ROLE PLAY

Damian Lewis, who has just snared an Emmy for his star turn in Home­land, talks to Robert Cramp­ton about jug­gling work and life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

GOOD news for Home­land fans. The sec­ond sea­son starts soon. Even bet­ter, Damian Lewis, when I ask him about the like­li­hood of a third sea­son, says, ‘‘ I think this show will run five or six years un­less they screw it up. As long as we can keep it cred­i­ble I don’t see why we can’t just keep go­ing on and on and on.’’ The prom­ise, from the show’s co-star, no less, of lots more to come is thrilling in­deed, and one would think guar­an­teed af­ter Home­land’s four-Emmy win on Septem­ber 23 — for best drama, beat­ing the much-fan­cied Mad Men; best ac­tor for Lewis; best ac­tress for Claire Danes; and best writ­ing in a drama se­ries.

But hold on, Lewis is still talk­ing, and what’s this he’s say­ing now? ‘‘ I’m not sure — and this is only con­jec­ture on my part — I’m not sure Brody will last the dis­tance. It feels like he might not.’’ Oh dear. Brody, for the unini­ti­ated, is Lewis’s char­ac­ter, US Marine Sergeant Ni­cholas Brody, res­cued af­ter eight years’ cap­tiv­ity in Iraq, seem­ingly gone to the bad. It’s a role Lewis in­hab­its so well, I half ex­pect him to turn up to the in­ter­view in full dress uni­form and look­ing highly stressed.

How stupid is that? Rather, on this sunny Septem­ber lunchtime in a pub gar­den near his home in north Lon­don, Lewis is ca­sual in jeans and open-necked shirt. He has fret­ted a lit­tle over the choice of pub. Such and such a place is ‘‘ not suit­able, there’ll be a brawl’’, and set­tled on the Lord Palmer­ston. His sonorous, ac­torly tones boom around the en­closed space, a mark of his self-con­fi­dence. I sus­pect he’s one of those peo­ple who doesn’t lower his voice on the Tube. Good for him.

He is ‘‘ a bit the worse for wear’’ af­ter at­tend­ing the GQ awards the night be­fore. He won TV per­son­al­ity of the year. ‘‘ The evening got slightly out of hand,’’ he re­ports, or­der­ing Cum­ber­land sausage and mash by way of a cure. He also has a half a bit­ter — ‘‘ I can’t let you drink on your own’’ — but then moves on to cof­fee. The bar­maid asks if we want to open a tab. ‘‘ Oh no, don’t en­cour­age that,’’ he replies, dis­ap­point­ingly for my pur­poses. He asks me to make him a roll-up — ‘‘ It’s like be­ing with my wife, she likes these’’ — but only half smokes it. I think he might be that rare thing, an English ac­tor who isn’t pre­tend- ing to be a bloke. Al­though he does play football. Eight-a-side at Co­ram’s Fields in Blooms­bury. ‘‘ Quite a high stan­dard.’’

‘‘ The awards were ac­tu­ally very hum­bling,’’ he says, a lit­tle the spily, con­firm­ing my ini­tial im­pres­sion of an old-school luvvie. ‘‘ Most of Team GB were there. I find my­self eye-to-eye with Bradley Wig­gins, and he’s telling me how much he loves my work, when I’ve just man­aged to rat­tle off some lines in a half-in­ter­est­ing way and he’s won seven gold medals.’’

Self-dep­re­ca­tion is a fea­ture of his con­ver­sa­tion, such as when I mis­tak­enly say he’s 42 and he says, ‘‘ Don’t hurry me along just yet. I’m 41. Ev­ery year is im­por­tant to a shal­low, vain ac­tor.’’ Yet, as he later ad­mits, it’s a bit of an act in its own right. ‘‘ At board­ing school you af­fect this laid-back, lais­sez-faire ap­proach when ac­tu­ally you’re like a ham­ster on a f . . king wheel un­der­neath. You af­fect this, ‘ Oh, I don’t re­ally care too much,’ and you’re ped­alling away fu­ri­ously. I think I prob­a­bly suf­fer from that a bit.’’ Which is not to say he’s se­cretly a mon­strous ego­tist, just that he takes him­self and his work more se­ri­ously than he might oth­er­wise im­ply.

