Saturday, March 7, 2015

Damian Lewis and Mark Rylance Star in PBS Masterpiece’s ‘Wolf Hall’

March 5, 2015 3:36 p.m. ET

HARD REIGN | ‘Wolf Hall,’ a PBS Masterpiece series premiering April 5, stars Damian Lewis, far right, as Henry VIII and Mark Rylance as his shrewd consigliere, Thomas Cromwell.

HAS THERE EVER LIVED a lustier, more murderous cast of characters than the Tudors? The infamy of the English dynasty owes largely to the treacherous 38-year reign of Henry VIII, but an even more compelling character may be his enabler and brain for hire, Thomas Cromwell, the commoner who rose in his court to become a kind of Henry whisperer, an advisor renowned for his ability to read the king’s mind like a book. For 500 years, Cromwell was viewed as a great heavy in the Tudor drama, a character whose lure became irresistible to the British novelist Hilary Mantel. “When I was researching, I started off with a fairly conventional viewpoint: that Cromwell’s a villain but an interesting villain,” Mantel says. “Then I began to discover other things and modified my view very fast.” Cromwell was the consummate fixer—in Mantel’s words, “the man to cut through some legal entanglement that’s ensnared you for three generations, or talk your sniffling little daughter into the marriage she swears she will never make.” Mantel also found him unusually sympathetic: After the deaths of his wife and daughters, he went on to support his large extended family. She devoted eight years and a thousand pages to novelizing the first 51 years of Cromwell’s life with Wolf Hall, released in 2009, and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, published three years later.

The books made Mantel a literary star—the first British author to win the Man Booker Prize twice. Naturally, film producers came calling. “There were many suitors, yes,” she says. But her books are serious works of historical fiction. The Tudors—notably in the Showtime series of the same name and the filmed adaptation of The Other Boleyn Girl—had been transformed in the popular imagination as characters scheming and copulating through airbrushed Hollywood bodice rippers (“bonkbusters,” as the genre is known in England). Mantel feared what would become of her Cromwell in the wrong hands, how tempting it might be to drown him in an orgiastic, Game of Thrones–style bloodbath.

SOLDIER ON | Lewis, who like Rylance acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company, had breakout roles in ‘Homeland’ (left) and Steven Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ (right).

One suitor stood out from the rest: Colin Callender, the British-born producer who’d just left HBO after 21 years to start his own production company. As the president of HBO films, Callender had overseen the production of John Adams, a miniseries based on David McCullough’s biography. Mantel loved the seriousness of the project—the fact that it starred Paul Giamatti, not Tom Cruise—and that it made colonial life look as cold and austere as history tells us it was. Callender, she trusted, wouldn’t make the Tudors, in her word, too “cute.”

While devouring Wolf Hall, Callender recognized something novel, but also enticingly familiar, about Cromwell. As he’d seen firsthand at HBO, The Sopranos had irrevocably darkened the public’s taste and tolerance of its television protagonists, opening the doors for the likes of House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, Ray Donovan and, Callender imagined, the centuries-despised Thomas Cromwell. “Audiences are increasingly interested in characters who live on both sides of the moral equation,” Callender says. “I thought, here was the way to reinvigorate the television historical drama for the post–Sopranos, Breaking Bad world.” The rights to Mantel’s book became the first acquisition at Callender’s Playground Entertainment. Now he just needed actors with the gifts to sell Mantel’s portrayal of the insatiable Henry and his deft consigliere, Cromwell.

THERE ARE MANY who swear that Mark Rylance, the man Callender tapped to play Cromwell, is the greatest actor alive, that seeing him embody the small-time drug dealer Johnny “Rooster” Byron in Jerusalem is as close to a religious experience as the theater can offer. At lunch on a Pasadena, California, hotel patio, Rylance blushes, looking at his feet while Damian Lewis, who plays Wolf Hall’s Henry VIII, testifies to his brilliance. “I don’t know who the greatest actor is—it’s kind of a ridiculous notion—but if you haven’t seen Mark onstage, I’m here to tell you he’s extraordinary,” Lewis says. “He’s kind of cornered the market in redefining characters that we think we know.”

As they are both actors who spent their early professional years performing the Bard at the Royal Shakespeare Company, it might be tempting for American audiences to toss Rylance and Lewis into the same classically trained British actor bin. But just eyeballing them sitting next to each other suggests that their social circles rarely intersect. Rylance, who arrived wearing his trademark fedora, comes across as a theater bohemian, with silver Navajo bracelets on each wrist (he’s actively involved in Survival International, a group committed to protecting tribal people around the world) and a short-sleeved patterned bowling shirt; Lewis, the Eton-educated, St. John’s Wood–reared son of London privilege, is chic in a tailored dark blue shirt, designer jeans and a Rolex, and carries himself with a natural masculine confidence. Given that Rylance has spent his life projecting his voice onstage—he’s won three Tonys and two Oliviers—it’s surprising that he speaks so softly one has to lean in to hear him, even sitting a few feet away. (As a child, Rylance suffered from an intense shyness that kept him from speaking a word until he was 6.)

Through Wolf Hall, Rylance has taken on the job that Mantel began—redefining Cromwell, saving him even, almost 500 years after he was beheaded on trumped-up charges of treason. Rylance, best described as sprightly, might not be the first actor who comes to mind to play Cromwell; in Wolf Hall he’s a physically imposing brute who had likely killed a man or two in close combat during his mysterious younger days and was depicted in the enduring Hans Holbein likeness as a bruiser, fleshy and austere under his black bonnet. “I’m aware I’m not so big as Cromwell is physically, but I can take on psychological weight,” Rylance says. Playing bigger isn’t a problem for an actor of Rylance’s gifts; in fact, just the day before, he’d been sitting with Steven Spielberg, discussing how he will play the titular big friendly giant in The BFG, the director’s upcoming adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book. He’s thought deeply about the mechanics of the Cromwell-Henry relationship and came upon an unexpected insight when he encountered a man who keeps grizzly bears in Montana. “He said to me, the thing with bears is they are incredibly emotional, they’re made of emotions,” Rylance says. “You have to be very clear and very loving towards this bear, which is emotionally like a 15- or 16-year-old autistic child. I compare Damian’s Henry to that.”


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