by Jay Rayner | The Guardian |
Watching Damian Lewis leading the men of Easy Company to victory in Spielberg’s WWII epic Band of Brothers, you’d never guess he went to Eton and attended drama school with Ewan MacGregor. Now, though, he is returning to more familiar territory as the iconic Soames in The Forsyte Saga.
The middle-aged Italian waitress clearly does not recognise the actor she is shouting at or, if she does, she has had enough experience at being a sour-faced waitress not to show it. This is the second time she has asked Damian Lewis to choose what he wants for lunch and it is the second time he has asked for a few more minutes. ‘Look,’ she says, with a fearsome shrug, arms spread wide. ‘We are busy. You don’t order now, then the kitchen, it become busy. You wait too long for your food. You get cross.’ There is a convincing logic here: the small, smokey cafe in London’s St James’s is indeed already crammed with people.
I assume Lewis will cave in immediately and just pick something at random, because it is exactly what I want to do. This woman scares me. But then Lewis has a head start on me. He knows how to play a man dealing calmly with fear. In Band of Brothers , the TV war extravaganza produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, he played an American soldier constantly facing up to fear with a quiet certainty. As if slipping into character, he raises his hands in a sign of mock surrender and, keeping his voice low, his eyes fixed on hers, says simply, ‘It’s not a problem. Just give us another minute and we’ll be right with you.’ She retreats and he breaks into a broad grin. ‘Wasn’t that great?’ He spreads his arms wide, shoulders up, in tribute to our waitress. ‘Looooook!!!’ he says, with just the hint of an Italian accent. ‘You want to eat? You order now !’
It is a moment Damian Lewis may eventually come to savour. He was being treated like an ordinary person and that is likely to become a less than ordinary experience in the coming months. Sure, he’s already had the big parts. He’s played leads in BBC dramas such as Warriors and Hearts and Bones. The Band of Brothers role was immensely important for his career, a sudden bump up into the American TV big league. But the attention he received for it in this country – where it was scheduled in a sleepy backwater slot on BBC2 – will be as nothing compared to the intense scrutiny he will receive when ITV begins screening its glossy remake of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, in which he stars as Soames Forsyte, the role made famous in the 1960s by Eric Porter. And then there’s the lead in a new movie adaptation of a Stephen King novel, directed by Lawrence Kasdan. Sitting here in this low-rent Italian cafe, being barracked by the staff, Lewis is that curious creature: a very successful actor on the verge of becoming a very major star.
No matter. He says he knows what fame means and he thinks he can handle it. The key, he says, is to carry on doing good work; to follow each good performance with another one. Simple as that. ‘There are ways of avoiding becoming tabloid fodder and therefore giving people license to pry into your private life,’ he says. ‘And there’s a distinction between being an actor and being a celebrity. You may become a celebrity through acting, but you don’t need to do so. For example you don’t need to appear in Hello! or OK! magazines, both of which have asked me to do it. I mean, what must it feel like to be Brad Pitt with all that interest in you?’ I suggest it’s inevitable that people will pour over every detail of your life once you start appearing in huge, multi-million dollar films. He shakes his head. ‘But Harrison Ford has managed to avoid it. It’s a lifestyle choice.’ In this simple declaration of intent, the young actor on the way up has told us exactly where he is right now. His terms of reference are the careers of Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford.
For some reason it doesn’t seem unreasonable, this casual way with the roll call of Hollywood celebrity. He may not yet be turning heads whereever he goes, but he already looks the part. Lewis has a certain physical assuredness to him, a curious glow which isn’t simply down to the brilliant copper flame of his red hair which, in any case, one could easily assume would actually be a bar to on-screen success. There are very few red-headed male leads. It’s one of those stigmatised characteristics, a colouring so sharp and vivid that it’s seen more often as a negative by casting directors, rather than a plus. Clearly that has not been a problem for Damian Lewis. Earlier, striding into the hotel foyer for our meeting, or assuming poses for the photographs, he looked like a man who understood instinctively why people should wish to look at him, why they should be at all interested.
Only once have his looks been criticised, he says. ‘A cricket ball broke my nose when I was a kid so I couldn’t breath through it. Before I had it operated on I used to stand on stage with my mouth slightly open. Perhaps it made me look a little gormless. Anyway, the drama critic in The Financial Times wrote about me having this strange little mouth.’ He may remember every detail of the hurt, but it doesn’t appear to have done his career any harm.