The board­ing school he men­tions is Eton, a part of his life he hasn’t al­ways been keen to dis­cuss. To be hon­est, I don’t think he’s that wild about talk­ing about it now. His body lan­guage — half-turned away, hand pass­ing over face fre­quently, a cer­tain hunted, in­deed Brodyesque, cast to his fea­tures — sug­gests a re­luc­tance to dwell on the years 13 to 18 that I have wit­nessed in other prod­ucts of Bri­tain’s most fa­mous sec­ondary school. A strange sit­u­a­tion has arisen in which some of the most priv­i­leged peo­ple in the coun­try feel per­se­cuted. This seems ab­surd, but there’s no deny­ing the phe­nom­e­non is wide­spread.

‘‘ I was aware,’’ says Lewis, ‘‘ as I was en­ter­ing into es­sen­tially a left-wing pro­fes­sion, of a po­ten­tial prej­u­dice, so I never men­tioned that I’d been to Eton. Once I felt com­fort­able I hadn’t been type­cast, I did men­tion it, then ev­ery ar­ti­cle started, ‘ Eton-ed­u­cated Damian Lewis’ . . .’’ So, he’d made the right de­ci­sion to keep quiet? ‘‘ Yeah. I’m not sure it was the brave thing to do, but it was pru­dent.’’

We dis­cuss Sher­lock ac­tor Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch’s re­cent com­plaint that there was too much ‘‘ posh-bash­ing’’ in Bri­tain. (Cum­ber­batch went to Har­row.) ‘‘ Well, Bene­dict is a bright lad so he pre­sum­ably had rea­son to say it.’’ For him­self, Lewis hasn’t ‘‘ ever felt got at’’ be­cause of his priv­i­leged ed­u­ca­tion. ‘‘ I don’t think it’s been brought to bear on my ca­reer in any way. Any­way, I’m not the flop­pyfringed cheru­bic posh-look­ing guy. I was al­ways the red­head try­ing to be funny.’’

Does he get fed up be­ing asked about Eton? ‘‘ I don’t blame peo­ple for be­ing in­ter­ested. I have a de­gree of in­ter­est my­self. At the same time I’ve al­ways been aware, and while I was there I was aware, that it was not fash­ion­able. My bad mock­ney ac­cent pre­dates Guy Ritchie’s.’’ His voice now res­o­nant, com­mand­ing, be­fit­ting the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany stal­wart he was be­fore tele­vi­sion came call­ing, bears lit­tle trace of that pre­tence. At the time, how­ever, ‘‘ I toned it down. Be­ing at Eton in the mid­dle to late 80s, you felt a bit out of time.’’

These days, of course, old Eto­ni­ans are all the rage, nowhere more so than on Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion, whose most highly paid star, Hugh Lau­rie, went to the school. Then there’s Do­minic West ( The Wire), Lewis’s friend and near-con­tem­po­rary. ‘‘ It is no longer odd that peo­ple come from that sort of ed­u­ca­tion and end up do­ing some­thing cre­ative.’’ If noth­ing else, as he points out, the cre­ative in­dus­tries have grown hugely in the course of a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions.

Lewis’s fa­ther was a stock­bro­ker, ‘‘ but the fam­ily story is that Dad is an ac­tor who never be­came an ac­tor’’. His mother, who died in 2001 in a car ac­ci­dent in In­dia, was de­scended from a for­mer lord mayor of Lon­don and, be­fore that, a 19th-cen­tury baronet.

Al­though Con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cally, Lewis’s par­ents ‘‘ were very lib­eral, if any­thing mav­er­ick in their out­look. They were com­pletely sup­port­ive of me say­ing I didn’t want to go to univer­sity, I wanted to go to drama school.’’ Part of the rea­son for send­ing him away to a Sus­sex prep school was be­cause, ‘‘ My par­ents be­lieved — with much jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, I think, now that I’m into school-run hell — that we should get out in the fields and get our knees dirty and get away from the pre­cious com­pet­i­tive­ness of north Lon­don day schools.’’

