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...
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