cover story: Homeland’s thoroughly modern villain
BRITISH actor Damian Lewis is living in an alternate world of sorts. While it surprised him more than anyone when he snatched the Emmy as best actor for his role as the inscrutable ex-prisoner in Homeland, with season two being fast-tracked to Australian screens by Channel 10, he admits that such characters are a subliminal part of him.
‘‘I come from a tradition where I believe that acting is the inverse of lying,’’ he says.
‘‘It’s not lying and trickery. It’s truth and honesty and sincerity. You occupy an alternative reality, and you commit to that reality utterly and honestly. And that’s what will be conveyed to an audience, if you do it right.’’
So far he’s done it right. Americans first noticed the tall redhead in Band of Brothers. Lewis portrayed a lieutenant who’s forced to take command of Easy Company when American paratroopers storm Normandy. His American accent was so flawless that his fellow actors refused to believe he was British.
In a complete turnaround, he next played the acquisitive and uptight Soames Forsyte in the The Forsyte Saga. And later starred in his own American series, Life.
But it’s the role in Homeland that sets him apart.
‘‘If you capture the essence of someone really conflicted at the heart of a serious drama, with elements of tragedy in it possibly, I think they register with an audience just that much more strongly than lighter comic roles,’’ he says.
‘‘I think if I am attracted to those sorts of characters – intense characters or serious characters – I think it’s not so much that they’re intense and serious, I think I’m interested in people who are conflicted. That’s the most interesting character to play. It allows you to explore subtext. It means there is a subtext . . . I’m really just drawn to good writing – what’s concealed and not revealed. Perhaps that’s a particularly English thing, as the English don’t let their emotions out that much.
‘‘But it’s those things, which are concealed, and I think it’s always far more interesting to watch an actor try not to reveal something than that moment of revelation.’’
But for a long time Lewis, 41, despaired of ever revealing his face on film or television. ‘‘I was filled with the most doubt just after I’d done two years at the Royal Shakespeare Company,’’ he recalls.
‘‘I’d done theatre pretty much exclusively between leaving theatre school and finishing at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and that was about a six-year stretch,’’ he says, folding his arms in front of him.
‘‘I’d done some TV, pretty inconsequential stuff. Because I hadn’t been primed or groomed in any way for film or TV, I had no interest in it . . . Then I started to see there was this whole other industry out there with infinite possibilities and started becoming intrigued by being on set – the cameras and the mechanics of the industry, the industrial nature of putting a film together with the machinery and lights . . . and I thought that was fascinating and really desperately wanted to get into some good TV shows.’’
He auditioned for three of them. But he failed at all three. ‘‘I didn’t get any of these jobs. And I thought, ‘Maybe I’m just going to be one of these Ian McKellen types, Anthony Sher types. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m a bit too big and beefy for the camera and maybe it’ll just take me 20-30 years of working in theatre and getting a reputation before I finally do some camera work.’’
But he landed a role in the series The Warriors – a program that went on to win the British Oscar.
‘‘I was so happy. I’d thought maybe it’s the theatre for me, (TV) was another world. And look where we are now,’’ he says, circling the room with his right hand, ‘‘sitting in the Beverly Hilton in LA because little things fell into place. And I’m incredibly lucky!’’
Still, coaxing things into place has not been easy. Lewis is married to British actress Helen McCrory ( Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) and is the father of two children – a girl, 5, and a boy, 4.
Managing two careers and two children can be a challenge, he says. ‘‘You caught
Ten, Ten SC. Damian Lewis. me on a very interesting weekend. Helen is in London working in a new play. My kids are in Charlotte, NC, with a nanny. And I’m here. That’s not something that has ever happened to us before. Because we’ve always successfully managed to dovetail in and out of each other’s jobs and always have (one of us) with the kids. . . . They came out for summer vacation. Helen came out too,’’ he says.
‘‘She had to go back, and I just had to come here for three days, but I’ve kept the kids with me in America for two more weeks because then I get to see them and be with them and they don’t miss me so much. Then I have to send them home to mummy because mummy misses them.’’
Sighing, he says, ‘‘It’s a little bit of a relay, handing the kids around like little packages. I hope they don’t think we’re divorced. But I don’t think they do. They’re just happy being with us on what they think is just a great vacation. They’re in the sun swimming, eating hot dogs, visiting Native Americans – Cherokees and cowboys.’’