Tavis: Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a Golden Globe-winning actor who is back now for the final season of the critically acclaimed drama, “The Tudors.” The show airs Sunday nights on Showtime. Here now, a scene from “The Tudors.”
Tavis: Did you have any doubt when you agreed to do this about whether or not a period piece could work on a premium cable channel as a series?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Yes, yes.
Tavis: Yeah, you did have doubts?
Meyers: Yeah, of course. Especially when you’re dealing with something like “The Tudors,” which is a very extraordinary period of time, it had a very, very extraordinary fashion, the aesthetic was so different to what we are used to in the 21st century.
Trying to sell it on cable in the United States at that time was also going to be a long shot, but we knew we had an incredible story. We knew we had an incredible production team behind us. Everybody at Showtime was extraordinary, and it allowed us to be very, very free and make our own interpretation of it.
We were never going to take history and try to duplicate it for a modern audience, it would never have worked. We had to interpret it in a way that was a little bit faster, a little bit pacier, and we had to cut the boring parts of history. There are lots of very, very boring parts, parts that wouldn’t be interesting to prime time television. So I think you’ve got to speed everything up, yeah.
Tavis: On the one hand, you have to cut the boring parts, but I think you’ll agree here you were immensely aided and abetted by the fact that Henry VIII was quite a character. There’s a lot to draw upon.
Meyers: Yeah, he was quite the man; he was quite the man, yeah. (Laughter) He had a lot to teach people. He had a lot to teach his own people, he had a lot to teach history right now and how things are run, political mistakes, certainly lots of marital mistakes.
But yeah, he was just a really interesting character to play. He’s very fast and very exuberant, and in his quieter times you get – he’s more powerful when he’s quite than when he’s loud, but it’s his loudness – he knew that being a head of state was about being on stage the whole time, it was about bamboozling your audience into believing whatever you could provide for them.
So whenever he had a big marriage or he’d have a birth or a baptism or something, he made it a political event, and therefore it took the normal people’s view away from what he was doing personally as a political leader and just focused on the pantomime of Henry.
Tavis: I like that phrase. To the lessons that can be learned from his life, the lesson of six wives, is what?
Meyers: The lesson of six wives is behave yourself. (Laughter)
Tavis: Six wives by 55, no less.
Meyers: Six wives by 55, yeah. He was extraordinary, because of course at that time, different to now, children were very, very important. Now they’re very, very important for a different reason; that we love them very much and we like to take care of them.
In that time it was very unlikely that your child would live to 12. If they lived to 12, they had a very good chance of living on and being fully grown adults, but there was a lot of death at birth, both with the mother and with the child. Survival wasn’t very high on the agenda.
So Henry was always looking for children. More importantly, he was looking for sons. Sons were seen as a great tool. Girls were different. Girls you could use in a very – I suppose they were pawns, is the only way to say it. At that time they were used for political benefit.
If I could marry my daughter Mary to Spain, then I have an ally. They become blood, they become family. If I marry them to France, it’s the same thing. But when it’s Henry, thinking about Henry doing that, he can’t really give Mary to Spain because then he has to get involved in the war on the Turks.
So if you buy into a family, you buy into the family’s problems. So this is where daughters came in, so they were used as pawns in that way. Sons, of course, were used for the succession. What he wanted was sons, and this is why he married six times.
I don’t think he was promiscuous. I think we make him more promiscuous in the TV series because that’s how you sell TV. Sexuality sells and love affairs sell. But he was actually quite a prudish king. Much more prudish than you imagine.
Tavis: I was laughing, I was trying to keep it in without interrupting you, but I’m thinking, as you’re talking about marrying into families for political gain and for power and access – I don’t know if you know that, but that happens in Hollywood every day. (Laughter) Not just in the age of “The Tudors.” That still happens, Jonathan.
Meyers: Yeah, yeah, yeah, and yes, there are –
Tavis: It’s called the hook-up.
