This story appeared in TIME magazine- my first interview in the popular media!
Thursday, Mar. 22, 2007
"When Royals Become Rock Stars"
By Rebecca Winters Keegan
A handsome, charismatic young star is bored with his marriage and worried about his legacy. He
distracts himself by bedding young lovelies, throwing extravagant parties and hanging out with friends
who keep him out of trouble--at least until the wrong girl comes along. If this sounds like an upcoming
episode of Entourage, then adjust your cultural references back about 500 years and add some tights.
The young celeb: Henry VIII. The first wife: Catherine of Aragon. The friends: Cardinal Wolsey and Sir
Thomas More. The temptress: Anne Boleyn. Sound familiar?
Unlike the corpulent old Henry VIII many of us remember from our history textbooks, young Henry VIII
lived a life that was positively high-def-TV-ready, one that could have spiced up 16th century
newsstands, had tabloid editors been around instead of Erasmus. And now Henry is making up for
centuries of being relegated to the Old Kings' club by becoming Hollywood's hunk du jour. The Tudors,
the most expensive Showtime series ever, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a svelte and sporty King,
starts April 1. A film adaptation of Philippa Gregory's 2002 best-selling historical novel The Other Boleyn
Girl, with Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn, Scarlett Johansson as her sister Mary and Munich's Eric
Bana as another hubba-hubba Henry, is due later this year.
Other Tudor-era folk are getting their moment in the sun too. In this fall's The Golden Age, Cate
Blanchett reprises her role as the steely Queen from 1998's Elizabeth. The very busy Johansson is
scheduled to start filming a biopic of Mary Queen of Scots this summer. Even Sting is getting in on the
Tudor buzz, popping up on chat shows with a lute to promote Songs from the Labyrinth, a CD of tunes
by 16th century composer John Dowland. And fat Henry hasn't been left out. A just-closed exhibit of
work by the King's portraitist, Hans Holbein, was a hit for London's Tate Britain museum.
For audiences who like their history juicy, relatable and full of comforting moral certainties--which is to
say pretty much everybody without a Ph.D.--there may be no better subject than young Henry. He was a
rock star in a glittering, perilous age, an intellectually curious, athletic charmer who became a uxoricidal,
paranoid turkey-leg chomper, pursuing a male heir through six wives. It's a wonder it took the
entertainment industry so long to fully exploit him--and the other Tudors too--since the period was one
of the most scandal plagued in British history. The Diana-Charles divorce had nothing on the split from
Rome. "It was a sexy time. It was a dangerous time. You can't exaggerate the violence and the beauty,"
says Michael Hirst, screenwriter of The Tudors and The Golden Age. "This is the moment when
Henry--because he falls in love with a younger woman--destroys English history."
The house of Tudor stretched from 1485, with the coronation of King Henry VII, to 1603, the end of the
reign of Elizabeth I, Henry VIII's daughter with Anne Boleyn. It was an era of religious turmoil, fomented
by coquettish Lady Anne Boleyn lobbying for her King to annul his marriage to his first wife, Catherine.
As Henry teetered between Catherine's Catholicism and Anne's Protestantism, the faith of a nation
depended on a monarch's lust. "Our biggest enemy is terrorism," says Charles Beem, a historian at the
University of North Carolina at Pembroke. "Theirs was the Reformation. You can't overestimate how
traumatic the changes in the church would have been." You might get close if you imagined that Monica
Lewinsky had been a radical Islamist and Bill Clinton married her and made everyone convert.
