Damian Lewis talks about failure, family and being caned at Eton.
FOR five months of the year, Damian Lewis lives in Charlotte, North Carolina in the United States, where his hit TV series Homeland is filmed and where, after taking a break between seasons, he goes through the same acclimatisation routine.
“The first week you think: I may never go home, this is amazing. The second week, you think: right, now I can get over my jet lag, this is really good fun. And then, after the second week, it’s a disaster. I have kids and a wife; you spend a lot of the time quite homesick.”
He is at home in London, gearing up for launch of Homeland Season Three, which has some ground to make up after a disappointing second season. Lewis is at the zenith of his fame, ebullient with success and exposure, and throwing out an energetic charm that rests, one imagines, on a firm faith in his own likeability.
The success of Homeland took everyone on the production by surprise, and the success of the Claire Danes/Lewis love affair upset the writers’ planned trajectory. Lewis is pretty sure they had intended to kill him off by now, and had to change direction when the public responded to their weird chemistry.
His strength as an actor has always been his ability to play ambiguity, particularly the bad behaviour of men in torment. As Sergeant Brody, Lewis has undergone more twists and turns of character than he ever did when he was doing Shakespeare.
The appeal of the character lies in his cold, clear intelligence and inscrutable motivation, although it must be said I know a lot of women who enjoy watching him for less elevated reasons. If Season Two went off the rails, he says, it was because everyone was caught on the hop by the success of Season One.
“I think we had second novel syndrome. Second album syndrome. They ended up having to make melodramatic leaps and start using coincidence, which is never good. That’s where the criticism was; that it wasn’t quite as taut, psychologically, as Season One.
“Suddenly characters were doing all sorts of extraordinary things. In its defence, Alex Gansa and the writers have always maintained that this is a fictitious world, not least because the CIA don’t operate on home soil. So the whole thing is spurious. And second, look, we’re not making a documentary.”
For a long time Lewis wasn’t interested in doing television. After Eton, he went to the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and for six years worked exclusively in the theatre. He had grand notions, which he looks back on with a mixture of nostalgia and derision: “You’re passionate and earnest and young, and you want to talk about the theatre and acting all night long; the romance of being on stage and the shared experience of fellow actors and rehearsal rooms.”
He had been taken to the theatre a lot as a child. His parents sent him to boarding school at the age of eight, so that North Carolina homesickness is nothing to those early years at school. He remembers the first term vividly.
“I ran around like a headless chicken, full of nerves, for two weeks. And then I cried for a week. There was still caning when I was there. We were caned for the greatest sin there was, which was talking after lights out.”
He eventually came to enjoy Eton and, on the occasions he’s been back, has always been struck by the privilege of having been there. “I remain sort of interested and slightly befuddled by my five years there. It’s such a rare existence. It feels a little bit like another time, another world.”
When he graduated from drama school, a lot of Lewis’s peers got off to a very quick start and “were suddenly making rather glamorous movies: Joseph Fiennes, Ewan McGregor”. But for years he was happy with the RSC. Then the hours started to pall. And something else: “I started to feel that the theatre world was rather a small one. I’ve always equated life with travel, with places to see and go.
“Theatre takes away your evenings and weekends. And after six or seven years, it really started to bother me that I was going to work when everyone else was coming home. I was dying to just get up in the morning and live the day.”
He worried that he was backing his career into a corner. “The idea that I would be one of these slightly over-the-top, fruity actors who would have an illustrious career on stage, but wouldn’t start getting any kind of film work until I was 50 and then start playing wizards.”
By the time Lewis was invited to audition for Band Of Brothers, Steven Spielberg’s second world war mini-series, in 2000, he was aching to get on to bigger things. (He nearly messed up the second audition by going on a massive bender the night before. “I’d already seen Tom Hanks, and didn’t realise they were going to want to see me again. I had quite a sweaty meeting the next day. They video-ed me the whole time. Gaunt and sweaty.”)
He got the part, and the exposure led to film offers. At that stage he could have dropped everything and done what many British actors do: Sit in Los Angeles for a year, attending every movie audition going and having a miserable time. He was cured of the desire to go down that road by the experience of shooting a Hollywood movie in Canada.
“A film called Dreamcatcher, arguably one of the biggest turkeys ever made. Poor Larry Kasdan didn’t make a film after that. He went into a long depression. It had good ingredients: It was from a Stephen King novel, and with a thrusting young cast. But I found it a bloated and corrupt and lonely experience.”
Afterwards, he “slightly ran away”, returned to Britain and did The Forsyte Saga.
Since then, Lewis has worked enough in the US to feel no particular culture gap with the American cast of Homeland. One of his favourite co-stars is Mandy Patinkin, whose brooding, agonised performance as Saul Berenson is perhaps as large a part of the show’s success as the Carrie-Brody dynamic.
Patinkin is a legend of musical theatre, and Lewis has modest ambitions in music; he likes to form amateur bands on set and has hung out with Patinkin, whom he finds “funny, sincere. Outrageously talented. Hyperactive. And enjoying the time of his life. The sound recordist recorded us doing an a cappella version of Bohemian Rhapsody. We were supposed to be doing some gritty interrogation scene and suddenly found ourselves singing show tunes.”
When Lewis’s wife, actor Helen McCrory, and their two children fly out to see him, they get out of town and do all the touristy things or hang out by the pool. “It’s a country club life. Pools and barbecues.” It must be tough, the separation, but he says McCrory has been very good about it. “Helen is incredibly generous and happy for me. She’s phenomenal.”
He is locked into Homeland for seven seasons, which doesn’t mean anything in terms of security. “You have to sign up for a long time, then they’ll kill you at their leisure.” In fact, he wouldn’t be surprised if he got the chop relatively soon.
“I think the writers are desperate to kill me. I’m a pain in their arses, because Brody is quite a difficult character to write. There’s a high head count on Homeland. Any one of us could get it at any point.” — Guardian News & Media
> Homeland airs every Sunday at 10.50pm on Fox Movies Premium (Astro Ch 413 / HD Ch 433).