The Damian Lewis Interview: Eton, Homeland And Obama

Confident, charismatic and charming: Damian Lewis' success is easy to understand 

Most Popular

Damian Lewis strides into the Esquire photo shoot fizzing with confidence and charm. “Sorry I’m late,” he announces. “I’ve been bombing down the M4.” He has come from the Hay Festival where he and his wife, the actress Helen McCrory, read aloud selections from the Romantic poets Byron, Keats and Shelley. “We slept in a proper gypsy caravan, futon on the floor,” he enthuses. “Great way to do it.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Tall and athletically built the person The Sunday Times once described as “the upmarket ginger actor” is a big man, but his presence is overwhelming. He flirts with the studio staff. He commandeers the stereo. He inspects the clothes the fashion team has bought along for him to wear. “Ah! We’re doing ties, are we?”

Someone puts on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and he sings along with his own words.

Most Popular

“I’m up all night to get stoned… I’m up all night to get trashed... I’m up all night to get laid.”

“My six-year-old loves that,” he explains. “It’s Nile Rodgers so you can’t fault it. But, ‘I’m up all night to get lucky’? That is barely-disguised pornography.”

This is how Damian Lewis is — sure-footed. By all accounts, it’s how he always has been.

With his wealthy insurance broker dad, St John’s Wood childhood and mum who served on the boards of the Royal Court and Almeida Theatres, he was famously educated at Eton before heading off to The Guildhall School Of Music And Drama. On leaving the latter he has admitted: “I was sure I was going to be a sensation.”

“Damian was a bit of a golden boy at school,” his brother Gareth said recently. “He never had that struggle.”

Aged 10, he was interviewing himself in his bedroom mirror: “I thought, ‘This’ll be good on Wogan’.” Aged 23, he was playing Hamlet in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. By 30, he was over in America being directed by Steven Spielberg. In the last 12 months, he has added a Golden Globe to his existing Emmy, been awarded the Freedom of the City of London and dined with President Obama at The White House, who declared Lewis’ hit show Homeland, in which he plays a former prisoner of war “turned” by al-Qaeda, his favourite. (Lewis presented The Leader Of The Free World with a signed box set. As if this weren’t perhaps precocious enough, in a move that tells you much about Lewis’ attitude to life – work hard, be fearless but never forget to have fun, basically – on the spur of the moment he decided to crown it with a joke. “From one Muslim to another,” he wrote.)

If all of this serves to suggest Damian Lewis is rather overbearing or too cocky by half or somehow unlikeable, then that would be a mistake. Self-confidence is an asset, overconfidence is a weakness and Lewis is all about the assets. You get the sense he could walk into any room, any set and make it his own. He could charm the birds from the trees.

“You look quite tanned,” notes Vanessa, who’s doing his make-up. “Do you tan at all?”

“Only when my freckles join up,” he says.

***

In Sergeant Nicholas Brody, Homeland may have given us the most problematic leading man in TV history. (Breaking Bad’s Walter White may be more so.) His US Marine prays to Allah in his garage and blithely stashes a suicide bomb in the family station wagon while his kids go for pizza. Debuting less than a month after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it was too much for some Americans. Even those who liked it sometimes felt they had to ask permission to do so. Lewis recalls people coming up to him in the street saying, “You’re a guy who is going to blow up the vice-president, you’re lying to your wife and you just generally scare the hell out of us. Yet, we oddly kind of like you...”

There’s no doubt Homeland has taken TV to new places. Its plot line involving the cover-up of Iraqi civilian casualties following a drone strike prompted an op-ed piece in The New York Times that contrasted the action in the show with actual US foreign policy. One critic suggested it gave al-Qaeda “an almost dangerously fair hearing”.

“It does tap into that greatest of American traditions, which is the pervasive paranoia that exists in that country,” Lewis says. “You’re constantly being told you’re being invaded. And consumerism and materialism feeds that anxiety, especially the way medical companies sell drugs on TV. The American dream was forged on the idea that you are able to find a piece of land, make your own home and then you have a right to protect it. And at the same time worship the Lord, fear God and kill people if they try to kill you, which is quite a confused message.”

