A different look at King Henry VIII

Damian Lewis is the king in PBS’ Wolf Hall, but he’s not the star. After meeting his demise as Brody on Showtime’s Homeland, the 44-year-old English actor is getting the royal treatment and suiting up in opulent garb to play famous and often misportrayed Tudor tyrant Henry VIII.

But Lewis’ Henry is merely a supporting player in the six-part Masterpiece miniseries. Based on Hilary Mantel’s novels, the series aims its focus on the savvy Tudor adviser and fixer to the king, Thomas Cromwell (played by leading stage actor Mark Rylance). Wolf Hall begins its PBS rollout Sunday.

It’s quite a time to be an actor on TV, wouldn’t you say? There’s broadcast, cable, digital ...

Oh, yeah. A lot has happened in the last 10 years, heck, just the last three years. I am the first to say that I’ve benefited enormously from it. I came of age as a male lead actor just as the TV landscape dramatically shifted.

I didn’t know Homeland was going to be Homeland. I just did it because it was a terrific script, and they pitched me the story line and I was like, “Huh, that’s interesting.” And I knew who was going to be involved with it — an A-list of terrific people.

Then the drawback is, after doing a show like that, all eyes are on what you do next.

Oh, definitely. People are saying, “Oh, Henry VIII, interesting choice to shake the Brody image.” I’m like, “This is not a strategy, this is an accident.” I did three other things before I did Wolf Hall, it’s just that this is coming first. There’s this sort of cloud that hangs where people are like: “How long can you keep the heat of Homeland going?” People have short memories is the truth, and Hollywood loves the new and shiny.

Do you feel in today’s environment you have to constantly be doing something to stay relevant?

Sometimes. I mean, you don’t want to become a hamster on a wheel. You don’t want to be running, running, running, just to stand still. Of course it’s a nice thing to be relevant, to be in something that people are talking about. It’s such an overused phrase: “to be part of the conversation.” But it’s true. It is nice to be part of the conversation, just be sure they are talking about you in the right way.

For years, you played a character who was in this sort of web of political intrigue. Now you’re playing a character at the throne — and if ever there were a web of political intrigue, it’d be Henry VIII’s court.

What was more of interest was him, the man. He is a changeable, volatile, very likable on many levels, brilliant, passionate man, who became increasingly fixated and paranoid on a single issue and a lot of people died as a result of it. So his trajectory is extraordinary. He’s as complex as Brody. Interestingly, this Henry VIII is a little bit more on the periphery of his own story. ... He’s a supporting role in this series. But that also allows what’s interesting, and it gives us an opportunity to see Cromwell and explore these other characters who we all know lay murkily in the background of Henry’s story, but now we get to see them up close.

It’s a bit like we get the 20 greatest hits of Henry’s emotional mood changes. We see him tender and playing a lute and composing a song, we see him losing his ... at Cromwell, we see him on a horse, we see him laughing, we see him being a father and loving. I was like, ‘Wow, we may never have seen him quite as well-rounded as this.’ Because he’s not there all the time, these moments register very strongly. They’re little crystallized moments.

Yvonne Villarreal

Los Angeles Times