Growing up in the St. Margaret's Bay area, James Gilbert had roles in "crowd-pleasing" musicals like Pirates of Penzance and Evita. He's long left Eva Perón and Nova Scotia behind, but some things don't change: Gilbert has a supporting role in the second season of the crowd-pleasing historical drama, The Tudors, airing Tuesdays on CBC, sharing nine episodes of screen time with Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Peter O'Toole.
Gilbert, who trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, plays William Brereton. He's a young fanatical Catholic sent by Pope Paul III (O'Toole) to kill Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer), who the Pope believes is responsible for King Henry VIII's (Meyers) desire for a divorce and the rise of the Protestant Church. Although Gilbert doesn't have a ton of screen time---he's often in the shadows, trailing Boleyn and observing everything in the king's court---he has plenty of memorable moments.
"My first scene on set was with Peter O'Toole, and he was asking me about my character and I was telling him, and he was like, 'Is it a large part?'" says Gilbert, switching to an impressive O'Toole British accent. "'Well, it's not large but I think it's significant,' and he says, 'Ahhhh, that's the important thing.' You can have all the screen time in the world but if it isn't effective or doesn't mean anything, it's not impactful. That's the one thing I can say about my involvement in the show, I've been fortunate that Michael Hirst, the writer, wrote me motivating themes in the show, and the scenes themselves are quite impactful."
While Brereton was a real historical character, there's no proof he was an assassin. "I learned early on that Michael took a great deal of creative license in this element of William Brereton's character," says Gilbert. "He's very good at that---he takes historical figures where very little is known about them and develops storylines. He takes what's historically there and fills in the gaps to make the story more compelling."
Hirst's dramatic license with history is what makes The Tudors so popular---not to mention a sexy, powerful cast (there's no way that tubby King Henry ever looked like Meyers) and plenty of naughty canoodling under gorgeous corsets and robes. Gilbert says that he was surprised at how those costumes---which won an Emmy for designer Joan Bergin---helped him prepare.
"Stanislavski," considered to be the father of modern theatre, "would harp on and on about 'find the costume, you find the character' and I thought that's all bullshit. You work inside out. But you put on these pieces---beautifully ornate doublets, with the size and the weight. For me it was really important to change my look as well with the hair and the beard. You really do start to walk a different way and carry yourself a different way; you behave a different way."
The Tudors was shot in Ardmore Studios, about 45 minutes outside of Dublin. Like the costumes, the scenes inside the castles are decadent; in particular, the luscious feasts often feature ladies-in-waiting performing exotic dances lit by warm candlelight. But as Gilbert reveals, the real studios were modestly sized. He says, "The one thing about The Tudors crew is that they could turn things around so much. In one scene they literally changed camera angles and throw in a different wall and it's a different castle. The sets actually weren't anything too lavish. They knew how to get as much as possible out of as little as possible."
Gilbert also has plenty of praise for O'Toole: "He's amazing, obviously someone who has a bearing and an energy that is, as people would tell me, hypnotic. And he is. His intensity is such that when he looks at you, his eyes vibrate in his head. And he's a good man; incredibly kind and interested and supportive and all the rest of it. When you meet people who are quote, unquote legends, it's nice when they're good people."
He didn't have many scenes with Meyers, but offers: "He keeps to himself but he was always very polite to me and we did get along when we did work together, but he's someone who is very private, so our interactions were cordial and professional."
Now back in Toronto, where his theatre company, Column 13, is rehearsing for the Canadian premiere of Brett C. Leonard's play, Unconditional, Gilbert is enthusiastic about the production, leaving the drama of the English court far behind.