That hardly dented its global appeal: Homeland has been a hit in 40 countries from Afghanistan to Vietnam. Developed by two alumni from 24 and The X Files and vaguely based on the Israeli television drama Prisoners Of War, the team always had Claire Danes in mind for the part of bipolar, weepy CIA officer Carrie Mathison but struggled to find their Brody. That person had to be believable both as a soldier and a Congressman. They had to look all-American. Several big names passed, especially when it wasn’t clear they’d be playing the good guy. Then someone remembered Keane, a 2004 independent movie about a father dealing with his daughter’s abduction in which Lewis turned in a mesmerising performance as a man on the edge of insanity and despair, one that required him to hang around New York’s Port Authority bus terminal incessantly talking to himself and generally weirding people out.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

In fact, Lewis already had form in longform US TV drama. Spielberg’s 11-hour, $80m World War II miniseries Band Of Brothers aired on HBO in 2001, putting fellow Brits Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and Tom Hardy in front of US audiences for the first time, and putting Lewis and his flawless American accent in the leading role as Major Richard D Winters, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe. That was followed in 2006 by Life, starring Lewis as wounded, brooding detective Charlie Crews, released from prison after 12 years for murders he didn’t commit, which won the American Film Institute Award for best television series.

Most Popular

As it turned out, that last one counted against him. Life ran for two seasons and 32 episodes but was not considered a hit. “For so long, NBC had been at the top of the ratings with ER, Seinfeld and Friends and unfortunately when we were doing Life, it was resting on the bottom and trying to find quick fixes,” Lewis says. Then, even when executives at Homeland’s cable channel Showtime were persuaded to give Lewis a call, his agent almost lost him the gig.

“I was filming in Manchester in December in that unbelievable snow we had three years ago,” he says. “I was stuck in my hotel with them saying, ‘We need a decision’. And I couldn’t get hold of [his wife] Helen.” Lewis had read one episode. As is the way of these things, he was expected to make a decision to move back to LA. He called his agent back, though an hour later than agreed.
“I said, ‘I think I’m going to say ‘yes’,” he recalls. “He went, ‘What? Really? What do you mean ‘yes’? I’ve passed’. And I went, ‘What? No, you haven’t passed. I’ve just been through the wringer with Helen trying to work out whether we should do this or not, as a family’.”
Lewis’ deal was signed on 15 December 2010. The pilot started shooting on January 3. The casting directors didn’t even get to see him read with Danes.

***

Earlier this year, Jay Z released a new album, Magna Carta... Holy Grail. On the track “FUTW (Fuck Up The World)” he raps, ”Feeling like a stranger in my own land/Got me feeling like Brody in Homeland.

“I was aware of that, yeah,” says Lewis.

That’s quite a cool thing, isn’t it?

“It’s one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me.”

Are you serious? It’s pretty good, right?

“My natural habit is quite a long way from, you know, a gangster rapper. So the fact I’ve somehow straddled popular culture to find myself name checked... From the RSC...”
To the Jay Z?

“To the Jay Z. I did actually walk around playing it on-set to anyone who’d listen: ‘just in case you might be interested... have you heard this?’”

***

Of Homeland’s many qualities, one it perhaps shares most closely with Breaking Bad is the trick of plunging its characters into unbelievable jeopardy that really is unbelievable, yet still having us root for them. That, of course, would be down to the calibre of the writing and the acting.

“Within the context of the show, everything’s always plausible,” Claire Danes tells Esquire. “The show creates its own rules and then stays within them, so it’s real in the land of make-believe. Never underestimate these writers. They’re monsters.”

“I particularly asked for them not to send me the scripts until right before the shoot because I don’t want to know what’s happening,” says Mandy Patinkin, who plays Saul Berenson, Carrie’s enigmatic CIA mentor. “I’ll happily say I’m never disappointed in any turn they take. And there’s no question of them keeping the intensity up. I’m witnessing it every day.”

One could point to any number of deliciously ludicrous moments Homeland has given us over its first two seasons: Brody breaking the neck of an undercover al-Qaeda operative in a forest while having an argument on the phone with his wife, for instance. Or the administering of a fatal heart attack to the vice-president after breaking into his office and giving terrorists the serial number to wirelessly hack his pacemaker.

