Damian Lewis has stepped out of hit U.S. TV series Homeland and into complex negotiations to portray Henry VIII in the six-part BBC television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s mammoth bestselling novels about the Machiavellian machinations at his court.
If a deal can be reached, Lewis, who played Nicholas Brody in Homeland, will join Mark Rylance, already cast as Thomas Cromwell, the monarch’s scheming but family-loving counsellor.
‘To have Damian playing opposite Mark will be electric,’ an executive on the project told me. Other leading actors have also been offered major parts in the drama.
Claire Foy has been asked to play the ruthlessly ambitious Anne Boleyn, while David Bradley has been in discussions about portraying Norfolk.
Mark Gatiss, who stars in and writes for Sherlock, has been approached about a major part. (Gatiss is currently in Josie Rourke’s excellent Coriolanus at the Donmar.)
Damian has met with Peter Kosminsky, who will direct the epic screen version of Mantel’s two Man Booker Prize-winning fictional novels: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
The actor is hoping he will be able to juggle dates on the film he’s shooting in Morocco — Queen Of The Desert, with Nicole Kidman — so he can portray the much-married king.
In Mantel’s telling, Henry goes from being an athletic, heroic figure to a middle-aged, balding hypochondriac who vacillates between romantic passion and murderous rages as he charges Cromwell to rid him of first wife Catherine of Aragon so he can marry Anne.
In essence, Cromwell was Henry’s Godfather-like fixer.
Not only did he help decide who slept in Henry’s bed, he also oversaw the conflict with Rome, making the King — not the Pope — the head of the English church. The producers — Playground Productions, Company Pictures and BBC America — waited for more than a year, as I reported 12 months ago, until Rylance was clear from commitments.
He’s now in the final weeks of a sensational blockbuster run in New York of the Shakespeare’s Globe hits Richard III and Twelfth Night.
During that wait, I’m told screenwriter Peter Straughan honed his screenplays into what are being called the best set of TV scripts to go into production in years. Straughan and Bridget O’Connor won a Bafta for their work on the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and were also nominated for an Oscar.
‘Mantel had the sense of mud under the fingernails, and we want the TV version to have that same sense of time and place,’ a well-placed member of the drama’s creative team explained.
To that end, an initial decision to shoot on location overseas in Bruges has been scrapped. Instead, the six episodes will film in as many authentic locations in England as possible.
The Royal Shakespeare Company versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are playing to sold-out audiences at the Swan Theatre in Stratford and will transfer into the West End later in the year, once a theatre has been found.