Now 30, Damian Lewis spent his early years amid the expensive topiary and stucco of London’s St John’s Wood, though he did not finish his childhood there. When he was eight he was sent to boarding school in Sussex. ‘My parents were incredibly inclusive. They discussed boarding school with us and said if we didn’t like it we could go to a day school. But I was a pretty manic kid aged seven. I kept getting into trouble. I actually wanted to get away.’ He describes them as ‘halcyon days: the smell of cut grass, bright sunlight, real Laurie Lee stuff.’ It was also the place where he discovered theatre. ‘Each summer we staged a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. It was all so English. I used to sing the solos. I had a sweet treble voice.’
From there he moved to a modest public school called Eton College. To hear Lewis talk about it, Eton wasn’t simply some establishment edifice, the very nexus of wealth, power, title and privilege in Britain. It was, apparently, a cutting-edge arts laboratory. ‘Eton’s facilities were second to none and all the departments got to run themselves so despite seeming regimented it could also be pretty maverick.’ When he was 16, Lewis formed his own theatre company and put on a production of Nicholas Nickelby . ‘That was the moment really. I thought, I love this, this is what I want to do. My mum and dad said we think you can act. Try out for drama school and if you get in then go for it.’ His mother, Charlotte, was killed in a car crash in India last year and, while she got to visit him on the set of Band of Brothers , she did not live to see the great reviews he received for his performance. ‘Mum was a beautiful, gorgeous woman and a very loving and giving mother,’ he has said, ‘and we all miss her terribly. She was very proud of what I’m doing and I’m just sad she’s not around to see it all now.’
He won a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. ‘Had I gone to Bristol or Oxford University, well, people seek out their own don’t they. That inevitably results in you spending more time with public-school types.’ Instead he landed at the Guildhall during a very productive period, alongside future names such as Joseph Fiennes and Ewan MacGregor. ‘Some years just produce strong casts don’t they,’ he says. Clearly he was a part of it; he was spotted by Michael Billington, The Guardian ‘s veteran drama critic, while still a student.
His first professional jobs came very soon after leaving drama school. Actor Rhashan Stone shared a dressing room with him at Stratford when they joined the Royal Shakespeare Company together to appear in Much Ado About Nothing and Cymbeline. ‘He was always the person most likely to make it,’ Stone says. ‘He was someone who would make the most of a break. He always had his eyes open. He was primed and ready. But he’s also very easy going, one of the guys.’
Around the same time the actress Emma Fielding appeared alongside him in School for Wives at London’s Almeida Theatre. ‘Damian’s full of beans,’ she says. ‘He’s classically trained, but what he’s also got is this Celtic thing going on. It’s not just all neck up. He uses his body. But what was really unusual about him was his dynamism. And he’s bright. You don’t normally get all of that in one package.’
Clearly it is a package which has appealed to television. First came a major part in the award-winning drama Warriors, playing a British army officer trying to police the horrendous moral confusions of war torn Bosnia. Next came Hearts and Bones, the BBC’s gritty answer to Cold Feet. He played Mark Rose, the bewildered and heartbroken newly wed husband who doesn’t quite understand why his marriage to Dervla Kirwan is falling apart. Those roles led, in turn, to the big break: the call from Hollywood.
Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks had all but given up scouring the US for an actor who could play the part of Major Richard Winters, the commanding officer of the young paratroopers from Easy Company, the US 101st Airborne Division, whose true story would lie at the heart of the £80m Second World War television drama, Band of Brothers. Lewis read for the part in London and, within 48 hours, was in Los Angeles meeting Hanks. ‘I met Tom Hanks on the Friday and he was very enthusiastic,’ Lewis says, ‘but I didn’t think I’d got the part so I went out on the piss with a mate till five in the morning.’ Three hours later, at 8am, he was woken by a phone call from the casting director. Spielberg wanted to meet him. ‘I had four showers, but I still felt drunk.’
For a weekend Lewis hung out with the two Hollywood moguls, shooting the breeze. They had both seen him in a production of Hamlet on Broadway. They wanted to talk about soccer because their sons were now playing it. They wanted to talk about London because they both had homes there. ‘I was nervous at first, but they were really laid back and friendly and we really hit it off.’ Lewis had the part; he was packed off to a boot camp in southern England to help get him in character. He also got to spend a lot of time with the real Richard Winters, now 82, who led his men all the way from the beaches of Normandy to Hitler’s Bavarian headquarters.
