Season three of Showtime's "The Tudors" kicks off this weekend with the wedding of Henry VIII, King of England (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Jane Seymour (Annabelle Wallis). If you're familiar with the show and know Henry's history of either divorcing or beheading his wives, then don't expect a smooth ride for this 16th century pairing. Creator Michael Hirst talked to our Jim Halterman via phone from London about the changes in these new episodes, Meyers being more than a pretty face and working with some acting legends.
Jim Halterman: What is it about the historical projects that appeal to you as a writer?
Michael Hirst: I don't know, really, to be honest. [laughs] Let's put it the other way around. I'm not particularly interested or intrigued by doing contemporary things because I can't make much sense of them. At least if you do historical projects, you can work out some sort of context. It's something you can dive into. I love the research. I spend a long time digging around in libraries, reading books, taking notes and getting to know these people, which I wouldn't have with a contemporary thing of just inventing characters. Like, I kind of try to inhabit historical characters because one of the big things about "The Tudors" is to try to show people that they were living people; real people just like you and me. The stakes, perhaps, were higher but, in essence, the range of their feelings were just like ours so not treating history like a museum but treating it as a quite extraordinary human story. For me, these are not remote people. They are living, breathing people. I love them. I come into my workplace � a kind of shed in the garden, slightly grander than a shed � and I just like to see what they've been up to, what they want to do and they're real to me.
JH: When the show was first going on the air, was there ever a concern that maybe people wouldn't respond to it in this world or reality TV and MTV pacing?
MH: That was probably more of the concern of Showtime. There was no ready market for historical based drama except for the small market of BBC dramas. Of the major networks, there were no examples. Showtime took a huge leap in the dark and if there was one thing that they were concerned with it was to make the show seem, at least in one sense, contemporary so it wasn't just men in tights. And I'm prepared now to accept what I would never have accepted before which was we probably had a little too much sex in the beginning [but] we just wanted to grab an audience and say 'Hey, don't be frightened of this. You might actually get to like this stuff once you've overcome your initial prejudice to historical material.' Now I feel very cast-upon but I think people do connect with the show and actually the drama is not there merely to grab your attention; it's there because it's real. And, for God's sake, in the third [season] we do something in the series, which is the reformation and the Catholic response to that. Pretty serious stuff.
JH: In the first few moments of the season premiere, we find Henry marrying Jane Seymour. There seems to be a different dynamic working between them than with Henry's other wives.
MH: Henry, at last, feels he's married a pliable woman. If you think about it he had been married to Catherine of Aragon, a great Queen but also an extremely stubborn woman who knew her place and she wasn't about to let Henry have his own way when he wanted to divorce her. She fought Henry for six years before he could get a divorce. And then Anne Boleyn was a feisty, opinionated, intelligent woman who wouldn't become his mistress until he married her and that took seven years so he was battling with these women. And here at last, Henry thinks 'I'm going to marry someone who's really sweet and nice.' You know, an English Rose and he vested her with all these great qualities. She was pure. She was innocent. He felt that he was reborn when he married her and part of that was fiction because she did have her own point of view and she didn't like the killing of the people in the North and she tried to raise questions but of course basically he said to her, 'You know what happened to the last queen so don't go there.'
So he thinks he's married a totally different woman - very compliant, very sweet - who is going to give him what he's always dreamed of � a male child, which she does and so his happiness is almost complete but then the script is ruined because she dies. And the fourth episode where she dies is heartbreaking because [Henry's] very close to God by this point having just appointed himself the head of the Church. But even a man so close to God cannot stomach his wife dying. And the tragedy for him is she dies in what is called 'bed fever' and Henry's own mother died the same way and it just cracks him. It's very moving because you think he's such a monster because he's killing all these people in the North of England but when the Queen dies you still weep for him.
JH: Do you think playing that kind of emotional drama was a different challenge for Meyers to deal with?
MH: I do. I think this is his series. This is when Johnny is incredibly powerful. Even if you look at the posters [over the three seasons] you can see that he's changed from a boy to a man. There's a wonderful scene when he goes into the Tower of London to talk to the leader of the Pilgrimage and he looks like the Godfather. Now you're beginning to see how dangerous he is. The future wives have got to be a little careful.
JH: Do you consciously draw parallels in "The Tudors" with the current political landscape or is it similar because the general foundation of politics hasn't changed?
MH: I think the latter. I do think that there is this endless conspiracy. There's never any end to the conspiracy. The people rise and are brought down. For me, what I'm doing is writing a historical "West Wing." When I was approached about it, I think "West Wing" was mentioned. I'd never written for TV before and they sent me a lot of episodes of "West Wing" and I thought 'Ah, you can be entertaining but you can also be intelligent and talk about politics' and a lot of "The Tudors" is about politics.
JH: Natalie Dormer was so terrific as Anne Boleyn but, unless you wanted to rewrite history and not have her beheaded, it was time for her to go.
MH: Natalie was there for two whole seasons and she's wonderful. What I hope I did for her is [Anne] was very bad, she had really bad press. She was the other woman and all that. The press said she was a conniving, manipulating bitch but in the end I think she was redeemed. I think her death was extremely sad and moving and now we've moved on to other things. We have Jane Seymour, who Annabelle Wallis is playing. And then we have [Grammy-winning singer] Joss Stone as Anne of Cleves and, honestly, when I was told of the casting, I was worried. [laughs] I didn't know quite of what to make of it. I was really fearful that it just wouldn't seem right but Joss was incredible. She really threw herself into it. The most important thing was she could do the German accent. The one thing that was hard for her was to learn to walk. She's young and she's loose but as a Tudor woman you can't do that. You've got to walk straight and she said that was the hardest thing and she's absolutely wonderful. And then right at the end of the last episode we have the next Queen on the block, Catherine Howard. Each one of them brings something new to the series. Each one of them is fantastic so in that sense we get Natalie replaced with a myriad of others.
But for me, what this whole show is about is love. It's this love thing that Henry is pursuing in marrying all these women which is why there's sex and marriage because you can't learn anything about love if you don't have sex and marriage and it's different kinds of loves. Each of his wives he loves in a different way and I'm exploring different kinds of love. Sometimes very sexual, sometimes maternal, sometimes political and it's endlessly fascinating. The poet Robert Browning said the central drama is always men and women and that's what it boils down to really.
JH: You've had some impressive acting legends on your show. Sam Neill, Peter O'Toole and, this season, Max von Sydow plays Cardinal von Waldburg. Did having these guys on your set every overwhelm you?
MH: Yes, of course it did. I made a pilgrimage every time to go and talk to them. Peter O'Toole was so wonderful and funny�and Max Von Sydow, of course, who I remembered from Bergman's films. I wrote a scene for him where he plays chess and talks about death, which is a reference. I constantly reference so much from films, paintings and poems, which is a little selfish of me but it's my show. [laughs] These people, in terms of cinematic history, are the nearest thing you get to God. But of course we're talking about a time when the King is like a God. People understand about God. The fact that we have Gods on the set, it's almost appropriate to have Gods of the screen. For me, it's very moving because there are a lot of them and to meet them frankly before they die is a huge privilege.
"The Tudors" returns this Sunday on Showtime at 9:00/8:00c.