That very morn­ing, Lewis had taken Gul­liver, his four-year-old son, ‘‘ for his first day of school. It was glo­ri­ous and heart­break­ing at the same time. I picked him up be­fore I came to see you.’’ Lewis is mar­ried to ac­tress He­len McCrory. They have an­other child, a daugh­ter, Manon, 5. Film­ing Home­land takes him to North Carolina for five months of the year. ‘‘ I make these mad dashes back for 48 hours. If it looks like I’m not go­ing to see He­len and the kids for a four-week stretch, which is too much for me, I’ll bomb back af­ter a fort­night.’’

The time away al­most led to him turn­ing down the job when first of­fered it. ‘‘ Now, know­ing what Home­land is, it’s in­con­ceiv­able I wouldn’t be part of it. It would be a small per­sonal tragedy if I’d said no, which I very nearly did. I’m very glad I did it — I feel like the luck­i­est ac­tor on the planet at the mo­ment — but at the same time those five months can on a per­sonal level feel like some­thing to be got through.’’

The deal with his wife is when he’s not shoot­ing Home­land, her work takes pri­or­ity. Who does what and when ‘‘ is an on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tion that will never go away. I would never dis­suade her from a job. If she wants to work, she must. I am happy to take time off. I love co-par­ent­ing, but it is harder be­cause the roles are less de­fined and it’s an end­less chal­lenge to com­mu­ni­cate ev­ery day.

‘‘ I’ve made a com­mit­ment to be home

Novem­ber, De­cem­ber, Jan­uary.’’ Fair enough, but what if he were of­fered a dream part?

‘‘ Then we would have to have A Con­ver­sa­tion [his tone im­plies up­per case], which is our clause.’’ Has The Con­ver­sa­tion hap­pened yet?

‘‘ No, but there are al­ready dif­fi­cul­ties on the hori­zon. It’s an im­per­fect world.’’

A few years ago, Lewis and McCrory moved to Los Angeles so he could be in Life, a drama that ran for two years. ‘‘ Gul­liver was born there. I was work­ing 75-hour weeks; He­len es­sen­tially lived on her own with two small chil­dren. She was re­mark­able.’’ The up­shot was that he felt he ‘‘ owed her time. So I took all but two months of 2010 off. It was glo­ri­ous. Lovely. We’re both much nicer when we’re be­ing par­ents at home, full of love and joy.’’

That’s all well and good, I say, but now, though, with this hit on his hands, doesn’t he feel he has to make it count? Strike while the iron’s hot? ‘‘ I don’t get caught up in that. I’ve had pe­ri­ods in the lime­light be­fore.’’ Be­sides, he says, there is ‘‘ a dis­crep­ancy in the game I talk and what I end up do­ing. I have con­ver­sa­tions with agents and say, ‘ Yeah, I’m re­ally com­mit­ted to be­ing a big film star, let’s go for it,’ and then they end up frus­trated be­cause I say, ‘ Ac­tu­ally, I’m just go­ing to be at home for a bit with my chil­dren.’ ’’

So he dis­cov­ered the lim­its of his am­bi­tion. Which is fine, I tell him, be­cause it means you must be a fun­da­men­tally nice per­son. ‘‘ Oh, I wouldn’t go that far,’’ he says, ever ready to de­flect in­ti­macy with a prac­tised quip. ‘‘ It shows you can be am­bi­tious for dif­fer­ent things. Be­cause I’m cer­tainly am­bi­tious. But I’m am­bi­tious in smaller ways too. I’m not very

NO ONE WANTS TO SEE ME WITH MY CLOTHES OFF

good at let­ting the week­end slide by. I want the week­end to be the Best Pos­si­ble Week­end it can be. I’m not al­ways the most rest­ful per­son to be with. I throw my toys out of my pram oc­ca­sion­ally, get anx­ious, like any­one.’’

In any event, be­com­ing a film star, as op­posed to a TV star, does not any longer sug­gest an au­to­matic el­e­va­tion. The film in­dus­try is go­ing through one of its stag­nant, for­mu­laic phases; TV, by con­trast, es­pe­cially Amer­i­can TV drama, is en­joy­ing a golden age.

‘‘ A lot of in­de­pen­dent film types have mi­grated to TV,’’ says Lewis. ‘‘ And US TV has be­come more am­bi­tious, go­ing on lo­ca­tion, go­ing abroad, go­ing into long-form drama, hir­ing for­eign ac­tors. Long may it continue.’’

One of the first re­sults of TV’s new courage was the se­ries that made Lewis’s name, Band of

Broth­ers, in 2001, at the time the most ex­pen­sive TV se­ries made. As in Home­land, Lewis played an Amer­i­can sol­dier, this time a real-life World War II vet­eran, Ma­jor Dick Win­ters, who led an in­fantry com­pany in the last year of the war. Band of Broth­ers had a huge im­pact. ‘‘ I’ve had peo­ple salute me in the street. They come up: ‘ Ma­jor Win­ters, I just wanna shake your hand and thank you for ev­ery­thing you did.’ ’’

And they’re not tak­ing the piss? ‘‘ Oh, yeah, maybe they are,’’ says Lewis with a laugh, pre­tend­ing he’s been duped. ‘‘ No, you know what Amer­i­cans are like, very earnest. And peo­ple de­velop an in­ti­macy with char­ac­ters on TV be­cause you’re in their sit­ting room.’’ Lewis met the real Win­ters when Band of

Broth­ers was film­ing, but they didn’t re­ally stay in touch. ‘‘ This Band of Broth­ers cottage in­dus­try emerged after­wards and all these old boys were wheeled out and for some of them it has been a ter­rific 10 years. I had mixed feel­ings about it and felt the need to dis­tance my­self. As an ac­tor, I wanted to avoid the idea that I had won the sec­ond world war. Dick was a very pri­vate man, the epit­ome of ac­tions speak­ing louder than words.’’

Al­though he’s good at por­tray­ing these strong, silent mil­i­tary types, Lewis isn’t at all like that in the flesh. He’s lo­qua­cious, a lit­tle ver­bose even, some­thing of a party an­i­mal (a fab­u­lously good dancer, ac­cord­ing to a friend who has seen him in ac­tion), not campy but not ruggedly mas­cu­line ei­ther, al­though he has be­come a slightly un­likely sex sym­bol in re­cent months, some­thing he char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally mocks. ‘‘ I did try to lose a bit of weight for the first sea­son of Home­land and I didn’t ac­tu­ally quite get there, but in the end it turns out no one wants to see me with my clothes off, so that’s OK.’’ He is, he says, ‘‘ a bit of a softie’’. As a teenager, forced to choose be­tween indie rock and Du­ran Du­ran, he ‘‘ was right in the Si­mon Le Bon camp in a fairly dread­ful way. And prog rock.’’ The point is that when he plays these tough, self-con­tained, duty-bound guys, Lewis re­ally is act­ing.

‘‘ I’m not a switch-on, switch-off ac­tor. I have to im­merse my­self and stay en­gaged with the ma­te­rial all the time. That can be fun, un­less the char­ac­ter is in a con­stant state of anx­i­ety and para­noia, which Brody is; then it can be quite wear­ing. Revving my­self up from noth­ing into this other re­al­ity is an or­deal and I find it gets harder and harder. And also it pre­vents you from do­ing other things. I can’t read a novel on set, for in­stance; it’s too im­mer­sive. I just sit read­ing The Spec­ta­tor. And the New States­man,’’ he adds, ‘‘ just to cover my tracks.’’

It sounds as if, when Brody’s num­ber comes up, Lewis will be happy to come home, play more golf and more football, spend more time at his hol­i­day home in Wales, see what turns up, maybe do some more telly in Bri­tain. He has hosted the panel show Have I Got News for

You four times and loved it. ‘‘ It’s the thing I most en­joy do­ing. Maybe that’s why I won TV per­son­al­ity of the year, not TV ac­tor of the year. Maybe I need to get a Pringle sweater and some grey loafers.’’

Un­til then, it’s back to North Carolina to fin­ish the sec­ond se­ries. ‘‘ There’s such en­thu­si­asm for this show, such love, ev­ery­one sec­ondguess­ing away like crazy. It seems like a show that’ll run and run. It is the best job in ei­ther film or TV. It’s just fab­u­lous.’’ And then, he can’t re­sist adding, with the charm and can­dour that come from ir­re­sistible con­fi­dence, ‘‘ He says with some bias.’’

Home­land’s sec­ond se­ries starts on Ten on Sun­day, Oc­to­ber 14, at 8.30pm.

Lewis as Ni­cholas ‘ Nick’ Brody in Home­land, left; Lewis and wife, ac­tress He­len McCrory, at this year’s Emmy Awards, right

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