“The pacemaker, that’s actually true,” says Lewis. “When Cheney and Rumsfeld were running Bush’s administration there was always concern that [someone] might be able to access a code for Cheney’s pacemaker.”

The only issue Lewis has ever had with Homeland’s authenticity turns out to be a bit more pedestrian. When arch-baddie Abu Nazir kidnaps Carrie after ramming her Chevy off the road, chained her to a pipe in an abandoned mill and is issuing orders down the phone to Brody, he does so via a video call.

“You can’t Skype on that BlackBerry,” Lewis says.

And anyway, if you really want to pick holes then the whole show is based on a fundamental untruth anyway.

“The CIA don’t work on American soil,” he says. “The FBI do.”

***

The third season of Homeland opens 200 days after the massive car bomb that wiped out the CIA’s Langley, Virginia HQ and and prompted a global manhunt for Brody – now the world’s most wanted terrorist.

“Brody is on the run and, you know, there’s no guarantee that we’ll see him again,” Lewis says. “What’s fun now is season three has returned to something much more in the traditional, hardboiled, paranoid, psychological thriller mold. It’s a lot more hard-hitting. It feels more Seventies-ish. There’s a lot of double and triple-agenting going on. Who’s working for who? Who’s turning who? A lot of stuff in rooms with people trying to pinpoint people.”

With Brody on the run, and absent from the first two episodes, the new series will put greater emphasis on the goings-on at Langley. The Saul Berenson character, someone the writers conceived as a combination of George Smiley and Günther Bachmann from John Le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man, an old-school spy in other words, will move centre stage. There will also be more significant roles for the double-crossing Quinn, black ops leader Dar Adal and Saul’s estranged wife, Mira. Brody’s wife will fall pregnant — by Brody? By creepy Mike? — though this time it was the cast’s turn to surprise the writers.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

“It was intimated strongly to Morena [Baccarin, who plays Jessica Brody] in January that she wouldn’t be in this season and now she’s ended up being in it a lot,” says Lewis. “In the meantime, she thought, ‘It’s a good time for me to go and get pregnant’. Wrong!

With the worldwide manhunt underway, Lewis promises “more of an international flavour”. He has been filming in Puerto Rico, “but it may not be Puerto Rico when we see it” (Venezuela is the likely candidate). Given that Brody and Carrie are now estranged you might reasonably wonder how much further the show can go with their already rather insane relationship. Indeed, there has been speculation about how much further the show can go with Brody, full stop. Not least, it has to be said, from the man playing him.

Most Popular

“Season three would be a good way for Brody to leave,” Lewis says. “That could be a great way to write someone out of a show. The series could carry on, couldn’t it? I think the one person the series can’t work without is Carrie because I do think it’s a CIA show. It’s about homeland security, isn’t it? I think the writers reserve the right to do whatever they want each year. They could do surprising things, like not see Brody for an entire season. Then maybe he appears again. As long as the stories are strong enough they can do that with the characters.”

Indeed, David Nevins, Showtime’s president of entertainment, recently compared Homeland to Friday Night Lights, which he also produced. That show “flipped over the entire cast between seasons”.

“You can’t keep the same dynamic,” he said. “They will have to change it up.”

So will Lewis be back for season four?

“I actually... I don’t know,” he says.

It’s something Lewis’ co-star, the woman he calls ‘Danesy’, also struggles to clarify.

“I have to — or rather, I have the privilege of doing — seven series,” she says. “I’m contractually obliged to continue doing this show for a long, long time. And I think it would be a very different show indeed without Brody.”

So you’re both locked in for four more series?

“Potentially... theoretically,” she says. “Yes.”

Hmm. For the moment, at least, those eager for more Brody-on-Carrie action can rest easy. Lewis promises they’ll somehow find a way to get it on.

“Yes,” he says. “There’ll be something satisfying for everyone.”

***

More than the magazine covers and the chats on The Jonathan Ross Show and the endorsement deals with fast car companies and the shout-outs from Jay Z, there is one more barometer that shows your work has truly arrived in the top tier of the showbiz firmament. And that’s getting your own parody porn movie. So it is in this spirit that Esquire is delighted to show Damian Lewis This Ain’t Homeland... XXX from Hustler Video.

