NEW YORK (AP) — When Nathaniel Parker first began work on "Wolf Hall," he spotted a crown in the rehearsal room and put it on. After all, he was playing Henry VIII.
A week later, scenic and costume design by Christopher Oram asked him what he was doing.
"It's a crown, Chris. I'm the king," Parker said.
"You didn't wear crowns," Oram responded calmly.
The designer turned out to be right. "Typical of me getting it wrong," said Parker, laughing.
Parker, the Royal Shakespeare Company-trained former star of "The Inspector Lynley Mysteries," has had a crash course in Tudor history to play a king notorious for six wives and creation of the Church of England.
Based on historian Hilary Mantel's books, the two "Wolf Hall" plays chart the rise of Thomas Cromwell to become Henry VIII's loyal civil servant. They were hits in London, and the books have even spawned an upcoming six-part series starring Damian Lewis as Henry VIII.
Parker, who on Monday earned an Olivier Award nomination for the role, will be making his first return to Broadway since 1989 when he starred in "The Merchant of Venice." He lives near the Welsh border with his wife, the actress Anna Patrick, and their two teenage daughters.
AP: Why are Hilary Mantel's books so good?
Parker: What she has done, I feel, is she's presented it in a way that no one has presented it before. We've had this image of a chicken-bone-sucking, thigh-slapping, wench-grabbing Henry VIII. You think Tudor and you're expecting to have bosoms hanging out and being groped and men swinging back carafes of wine. While some of that must have been true to an extent, I guess, what we also had was an amazing society full of intrigue and very God-fearing.
AP: Were you an instant fan?
Parker: The first time I tried reading it, I didn't get past Page 70. I found the pronouns so confusing because we're seeing everything from Cromwell's point of view. But then I obviously reread it, and it's become one of my very, very favorite books because it's so exciting. It's thick, but I couldn't put it down. It's a real page-turner. It's electric, I think. What it's done is it's presented everything we thought we knew in a different light.
AP: The last time you were on Broadway was opposite Dustin Hoffman. But you didn't have the best time, right?
Parker: It was a lonely place to be. Every night, I'd go home and see rats the size of Cincinnati walking around my feet. I just thought, "You know what? I'm not having a great time." My wife — she was my girlfriend at the time — was doing a play in London and so I think I saw her only for a week over Christmas that year. Anna is the love of my life — there's no beating around the bush for that — so it was really difficult without her.
AP: Did it affect you onstage?
Parker: I lost all confidence, it's true. I lost all theatrical confidence, which is terrible because it's something I'd grown up doing. It's my happy place, being on stage. So it took a long time to get back to it.
AP: Will this time be better?
Parker: Well, it's a much more fun part, I'll be honest. I mean, I was playing Bassanio in "The Merchant of Venice." My agent at the time said, "Look, are you sure you want to do this? It's Bassanio with Dustin Hoffman, who's not meant to be easy to work with, and Bassanio is the most forgettable part in Shakespeare." She was right about half of it: Dustin was dream to work with, but Bassanio is the most forgettable part in Shakespeare.
AP: I can't imagine you'd be a fan of Showtime's "The Tudors."
Parker: No. Let's not try and fool ourselves. I personally believe that anybody who does a historical production should have a responsibility towards historical truth, at least as we know it. Otherwise it gets ridiculous.
AP: How are you handling the rival, stay-at-home PBS series, which debuts right when you start?
Parker: Some people have said to me, "Isn't that annoying?" I'm going, "It is what it is." I think all publicity for the book and the event is good publicity.
AP: What about the rival Henry VIII — Damian Lewis?
Parker: I love Damian. I think he's fantastic. I thought "Homeland," he was brilliant in, and even better: "Band of Brothers." That was the best piece of television I've ever seen. So I'm not going to compare myself to him. He is 15 years younger than me, and he's a natural ginger. And he's probably a lot fitter than I am. But, on the other hand, he's not doing it onstage every night.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits