This show brings out the an­i­mal in me!

Wolf Of Wall Street? Damian Lewis says he’s based his glo­ri­ously wicked Bil­lions char­ac­ter on a far more dan­ger­ous crea­ture...

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - FRONT PAGE - Gabrielle Don­nelly

You have to take your hat off to Damian Lewis for his un­canny abil­ity to pick a win­ner. Af­ter his Golden Globe-win­ning per­for­mance as tor­tured ma­rine Ni­cholas Brody in three series of bril­liant spy thriller Home­land, he gave an ac­claimed turn as a swag­ger­ing young Henry VIII in BBC2’s Wolf Hall, then de­cided to re­turn to our screens last year in Sky At­lantic’s ex­plo­sive Wall Street drama Bil­lions.

Tak­ing on the role of flashy, ruth­less, morally bank­rupt hedge-fund king Bobby Ax­el­rod was a huge de­par­ture, and a huge gam­ble, for Damian. But yes, once again, the show has been a big hit in Amer­ica, and on this side of the pond too. In fact, it earned the high­est rat­ings ever for an open­ing episode on the Show­time chan­nel when it aired in the States.

To­day, when we meet in a ho­tel over­look­ing Man­hat­tan’s Cen­tral Park, Damian ad­mits that af­ter Home­land he’d been wary of tempt­ing fate by go­ing into another series quite so soon. ‘It’s al­ways sat­is­fy­ing to be in any­thing that’s at all suc­cess­ful,’ he says. ‘I was proud of Home­land, the sto­ry­telling was ex­cel­lent and I en­joyed the peo­ple I worked with, so all in all it was one of the most sat­is­fy­ing work ex­pe­ri­ences I’ve ever had. But to fol­low that by go­ing into another po­ten­tially long-run­ning series was not a de­ci­sion I took lightly.

‘There was no con­scious de­ci­sion to get away from Brody in this role, but Bobby Ax­el­rod is a very dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter,’ he adds. ‘I think it’s only when you fi­nally step out­side a char­ac­ter like Brody that you be­come aware that maybe the whole world sees you as that char­ac­ter, so you in­stinc­tively choose some­thing dif­fer­ent next time. Peo­ple stop me in the street and call me by my char­ac­ters’ names. I take it as a com­pli­ment, but it’s nice they don’t all call me by just the one name. They say, “Hey, Bobby!” now as well as, “Hey, Brody!”’

Bil­lions, an in­tox­i­cat­ing mix of greed and glam­our shot through with waspish one-lin­ers and lib­eral doses of sex, had view­ers hooked from the start. Ax­el­rod, out­wardly a phil­an­thropic bil­lion­aire, is se­cretly not averse to a lit­tle in­sider trad­ing to in­crease his firm’s enor­mous wealth. He’s locked in a game of cat and mouse with Paul Gia­matti’s shrewd US At­tor­ney Chuck Rhoades, who goes af­ter Ax­el­rod when ev­i­dence of the bil­lion­aire’s fi­nan­cial shenani­gans turns up.

Caught in the mid­dle is Rhoades’s wife Wendy, played by Mag­gie Siff, a psy­chi­a­trist who works for Bobby as the in-house per­for­mance coach and helped him build up his com­pany long be­fore her hus­band be­came US At­tor­ney. She’s torn be­tween th­ese two al­pha males, sup­port­ive of her hus­band’s quest for jus­tice yet un­will­ing to leave a job she loves. She’s no prude ei­ther – she and Rhoades have a pen­chant for S&M, while her close­ness to Bobby saw them take a skinny-dip to­gether. The first series ended with Wendy snap­ping un­der the pres­sure of be­ing ma­nip­u­lated by both men, kick­ing her hus­band out for steal­ing pri­vate records off her lap­top to get the dirt on Bobby, and quit­ting her job af­ter Bobby threat­ened to de­stroy her for spilling his se­crets.

Series two picks up a few weeks later, with both men griev­ing the tem­po­rary de­par­ture of Wendy from their lives. But they’re at each other’s throats im­me­di­ately when Bobby files a law­suit against Rhoades cit­ing un­law­ful ha­rass­ment. ‘Bobby is com­ing to the re­al­i­sa­tion that Chuck isn’t go­ing to go away,’ says Damian. ‘For the whole of sea­son one he was on the de­fen­sive, but this sea­son he lays it out pretty clearly: “It’s me or Rhoades – and Rhoades has to go.” ‘Bobby’s brought in new per­son­nel to make sure from now on ev­ery­thing he does is trans­par­ent. He files the law­suit say­ing, “You ha­rassed me, there weren’t le­git­i­mate grounds for your in­ves­ti­ga­tion into my com­pany”, and as a re­sult Chuck is in­ves­ti­gated by his own team. So the ta­bles are turned.’ Try­ing to adopt a new squeaky-clean im­age doesn’t come easy to Bobby though. ‘He’s try­ing to play by the rules and it doesn’t suit him,’ says Damian. ‘Let’s face it, play­ing by the rules can be dull and Bobby likes to play fast and loose – it’s much more ex­cit­ing. He be­lieves win­ning is the most im­por­tant thing there is – that it doesn’t mat­ter how you win, just that you win. I like that about him. I like his swag­ger, the fact he’s made some­thing of him­self de­spite his blue-col­lar roots. I sup­pose the lit­tle bit of bad­ness in me likes the bad­ness in Bobby! Hav­ing said that, it’s easy to exude an­i­mal­is­tic power when you’re sit­ting in a

‘Bobby plays fast and loose – it’s more ex­cit­ing’

swim­ming pool with the gor­geous Mag­gie Siff. But the re­la­tion­ship is not like the one be­tween Brody and Car­rie in Home­land, where you were think­ing, “Are they go­ing to kill each other or sleep with each other?” Bobby and Wendy have a com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship al­though I don’t get the im­pres­sion

‘I wasn’t fully pre­pared for the neg­a­tive side of fame’

they’re go­ing to end up be­tween the sheets. But I could be wrong.’

Dif­fer­ent as they’ve all been, Damian’s char­ac­ters all share a dis­tinct phys­i­cal pres­ence. ‘I was a keen sports­man as a child and I’ve al­ways been aware that you need a cer­tain ath­leti­cism to take to the stage,’ he says. ‘When I take on any role I al­ways base the char­ac­ter on an an­i­mal. For Bobby I see him as ath­letic and prowl­ing, so I use a leop­ard as my model there.’

He’s quite a sexy leop­ard too, as var­i­ous steamy love scenes be­tween Bobby and his wife Lara, played by Swedish-born ac­tress Malin Ak­er­man, can at­test. But he says there’s more to Lara than her blonde-bomb­shell looks. ‘I don’t know if you’ve no­ticed,’ he says with a sly smile, ‘but Malin hap­pens to be one of the most beau­ti­ful women you’ll ever see. But the one thing we al­ways said about Bobby’s wife is that, in spite of all his wealth and the fast cars, the yachts, the he­li­copter and the $83million houses, we didn’t want him to have a tro­phy wife; we wanted to root him in a real re­la­tion­ship. We wanted to make it clear that Lara had grown up with Bobby, that she was bluecol­lar too... She’s like him. They’re both al­ley cats and know how to scrap.’

Wait­ing at home in Lon­don is real-life wife He­len McCrory, the re­doubtable ma­tri­arch Aunt Polly in Peaky Blin­ders. They’ve been to­gether for 14 years and mar­ried for nearly ten, and their union is fa­mously rock solid. He­len has al­ways said she’s not wor­ried about her hus­band’s sex-sym­bol sta­tus. ‘Ev­ery wife wants to be with some­one ev­ery­one finds at­trac­tive,’ she re­marked re­cently. Damian is clearly be­sot­ted too. ‘We miss each other when we’re apart, and we’re very happy when we’re to­gether,’ he has told me in the past.

In truth it’s amaz­ing they find any time to be to­gether at all, with both their ca­reers cur­rently in over­drive. He­len’s just been mak­ing ITV’s new thriller Fear­less, writ­ten by Pa­trick Harbin­son, the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of Home­land, which is due to air later this year. She plays a lawyer try­ing to free a man she thinks was wrongly con­victed of a girl’s mur­der, but who senses dark forces within the po­lice and the se­cu­rity ser­vices try­ing to thwart her. Damian, mean­while, has a five-month film­ing sched­ule on Bil­lions in New York, dur­ing which he makes reg­u­lar week­end com­mutes back to Lon­don. ‘We work it out but it’s hard,’ he says. ‘We all miss each other when we’re apart but my wife and I are still vain and am­bi­tious enough to want to carry on work­ing at the same time, so try­ing to make it all add up is quite some­thing.’

Cer­tainly when he’s home he’s a celebrity around Tufnell Park in north Lon­don where he and He­len live with their two chil­dren, daugh­ter Manon, ten, and son Gul­liver, nine. But that can have its down­sides. ‘Was I fully pre­pared for the neg­a­tive as­pects that come with suc­cess? No, I wasn’t. Do I choose to deal with those neg­a­tive as­pects? Yes, I do. Do I al­ways deal with them well? No, I don’t. Some­times you’re run­ning late, you can be with your kids or you dropped your change, and some­one wants a pho­to­graph. Some­times you have to say, “Look, you just have to stop and look at the pic­ture in front of you here. I’m car­ry­ing three bags, I’ve got a dog and two chil­dren un­der 11, and I’m clearly run­ning for a train. So you don’t get the photo, I’m so sorry.”’

He says he and He­len are try­ing to bring up their chil­dren not to be spoiled. ‘If they clean the chim­ney well they get 50p,’ he re­marks, dead­pan. ‘But se­ri­ously, He­len and I do teach them that you have to work to live, which is a help­ful ex­pla­na­tion when I’m walk­ing out of the door full of guilt be­cause I’m not go­ing to see them for three weeks.’

Damian had a priv­i­leged up­bring­ing him­self. His fa­ther, Wat­cyn Lewis, was an in­sur­ance bro­ker and his mother Char­lotte was the daugh­ter of Ian Bowa­ter, a for­mer lord mayor of Lon­don. But tragedy struck when she was killed in a road ac­ci­dent while hol­i­day­ing with her hus­band in In­dia when Damian was 30. His fa­ther had to drag his mother from be­neath the ve­hi­cle. Damian rarely speaks about this, al­though when he won the Golden Globe for his per­for­mance in Home­land in 2013, he ded­i­cated it to his mother, and he once said in an interview that his mother’s death was ‘the sin­gle most im­por­tant thing that’s hap­pened to me in my life’, ad­ding: ‘Fa­ther was with her. It was a ter­ri­ble, ter­ri­ble thing to hap­pen to him.’

As for whether his chil­dren will fol­low their fa­ther to board­ing school – Damian at­tended Ash­down House prep school in Sus­sex and then Eton – he says that’s yet to be de­ter­mined. ‘They may even­tu­ally, but I wouldn’t have sent them as early as I was sent, which was at the age of eight... I think it’s a lot to ask of an eight-year-old to cope away from home.’

How­ever, he en­joyed his time at Ash­down. ‘It was in the coun­try­side with woods and fields and lots of out­door time. Muddy knees, tie un­der your ear, snot run­ning down your nose – it was a bit more scruffy than to­day’s schools. I’m thank­ful for those five years there at that age be­cause it was a bit wild and you could just tear around.’

Sounds like it’s stood him in good stead for play­ing Bobby Ax­el­rod. Bil­lions, Tues­day, 9pm, Sky At­lantic.

Damian as Bobby and, left, Malin Ak­er­man as his wife Lara

Damian as Brody in Home­land with Claire Danes as Car­rie

With his wife He­len McCrory

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