“Who’s that?” Lewis says, inspecting his likeness on the cover with dyed red hair neatly parted, tight Army uniform pressed just so. “Richie Calhoun. He’s a big porn star, isn’t he?”

To be fair, the similarity isn’t terrible. Better than Claire Danes’s, at any rate.

“Tara Lynn Foxx — outstanding!” he chuckles. “That’s hilarious.”

It gets him thinking. “See, in America, they parody these things on Saturday Night Live. They did a sketch of Homeland which basically amounted to Carrie crying a lot and me not moving my mouth. I was like a frog.”

But that’s Brody thing, right? You’re playing him buttoned-up, conflicted.

“No, I actually have a really small mouth. My kids tease me about it. They say, ‘Dad, go on, open your mouth as wide as you can. No, go on. <Open it further>...’”

A really small mouth? Is that even a thing?

“I don’t know. My singing teacher said, ‘We’re not accessing some of the notes, do you know why this is? It’s what I call a small mouth/big tongue. It just sounds wrong,” Lewis says. “It makes me feel like a lizard.”

***

When Damien Lewis walks into his local pub in north London for our second meeting I get quite a surprise. He’s completely bald. It is now June and he has been back to north Carolina to film the fourth of the 12 episodes in Homeland's new season (they will still be filming episodes and editing others when the show returns in September).

“It’s a bit like Velcro,” he says, rubbing his head. “I can’t even get a hat on straight. It just sort of... sits.”

What does his wife make of it?

“She really likes it,” he says. “She says it’s like going out with a ballet dancer. Which is her nice way of saying, ‘You don’t look like a member of the National Front’.”

Given that he flew in from the Homeland set this morning, one assumes the extreme makeover will be part of some Brody-related disguise.

“It’s to do with several things. It is to do with work, but I’m not going to tell you more than that.”

Well, unless they’ve got a very good wig department, that’s not going to do much for continuity.

“There could be a bit of wiggage going on.”

Really?

“Yes. No... obviously what I am trying to do will be the worst kept secret in show business.”

In 48-hours, Lewis and his new haircut will fly up the Isle of Mull for five weeks to shoot The Silent Storm, an independent movie co-starring Andrea Riseborough and financed by Barbara Broccoli, guardian of the James Bond film franchise, whose production company is making a rare outing into non-Bond production. Lewis plays Balor, a puritanical pastor who’s convinced he is God’s one true messenger.

“He is a man of faith and religious conviction and there is an event in his life which derails him that he is unable to cope with, is spite of his faith,” he says. “I suppose it’s a piece about the yawning gap between ideology and personal experience.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

On top of his jet lag, Lewis has arrived home to something even more draining.

“I’m behind with my taxes,” he groans.

He spent the morning going through his receipts and says the only love the taxman ever gives him are “residuals cheques for 79p for the selling of Poirot to Paraguay”.

We order lunch. He goes for something Moroccan, made with quinoa.

“Oh, that looks so grown up,” he says, quite disappointed, when it arrives.

I ask if he’s happy being recorded and bring out my Dictaphone.

“Yes,” he says. “Unless you’ve got a fucking good memory.”

***

When Damian Lewis was eight years old, his mum took him to the GP and gave the family doctor an ultimatum: “It’s either him or me. One of us has to go.”

Most Popular

“As a boy, I was quite shy to start with, until I hit about eight,” Lewis recalls. “And then I was really not very shy at all.”

The Lewis family was encouraged to be strong, loud and opinionated. The Sunday lunch table became a forum for debate, with everyone expected to throw in ideas and fight for them. Their ancestors had some history in these matters. Lewis’s maternal grandfather was Sir Ian Bowater, the Lord Mayor of London from 1969–’70, a Knight of the British Empire, and a decorated Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Artillery during World War II. Other relations on his mother’s side included a physician to the royal family and Sir Alfred Yarrow, the shipping magnate once noted among the world’s leading builders of frigates.

At his prep school in Sussex, he was head boy. “My duties included turning all the lights off,” he recalls. “I was a responsible young chap.” Later, he recalls less responsible things: “Midnight raids on the school pantry, sneaking into girls’ dormitories, having midnight feasts, tying sheets together and shinning out of the fourth floor window to pick up slippers we’d bunged down.” It was, he says, “all very Tom Brown’s School Days”.

