well you see, people had an awful lot of sex at that time. Remember there's no TV. Sex was very, very important. It's what you did when the sun went down. And I've had some (sort) of like people who've been like oh my God is it - did you get [oral sex]? And I'm like wow, there [was oral sex] in that time as well. I mean they were much more sexually gregarious in the 15th century than they are today.
We're seeing more and more the division going away between TV actor and film actor. Was it appealing to you to get this opportunity to sort of extend your filling of the character over a period of time?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Yes, it was very, very interesting for me to do that because it's the first time I've done a TV series. But also because I go back and forth between doing film and TV and TV has been very good to me. I've managed to play some interesting parts and it garnered me a Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination. I would not turn my back on it. And today in the way that entertainment is going today into television stuff, most of the time now is almost as good if not better quality than the movies. And you have more of a corridor to develop your character if you're developing them over ten hours. I don't think Henry would work as a two hour film because his life's too big -- too huge. And you're just going to miss so many things and you're not going to get a really great overall view of what the character's like.
In television, you can do that and especially this type of high quality television. There's a difference doing something for Showtime because they put an awful lot of time, an awful lot of energy and an awful lot of money into it. And so you're making basically what is a ten-hour cinema film but for television. And even if you look at sort of people's TVs now, they're all 68" plasma screens. You might as well be sitting in your own private cinema.
You mentioned, your character is a bastard, but I'm assuming as we go on, would we see different facets of him, maybe a little bit about what makes him such a bastard?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Possibly, possibly. You'll see as the series goes on, you'll see the changes in the acts that he goes through. But when you've got that absolute power, it, you know, sometimes you can be viewed as a bastard, but it's only because everything you do is a matter of state. So it's not really personal relationships. Because kings at that time were ordained by God. So you're not even a human being. Henry strives to be human the whole time, but he's not allowed to be human. He's a monarch.
You've done several period pieces. I'm curious when it comes to the costumes in something like this, after a little while does it get tedious or does it always help you sort of get into the character and the place he was?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Yes of course, it helps you to get into it. And you walk on in your - the tracks in your sneakers in the morning. And then you're in your slops in Henry's clothes. And suddenly you feel more of that period. Of course it helps.
How do you think Henry would have stood in the current political atmosphere? How do you think he would stand up today?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: I don't know quite about that. They don't really go into absolute power much these days. People get frightened by it. I think he would have certainly been an interesting news column on a daily basis. I'm not sure how he would have - I'm not sure if he would fit in or how he would fit in. But I'm sure he would have raised a few eyebrows.
And in playing him, do you put him first as an intellect, somebody who is arrogant, somebody who is over-zealous at times? What's the one key word to playing him?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Ambitious. He's intellectual and he's zealous. But he's also aggressive and insecure, vulnerable -- all of these things. He's all of these things. And yes, of course he's got an unnatural arrogance. But anybody who's been ordained by God and owns their own country has a certain amount of arrogance that comes with that.
Are there any other iconic characters that you would want to play in the future?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: I don't know. I'd like to play Henry the II, (Plantansinay). He'd be kind of fascinating. And it'd be kind of fascinating because I worked on the film. I'd kind of like to play Alexander. Alexander would be kind of a fun character to play. He's fun because he's great.
And you perform historical projects?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Yes, well if you're playing somebody iconic, it means he is historical isn't it? Because they have to be an icon in some way. So it has to be the past. But I like to do modern films as well.
What has success done for you or not done for you that you thought it would?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: I don't know. I don't really kind of feel very successful. I just feel like I'm working hard. And I live a very, very quiet life. I don't sort of - I haven't really sort of like bought into the 'I'm so fabulousness' of it all yet. And I don't know, I live a quiet life and I work hard. I still do all the same things that I used to do. And so nothing really has changed except that I get seen for better parts with better people. And sometimes people are nicer to me.
Is it what you thought it would be though? I mean now people want to see you. Now people are seeking you out. Great roles like this Henry VIII, Mission: Impossible III, and all the films that you're doing. And you're employed, which is a great thing for an actor. Is it what you thought it would be?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: No. Because it's obviously different. And I never really thought kind of what it would be like anyway. But it's nice. I'm just glad to be doing something that I love doing. And being kind of good at something and being kind of like accepted is nice because it's taken a long time. But I'm enjoying it, but, I'm not letting it sort of like rule my life. I actually live very, very simply. I actually live more simply now. Yes I've - yes I like doing the things I always liked to do. I like reading, going to the gym, hanging out with my family. That's it.
You talked earlier about not doing a lot of outside research and really just spending a lot of time with (Michael) and going over the script. Could you talk about the kind of input you had with (Michael)? Did you have a lot of say in how the character was going to be played?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Oh God I had total say on how the character was going to be played. You know, when (Michael) wrote us and when he (taught us), he said, "This is yours. You can do what you want with it. I've already given you the text. What you bring out as Henry is very, very much your own. I will help you as much as possible," but he was like, "I'm not the actor. You're the actor."
How liberating was that? I mean do you find that happening often?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Yes. I get quite a lot of free reign really from the people that I work with. Woody [Allen] was the same, when I did Match Point. He was like, "Do whatever you want to do. You're the actor. It's yours."
You've talked a lot about the physicality of Henry and I wondered, did you do your own jousting and wrestling? Tell us a little bit about doing those scenes.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Definitely did all my wrestling. I did my own horse riding except, for insurance purposes, I wasn't allowed to do the final crunch with the joust just in case I got badly beaten up. But yes, I loved it. I love the physicality. You know, it's very much boys' time, you know? Riding horses, hunting, wrestling, all of this sort of thing. And I'm into physical sports anyway and I go to the gym a lot, so it was all good. I kind of enjoyed that element of Henry. It would be dull if he was just sitting around on thrones, eating and drinking for like ten episodes.
It's kind of like, "I'm getting slightly dull and kind of unhealthy." Whereas, the Henry that we portray is somebody who's a very, very athletic guy. But, if you were doing as much hunting, jousting, wrestling, running a country and having a lot of sex, you're going to be pretty trim.
You mentioned that you've read some of the history of Henry. Assuming - sounds like you know a lot. If the series is continued, is there a queen that you're looking forward to getting play against of getting that particular spot in history -- maybe Anne of Cleves or someone else?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Oh God. Anne of Cleves was the worst of them all. She was the ugliest women Henry had ever seen. What had happened was [an artist] had made a portrait of this woman and - who was from Flanders in Belgium. He made a portrait of this woman and illuminated her so much that Henry looked at the portrait and went, "Oh my God, she's gorgeous! Get her over!" When she arrived, he looked at her and told her that she looked like a Flanders mare!
Were some of those castles done by CGI, or were those actual sets - or actual castles that you visited?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: A lot of the sort of the epic wide shots would've been CGI. They don't exist anymore unfortunately. Very few of Henry's palaces actually do exist. White Hall is so vastly different to how it was in his time that it just couldn't be shot. Hampton Court is also vastly different to how it was in Henry's time because we actually filed Vanity Fair at Hampton Court. They've redone the whole thing but it looks really modern because of the modern cleaning equipment that they've used. So it wouldn't' have looked like it did in Henry's time either.
And we shot the whole thing in Ireland. And there's only one Tudor building in the whole country, and it's in (Carakin Shroe). But it was so ineffectual that we didn't even use it. So all of the interior sets were all built in studios in Ireland and when we would use beautiful gardens from private country houses of the gardens for (unintelligible) the gardens for Hampton court. And some of the buildings were very Tudor. And then we [used some] CGI.
The Tudors airs Sunday nights at 10 PM ET/PT.
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