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.