Then came Eton. “And suddenly all these little kingpins arrived from their own schools. You’re surrounded by the best of the best.” Lewis developed a bit of a look, going on missions to Kensington Market to find paisley shirts, spending hours with shaving foam trying to perfect a quaff, brushing his suede winklepickers. He also formed a theatre group, The Chameleons. “I realised I just wanted to be acting and playing guitar and playing football and cricket. Academically, I slowed to an almost grinding standstill.”

Private education has its pros and cons but one wonders whether Eton isn’t a special case in itself. If there’s a drive it instills in its pupils that’s quite unlike anywhere else?

“Well, people have commented on that,” Lewis says. “I don’t necessarily see it myself because I am of it. But Eton is an extraordinary place. And it’s interesting because unless you’re going to Oxford or Cambridge, you feel a bit like you’ve been to the best university already. Because the facilities are second to none. The history, the place, the sense of belonging to a tradition – you can’t beat it.”

Even at 18 this wasn’t lost on him. He spent much of his last week just walking around. 

“Soaking it all up,” he says. “Just thinking ‘God, it’s not going to get any better than this’.

So, Lewis sacked off university and went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama instead. Graduating in 1993, he quickly enjoyed notable successes on stage, with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Hamlet on Broadway in 1995, and in the National Theatre production of Ibsen’s Pillars Of The Community. But following Band Of Brothers, television has been the platform for his greatest work.

“He was obviously always going to go far,” says Christopher Menaul, who directed Lewis as the emotionally cruel patriarch in 2002’s remake of The Forsyte Saga. “He was playing a very sombre, dark, humourless man, but he’s very funny between takes. He’s a fantastic mimic. I remember him being a northern comic: he had all the patter and the dance steps. I’m not surprised he fooled most Americans [that he’s one of them] for Homeland.”

“He’s a consummate actor,” says Mandy Patinkin. “There’s a tremendous amount of intensity on our set but he’s incredibly disciplined and a wonderful leader. He’s someone who makes people feel good about themselves, feel good about the day. He supports the whole team like a quarterback. I’d go down to the bottom of the sea in a submarine any day of the week with Damian.”

“I had no ambition to go to America and be in a TV show,” Lewis says. “It’s not like I’ve rejected something or decided that I’ve found something better. Your life just takes you off in strange and different directions. I would certainly hope that I haven’t been in my last Shakespeare play.”

One benefit of his small screen fame: the chance to cherry-pick other shows to moonlight on. He has hosted his favourite show Have I Got News For You several times, and felt obliged to apologise to David Cameron for being rude about him when he bumped into him on Hampstead Heath. This year, he’s also been popping up on CBeebies, reading bedtime stories like I Got A Crocodile.

“I did that for my children and they couldn’t give a toss,” he sighs. “I keep being called up by friends saying, ‘Little Fifi saw you on that thing’. I say: ‘If I can get any kind of reaction out of my kids that would be brilliant’. My son’s more into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

Actually, what he’d really like to get involved with is a musical.

“He took tap dancing lessons all last season,” Claire Danes says. “He’s kind of a song and dance man, which I don’t think anybody realises. He and Mandy — already regarded for his work in musical theatre, particularly his Sondheim interpretations — are a dangerous pair on-set: they just don’t stop singing. He’d love to do some big, splashy musical.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

For his part, Lewis recalls being introduced to Patinkin and offering his opening gambit: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die” — Patinkin’s immortal line from The Princess Bride (1987). “He looked at me like: ‘I have to spend five months with this guy?’”

***

Several years before Damian Lewis moved into his house in Tufnell Park, it belonged to another respected British actor who subsequently made his mark on American TV: Hugh Laurie. “Occasionally I still get post for him,” Lewis says.

He found out Laurie had lived there around the same time he’d been offered Life. Laurie’s first season of House had just aired “and he had become a global superstar, just like that.” Lewis had never met Laurie, but called him up anyway. “I just said, ‘Hello, it’s Damian Lewis. I’m sitting in your bedroom’. Then I said: ‘So, what’s it like making one of these TV things? Because I’m just about to make a decision’. And he gave me advice. He was very sweet.”