Meyers: Oh, it’s called the hook-up?
Tavis: But it’s the same thing, yeah. (Laughter)
Meyers: Yeah, but you hook up in Hollywood and you may get a role. You may even become an executive. But you hook up in Henry’s time and you own a country.
Tavis: A little bit different.
Meyers: A little bit different, you know? (Laughter) Because you can determine at that point – Henry determined how his people prayed. That’s really – whatever political, whatever housing, whatever sanitation you can give to people, when you’re dictating their spiritual flow, it’s completely different. This is what made Henry more extraordinary than any others, because he changed how people practiced their religious beliefs, and this is what made him extraordinary.
Tavis: Why did people respond to Henry VIII?
Meyers: I think a lot of it was just the exuberance of the guy. He was, of course – I’m 5’10”; he’s 6’3″. In his time, he was an extraordinarily tall man, so this dominating presence, this physical presence. He was also a big guy, hefty guy, so this would immediately make people feel intimidated. He intimidated a lot of people, and he would use this power to intimidate people.
He would never take their eyes from them. He’d make sure that he’d bore into them. He made sure that he was not only physically but also mentally superior in the room. He would be the type of guy that would send his assistant out to check out everything that the guy he was meeting for a business meeting was doing.
He’d know what their hobbies were, what their wives did, what their children did. Anything that he could use to his advantage to get them to do what he needed them to do at the time.
Tavis: Two of those wives, executed.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs)
Meyers: Yeah – one for no good reason apart from the fact that Henry fell out of love with her. Anne Boleyn was innocent as far as we know, and Henry, of course, wanted rid of the marriage. Regardless of how it was going to happen, it was going to happen. She was either going to be executed under law or she was going to fall from her horsie, one of the two.
The second execution was very much deserved, as Henry thought. He did a very silly thing. He was going through, I think, a midlife crisis. Katherine Howard is the Ferrari. You’re almost retiring and you buy yourself a Ferrari and then you wonder why I’m driving this car. (Laughter) You pull up to Sepulveda and some 22-year-old guy is sitting inside there with his model with exactly the same car, and you realize how ridiculous you look.
Well, this was the part of Katherine Howard, that he put her out there – of course she was very beautiful and it was partially lust, but it was also partially that he put her out there as somebody who would draw out all the bad elements in his court.
If you want to find out who your friends are, you put something out there in the open that you know they’ll want, something that’s covetable, and this is how he picked out who was loyal and who wasn’t loyal, and of course she was disloyal, so he had to execute her. Even if he didn’t want to execute her because she was a silly child, he had to from a masculine point of view.
Tavis: Got a minute to go here. I could do this for hours, I’m enjoying the conversation. Let me ask quickly, now that you’re in your fourth season, final season, what have you learned – we’ll end where we began – what have you learned about the viewing audience courtesy of this vehicle, “The Tudors?”
Meyers: Certainly, I think, that the viewing audience is a hell of a lot smarter than sometimes they believe that they are. I think they have an extraordinary interest in history. They have an extraordinary interest in this particular part of history, because it seemed like there was something really kind of debonair about this time.
I also think that the costumes – Joan Bergin, who’s an extraordinary costume designer, made costumes that were absolutely period, absolutely of the time, but they were so enigmatic you could wear them today with the same type of cuts.
Tavis: Are you taking some of the costumes with you?
Meyers: I’m not allowed. They all go to museums, so any time I try to take anything I always get pulled back. (Laughter) So no, I’m not allowed. EBay have lost.
Tavis: Jonathan Rhys Meyers is his name. He plays Henry VIII on “The Tudors,” now in its final season on Showtime, or in case you’ve been sitting here for 20 minutes trying to figure out – yeah, that’s the guy that played Elvis on the CBS miniseries. For more of my conversation with Jonathan, go to our website at PBS.org. Jonathan, good to have you on the program.
Meyers: Pleasure to meet you, Tavis, pleasure.
Tavis: My pleasure.