When Henry VIII Was Young, Beardless, Even Thin

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DUBLIN With a cornucopia of sex, politics and religious conflict, the life of Henry VIII seems well suited to dramatization on screen. After all, even in the rollicking 16th century, it is impossible to find another king who had six wives, executed nobles and prelates at a whim and provoked the Vatican into ordering his excommunication.

Yet if high drama seems assured, casting the right actor to play the lead is trickier because, unlike the case with most English monarchs before Queen Victoria, we know exactly what Henry Tudor looked like. And he was no matinee idol. As seen in Hans Holbein’s famous portraits, he was square-headed, bearded and seriously overweight.

In other words, he did not look at all like Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, the handsome 29-year-old Irish actor who is playing Henry in “The Tudors,” Showtime’s 10-part series, currently being filmed in and around here and scheduled to be broadcast in the United States early next year.

“I, too, had to overcome the image in Holbein’s paintings,” said Mr. Rhys-Meyers, whose recent credits include Woody Allen’s “Match Point” and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of another king in the mini-series “Elvis.” “That was a hurdle, but I think it’s now very much my Henry, 29 or 30 years old, dealing with not being human, with being a king.”

Youth, in fact, became the way around Henry’s heft: while Holbein portrayed him in his mid-40’s and definitely past his best, in “The Tudors” he is an energetic and attractive young man, both athletic and cultivated, still married to his first queen, Katherine of Aragon, six years his senior, and given to bedding young maidens who catch his eye at court.

And all this happens to be true. Or, rather, about 85 percent of “The Tudors” is true, according to Michael Hirst, the Briton who wrote the screenplay for “Elizabeth,” the story of another Tudor monarch, and who has also written this series.

“I wasn’t writing a documentary,” he said in a telephone interview from his home near Oxford. “I was being paid to write an entertainment. And I hope I have done that. But, having said that, it’s based as much as possible on historical research. And I am very proud of that.”

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