What inspired and drew you to create a television show around the life of a young Henry Tudor?
The truth is that I was asked to do it. A young American TV producer came over to meet me and he thought he could turn the Tudor dynasty into an American TV soap opera, which made me laugh. Of course I had written a film about Elizabeth I, and I loved the Tudor period, and I think at the time Working Title and I had debated on whether to do Elizabeth I or Henry VIII. I’d always wanted to do Henry VIII. Like Elizabeth I’d had this feeling that it had never properly been addressed.
So did you want to change the public opinion of Henry VIII?
We have this iconic image of him as a middle-aged, fat, bearded tyrant and, surprisingly, he’d been young once, and in fact he came to the throne when he was 18. Which begs the question, what would you do if you were Henry and you were suddenly given absolute power at 18? It’s a good dramatic premise. I was also interested in what had happened to him to make him turn into a monster. I found that all of his marriages were so interesting and so different, and the series in a way became a meditation on love; different sorts of love and different sorts of relationships. It was exciting for me as a writer, for someone with a very strong interest in English history and his reign was such a pivotal moment that it sort of fell into place.
Were there any personality traits of Henry that you identified with as you were writing the character?
Yes I did, he was my main character and he was a sort of alter ego. So I could sort of live through him, even though his life was extreme. What I did find, which was quite remarkable, was that Jonathan Rhys Meyers who played Henry VIII, shared quite a lot of traits with his character. So I could play to Johnny’s temperament, for example Johnny has a short attention span, he has a kind of nerviness, and a sense of dangerousness. You can feel it in the atmosphere when he walks into the room. Like Henry, he has a short attention span and wants to be engaged and interested. I would play to this in scenes where I would have Henry come into the room and move between people and conversations, showing how he changed between being bored, interested, flirty, and angry. To me they were so similar in that way.
Some people thought Jonathan Rhys Meyers was a surprising choice to play Henry VIII. Did you have him in mind for the role?
No actually, what happened was that I had written two or three of the episodes and Henry VIII has been described in history as “the handsomest Prince in Christendom.” So I made a big fuss in the script about how good looking he was and how compelling he was to people. And then the head of Showtime, the company who were financing it, had just made a TV movie about Elvis Presley with Johnny and they suggested him for the part of Henry. The casting was perfect, because straight away he plays around with expectations we have of Henry VIII, and you are not immediately confronted with this fat, bearded guy – he is a young, virile, passionate young man. It makes you interested in the journey the character has got to go on. From my point of view it was inspired casting. I can’t even remember other actors being talked about for the role. I was thrilled when Johnny came on board.
Tell us what it was like working with Henry Cavill who plays Henry's best friend Charles Brandon in The Tudors?
(Laughs) Yes well he’s Superman now!
I know! When you cast Henry Cavill, did you think he would become a massive star and be cast as Superman in the new Man of Steel film?
My partner, who is a producer in Ireland, had worked with Henry Cavill since he had been a boy and he had shot a couple of movies in Ireland. He suggested him for the show, but we had to convince the Americans. And after the first casting with all the executives, the reaction was: 'We have to have him!'
I would cast him!
Yes that was the general feeling from everyone, and he was absolutely lovely to work with. He’s very quiet and modest and shy. He would ask me how I wanted him to play scenes, he even asked me once: 'I want to go to the gym what should I work on?' (Laughs) He is very endearing. It’s great that he is with Henry for the whole four series and he remained Henry’s best friend – they died within a short time of each other. It was wonderful that I could take him through all these series.
As well as Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Henry Cavill, The Tudors is bursting with acting legends, including Sam Neill, Peter O'Toole and Max von Sydow. How did you get them involved with the show?
Yes we did very well! We got a lot of really top class actors to come in for a few scenes or to play a character for a season. The standard of acting was fantastic. I mean Sam O’Neill and Jeremy Northam… these guys are just at the top of their game and really wonderful. Even their voices are wonderful! They threw themselves into it wholeheartedly and it was amazing to see them inhabit these characters, and I tried in every case to develop them into well-rounded characters. All the female characters, all the wives, were brilliant and especially the young girl who plays Princess Mary (Sarah Bolger), who really grew up as we filmed the series. She is just wonderful and is certainly going to go onto great things in her career. To be honest we were just absolutely blessed.
Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes has recently come under fire for supposed historical inaccuracies. What is your attitude towards people who criticise shows for not being accurate enough?
Well everything in The Tudors is initially based on my historical research and the fact is that the most unlikely scenes were the ones which were probably most based on reality. I prefer to be as real as possible and there is so much of that story that you just can’t make up. You do embellish some things and as an artist you have to make choices with the material as to what to include, which character to focus on and what events to explore. I wasn’t really interested in twisting the material for my own narrative benefit. But also I would question historians as they all seem to contradict each other and disagree, and so how are they so sure that their version is the correct one?
How do you manage to balance historical facts with entertaining storylines? Did you give yourself much artistic license?
I wasn’t setting out to write a documentary, if I had I would have done it in a completely different way. I was asked to write a drama that would appeal to a big audience in America that had no knowledge or interest in The Tudors at all. So obviously I had to write it in such a way that these characters didn’t seem like museum pieces, doing things that had no relation to our lives. I wanted to make the issues contemporary and understandable. So that was my challenge. I think that sometimes I get criticised by people who didn’t even know the history themselves!
Did you find out anything weird about the life of Henry Tudor that we might not know?
Yes! (Laughs) A couple of historians had noted that Henry had tried to rewrite the Lord’s Prayer and The Ten Commandments just because he had created the Church of England (during the Reformation), and he wanted to put his personal stamp on it. The idea of Henry VIII sitting down and trying to rewrite these things was so ridiculous and something that I couldn’t ever have thought of. But then again, truth is stranger than fiction.
What is next for you? Do you have any writing projects in the works?
Yes, I’m doing a TV series about the Vikings. We’ll go into production in June.
Have you confirmed anyone to star in it?
We haven’t started casting yet as we’ve just got the go ahead a couple of days ago. We’re going to shoot it in Ireland and Norway and I can’t wait to start it!
So is it going to be like The Tudors?
Yes very much like The Tudors. I’m very excited about it. I’ve also written a movie about Mary Queen of Scots, kind of the mirror image to Elizabeth I, which will go into production soon.
You certainly have a lot going on!
Yes it definitely looks that way…
The Tudors starts with a double bill on Wednesday 1st February at 9pm on Sony TV (Sky Channel 157, Virgin 193).