I tell him that what was most striking about his performance was how much he managed to put across by doing so very little. What stuck in the memory from Band of Brothers was not sudden moments of great heroism, but Lewis’s immense stillness in the face of the clatter and incident of war. ‘I had exhaustive conversations with the producers about the fact that Richard Winters is still alive,’ he says. ‘We were adamant that we had to be as true to him as possible, true to the essence of the man.’ But that didn’t mean doing a vocal imitation. ‘He’s Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonite,’ Lewis says, as though it is an obvious category. ‘He would sound Canadian to us. He had a very puritanical upbringing, no drinking, no swearing. Incredible moral rectitude and a sense of what’s right and wrong. And, of course, he has a natural economy with words and emotions.’
This, he says, led him back to the very classic on-screen acting skills of the Steve McQueens and Gary Coopers, ‘people who achieved a lot by doing a little. If you set up an intensity and a stillness to someone you only have to show a flicker of a smile and it will show volumes.’ It is also, he says, about listening. He sites his onscreen hero, Robert De Niro. ‘He’s brilliant at it. It’s his listening which gives him his mercurial quality. It shows a certain humility.’
It’s clear this is the stuff, the mechanics of building character, that gets him going. He agrees. ‘There’s this preconception which irks me that there must be a show-off in one who acts, but the reason people start acting is because of the love of theatre. The reason you want to be at drama school is not “tits and teeth”. It’s because you want to tell stories. You have to decide whether you want to write the story, direct the story or act it. I want to act it. For me the rehearsal period is the part I most enjoy. It’s the creating of the story.’ It is, he says, about the choices you make as you create the role. ‘That’s what differentiates good actors from bad actors. The quality of the choices they make.’ Are you a good actor? He hesitates, clearly looking for an answer that he hopes won’t make him sound like a total arse. ‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘I do know I could be better.’
His life now is a distinctly transatlantic one as he flits between London and California for movie auditions, though he says he is determined to make careful choices. He has already turned down a major role in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, so he could take on The Forsyte Saga. He claims not to be at all intimidated by the weight of television history that the role of Soames Forsyte carries; the original Forsyte Saga was landmark television, a national event for which the nation stopped, for which even church services were moved. It cast the mould from which all subsequent television costume dramas have come. This new version will, naturally, be far less stagey, but it is still drawing from the same well as the original. ‘My vanity is such that I rather relish the challenge of being compared with great performers of the past,’ he says, grandly. ‘But this will be different. I’m not Eric Porter. Some people will like me for that, some will hate me.’ As to this version it will require a certain patience from the audience. ‘Not everything is delivered in the first hour.’
The next job after The Forsyte Saga will be Dreamcatcher, an adaptation of a Stephen King novel. ‘I am playing an American who gets possessed by an English-accented alien,’ he says, with genuine enthusiasm. ‘It’s a good old-fashioned alien movie. I get chased by aliens, I get inhabited by one, lots of scary monsters.’ He says he took the film because the script was so good and because it was directed by Lawrence Kasdan, famous for The Big Chill. ‘Kasdan is a great example of someone who plays the Hollywood system while managing to keep his integrity,’ he says, as though laying out his own manifesto.
In between all of this he’s trying to do the most difficult thing when the work is pouring in: have a life. He’s planning to buy an electronic keyboard so he can practice his piano skills while hanging out in his Winnebago in the down time between shots. He still plays football to keep fit in a team called the Ladbroke Rovers – ‘essentially just a bunch of west-London types’ – and he’s attempting to spend as much time as possible with his girlfriend Katie Razzall, a producer for Channel 4 News, who also gets sent abroad a lot. ‘The uncertainty in her life about where you might be tomorrow as a reporter is similar to that in an actor’s life,’ he says. ‘I suppose I’m used to having these kinds of relationships, though, because that’s what I do.’ Still, he says, it can be tough. They do miss each other. On the day we met, she was in Israel covering the unrest on the West Bank and he admitted he found himself worrying about her.
Around us the fearsome waitresses are furiously relaying tables for the queues of people standing by the door. Lewis leans back in his chair and eyes his empty glass. ‘It would be quite nice just to sit here and get drunk,’ he says casually, though I’m not convinced he means it. He was muttering about another appointment that afternoon even before we sat down and, in any case, the waitresses would probably lynch us if we tried it. We decide instead to head off to see if we can find the chauffeur-driven car that his press handlers had promised would be idling nearby. When we find the car it is, naturally, a shiny Mercedes, an obligatory accessory for any self-respecting film star on the way up. Damian Lewis better get used to it.
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