Showtime is setting up its hot new Henry at 10 p.m. on Sunday nights, practically monarch-a-monarch
with HBO's departing head of state Tony--Soprano, that is. It's a fair pairing; both men have violent but
paternalistic leadership styles, endure family troubles and suffer from excessive appetites. But unlike the
bathrobed, balding James Gandolfini, Rhys Meyers, 29, will play Henry at an age when he was
described by a foreign ambassador as "the handsomest prince in all of Christendom," the 16th century
equivalent of being named PEOPLE magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive." The Irish actor, who won a Golden
Globe for his performance as a different sort of swaggering king in the 2005 CBS mini-series Elvis, has
the full lips and slim hips to carry off the King's sexy side, and a bit of the demeanor too. "Jonny, by
instinct, has many of the same qualities as Henry," says Hirst. "He has a short attention span. He never
thinks there's anything he can't do." All of which helps when the actor has to declare war, ride a horse
while carrying a giant wooden lance and speak five languages convincingly. "I had other images of
Henry," says Rhys Meyers, who changed his mind after some research. "But I realized the profound
aesthetic and cultural change he had on his country and how it shaped Europe's destiny."
It's the thoughtful Henry scenes that elevate The Tudors from Desperate Palacewives to a West
Wing--esque political drama. Like Martin Sheen's President Bartlet, Rhys Meyers' Henry is appealingly
curious about the world around him. "We live in a political climate that is so anti-intellectual," says
Beem. "The Tudors are the best-educated monarchs ever to get on the English throne. Henry wrote a
book in Latin." He also had a keen eye for talent, surrounding himself with brilliant men like Cardinal
Wolsey, played by Sam Neill as a surprisingly sympathetic character for modern audiences--more of a
workaholic gunning for a promotion than the venal, grasping manipulator he's often depicted as--and Sir
Thomas More, Jeremy Northam's gentle humanist. When the two measured advisers talk their hawkish
young King away from the brink of a costly war with France, they're savvy enough to let the boss take
credit for the newfangled peace-treaty idea. "Your majesty would be known as an architect of a new and
modern world," Wolsey says, managing up expertly.
The series takes full advantage of the beauty of the era, sometimes embellishing it. Henry's
high-collared leather costumes are meant to evoke a kind of Tudor Mick Jagger in his prime. Anne
Boleyn is described by historians as plain looking, but as played by Casanova's Natalie Dormer in
gigantic jewels and plunging necklines, she becomes progressively more stunning as the series unfolds
and her power over Henry expands. Hirst says he contemporized dialogue but not much else, and he
estimates that about 85% of the show is historically accurate. By adding dimension to the standard
caricatures of Henry and his court, "we may, strangely, be getting closer to the real people," Hirst says.
While the movies and TV shows are creating a lot of splash, much of the credit for the current Tudor
revival probably belongs to British historical novelist Gregory, whose book The Other Boleyn Girl is in
print in 26 countries, including Japan and Russia, with more than 1 million copies sold in the U.S. Behind
the popularity of Gregory's intelligent, well-researched books--including her most recent, The Boleyn
Inheritance--is the author's focus on the secret histories of the women on the sidelines of the Tudor era.
The Other Boleyn Girl depicts Henry's claustrophobic court from the perspective of Anne's sister Mary,
who also bedded the young King but apparently wasn't charming, cunning or foolhardy enough to get
him to create a new church to close the deal.
"My readers like my heroines," says Gregory. "There is something about women in a lot of danger
making their own way that appeals." Which raises an interesting question: Is it the difference from their
own lives or the similarity to the Tudors' situation that Gregory's fans find compelling? Though it's
generally considered a period in which women were repressed, Beem--whose book The Lioness
Roared: The Problems of Female Rule in English History (2006) focuses on female rule in English
history--feels the Tudor era is of particular interest to women in positions of influence. In terms of being
a female in a boys' club, Elizabeth was way ahead of her time. "She's the model of female rule in a
male-dominated society," Beem says. "Elizabeth was the master of taking female traits and turning them
into successful strategies for leading. She was King and Queen at the same time. She became one of
the best diplomats of the 16th century by flirting with ambassadors. She saw it as great fun."
Today we cling to the Tudors, Gregory believes, because their moral questions have more obvious
answers than ours. "When Henry decides to behead a young woman [his fifth wife, Catherine Howard],
it's so obviously a bad thing to do that it's satisfying to the reader," Gregory says. "To judge it gives us
comfort and certainty in an uncertain world." Sort of like reading a tabloid. A war may rage on, the stock
market may tumble, but things are still O.K. if some sexy young star is behaving more badly than you are.