Wolf Hall

A major adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels

Damian Lewis is Henry VIII

Date: 10.12.2014     Last updated: 02.01.2015 at 16.55
Category: BBC Two

How has playing Henry changed your perception of him as a historical figure?

I think we all have this understanding that he was this womanising, syphilitic, bloated, genocidal Elvis character. And actually the truth is, though it might be an odd thing to mention, he had a 32-inch waist and he remained that way for quite a long time. He was the pre-eminent sportsman in his court. He was much taller than anyone else. His beautiful, pale complexion was often remarked upon by commentators. And so I think what I’ve found in Henry is that the grandiose, more paranoid, self indulgent, self pitying, cruel Henry emerged in the period after this series actually. What we’re trying to concentrate on a little bit is just to give a more varied portrait of Henry, and that’s really how this is written. Henry’s not in it very much but when we see him there’s great variety in his character and his personality - you might see him composing something on the lute, you might see him in a very boyish way, sort of dreaming about Jane Seymour. We see him at times frightened by the memory of his mother and I think these are little insights that people won’t be used to, you know, and yet there are the similar things there, the vanity is still there, the self importance. The fact that he believed himself to be a divine presence on earth ending in the act of supremacy where he was, not only now God and King but always had been. So to him it was a retroactive bill that he passed.

What drives Henry do you think?

What drives Henry - and it is central to our story as well - is his obsession about a male heir. I see in Henry nothing psychotic, I don’t see a psychopath there. I don’t think psychologically that’s true of him. But I think I do see a sociopath, someone who I think is capable of great love; great affection and I think craves that. He craves the normality of that kind of inter-personal relationship with other people, whilst at the same time wanting to be the greatest man, the greatest King, a God-like King who presides over the greatest court of all time. Those things were manufactured and very self-conscious. But I think his ability to love and then to simply discard is sociopathic. That is very damaging to one’s personality over a period of time, which is why I think he became increasingly paranoid, self-indulgent, grandiose and cruel in the last 10 years of his life - many more people lost their lives in those years than in the first 10 or 15 years of his reign.

And what was at the crux of his relationship with Thomas Cromwell?

Initially it’s very similar, I think, to what lay at the heart of Henry’s relationship with Cardinal Wolsey: Henry was happy for Wolsey and then Cromwell to make the big decisions and to run the country. Certainly early in his reign as long as everything kept running smoothly he was fine. What you see in Hilary’s version of Henry, in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, is that he develops a real affection for Cromwell. I think he likes this man who is humbly born, son of a blacksmith, born in Putney, has more worldly experience than any of the nobles that he’s surrounded by - because Cromwell was a merchant banker, he was an early prototypical merchant banker. He had spent time in Europe in the great financial centre of Antwerp and then comes back from this and he has fought as a mercenary for goodness sake. This is a man of the world. And I think Henry is utterly taken with his straight talking, no nonsense approach, his intelligence and his legal mind. Henry just becomes wholly dependent on him.

How was it that he became so in thrall to Anne Boleyn?

Anne Boleyn was a formidable woman and she had an extraordinary power over Henry. He pursued Anne for five years and, famously she apparently let him into her chamber where she lifted her skirts provocatively and he was able to stroke her thigh. And that was as far as he got for those five years. She was good at withholding - that’s never changed between men and women, that little dance, so on a domestic level that was a very normal situation.

He desired her and he wanted her. I think he also was struck by her undoubted intelligence and her strength of will. I hadn’t realised to what extent Anne Boleyn is something of a feminist icon – that’s something I have learned doing this. She’s certainly felt to have been wronged and I think Henry could’ve dealt with the end of his marriage better than deciding to cut her head off. Maybe that’s a little suggestion of the sociopathic tendencies that we were talking about. But again he was driven by his obsession over a male heir. In the end the woman whom he loved deeply, and whom I think he was infatuated with, just failed to provide him with what he needed.

What is it about Henry VIII and the period that we find so endlessly fascinating?

It’s very easy to be interested in Henry VIII – he was a memorable, almost cartoonish King. In terms of his achievements, he laid the way for the Common Book of Prayer, the translation of the Bible into English; in a slightly violent way, he created the Church of England and it was his daughter who so expertly then mediated and created and allowed Anglicanism to thrive. He made important adjustments to Parliament at the time and music flourished, literature flourished in his reign. But of course the reason we’re interested, is in the six wives and the fact that two of them were beheaded and the obsession with having a son.

Having played him, do you feel you share any character traits with Henry?

The more I read about him the more I was happy - and alarmed - to find that I did share character traits with him. I suppose everyone else will be the judge of it, but certainly sitting in the clothes, it feels like a canny piece of casting, because I do feel, I do find similarities between myself and him. I think there’s no question it helps having had the kind of schooling that I’ve had [at Eton] to play a King. Just the way, the sort of court structure, hierarchies, the way they’re set up, it’s something I feel I implicitly understand.