Most Popular

The advice worked out: Lewis moved to LA for two years, found a beautiful house by the ocean. His son Gulliver was born during that time and Helen became pregnant with their daughter, Manon. But it was tough, too. “Hugh was the most honest about it but nobody was particularly honest about what it means to go and work in American TV,” he says. “You do 70-hour weeks and you don’t see your family. It’s sweatshop hours. There were a couple of times when I was driving down [California Interstate] the 405 at four in the morning and the whole freeway started to swim in front of me.”

Ultimately, he sees the problem as this: “I just don’t consider myself to be, you know, an American actor,” he says. “I don’t want that life. People jump from series to series to series, and they make a great living doing that. That’s not what I want to do. I want to do theatre and film and direct my own things and develop. But essentially, I want to be in England.”

***

Damian Lewis sits in a 13th century dining room in Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull and cuts out paper spiders to help stick to the front of his son Gulliver’s top. “My spiders are all too narrow, or too long,” he says. “Not wide enough. Not cool enough...”

He’s staying here while he films The Silent Storm. Yesterday, he was up on a cherry-picker, stripped to the waist and abseiling across pastor Balor’s church, pulling tiles off the roof. “He has a Fitzcarraldo fit of obsession and starts to deconstruct his own church,” Lewis explains. “He rips all his clothes off in a fit of madness. It was a bit more James Bond than Presbyterian pastor.”

Next week, he’s back to North Carolina to film episode five of season three Homeland. After that wraps he’s got his eye on another British film. “An independent sci-fi project that I really want to do called Alone,” he says. “About a man out in space.”
As in: it would just be you in it?

“Yes,” he grins. “You can see the attraction in the project now for me.”

Given he’s the latest Brit to make it in the States, surely he must have joined the rest of them and been offered a superhero movie by now?

“I haven’t, actually,” he says. “But you just have to do what seems interesting at the time. It’s constantly fascinating for me that something that feels absolutely right one year, 12 months later feels like the wrong thing to do. If someone said, ‘We want you to play Amazing

Man in the next Amazing Man franchise’, I suspect one year it would feel the right thing to do. The next year it wouldn’t.”

Still, there are some roles that are undeniable. Bond, for instance. Wife Helen was in Skyfall, he’s working with Barbara Broccoli... would he like to throw his hat in the ring?

“Yes, I think it would be wonderful,” he says. “Daniel’s doing an amazing job and he’ll continue to do it for a bit. But if it ever comes to that, I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. Like I said, timing turns out to be everything.”

Perhaps. Though you figure Damian Lewis is also pretty accomplished at making his own luck.

What do you think?

Culture
Share
Benedict Cumberbatch Sang Onstage With Pink Floyd's David Gilmour
The pair sang 'Comfortably Numb'
Mark Walhberg
Culture
Share
Mark Wahlberg Talks Success, Fatherhood And Burgers
A quick chat with the Deepwater Horizon actor​
Apple HQ Battersea
Culture
Share
Apple Is Setting Up A HQ In One Of London's Most Iconic Buildings
Welcome to Battersea, America​
Film
Share
Disney Is Remaking The Lion King Because Nothing Left In This World Is Sacred
Jon Favreau: step away from our childhoods​
Justin Vernon
Culture
Share
Album Review: 22, A Million By Bon Iver
​Bon Iver's new album has a spring in its step​
Warren Beatty
Film
Share
Warren Beatty Says He Didn't Actually Have Sex With 13,000 Women
That myth was too good to be true
fifa 17 gameplay
Culture
Share
This Is How Fifa Video Game Player Ratings Are Really Calculated
From the man in charge of creating them​
The Dude Big Lebowski
GIF
Film
Share
These Are The 21 Greatest Character Exits In Movie History
"The Dude abides"​​
Jamie Vardy
Culture
Share
Jamie Vardy Slowed His Injury Recovery Because He Loved Skittle Vodka Too Much
A hero we can relate to​​​
James Corden and Usain Bolt
TV
Share
Watch James Corden Take On Usain Bolt In A 100 Metre Sprint
Also starring Owen Wilson, for some reason​​​