Damian Lewis looks terrible. With his copper-coloured hair slicked back and his fair skin etched with lines, he could pass for 60. Which is a tribute to the make-up artists who have just aged him for 30 years for his part in The Forsyte Saga.
ITV’s hit costume drama is now entering its second series. The first pulled in 10 million viewers and the pressure is on to keep them, but Damian is taking it in his stride. ‘This job is great fun,’ he says. ‘We’ve all become friends and its good telly too. There’s so much rubbish around that if something’s good it will get watched.’
In person the 31-year old ex-Etonian is charming and relaxed, quite unlike his screen character. ‘Soames Forsyte is a bigot and a snob,’ he tells me, ‘and you much never be afraid of being disliked in your role. But at the centre of him I see a small, beating heart and a desire to express his love for this woman (Irene, his former wife, played by Gina McKee). He’s very bad at it, but that is what makes him tortured. So perhaps people feel sorry for him, even if they don’t like him.’
The viewing public has certainly taken to Damian Lewis. The son of a city broker, he set his heart on acting at 16 and spent his twenties building a well-respected career in theatre. But that’s where he might have remained, had a certain Mr Speilberg not offered him the lead role in his TV war drama Band of Brothers.
‘I’d done six years of theatre but no-one knew who I was,’ says Lewis. ‘Then I did Band of Brothers and suddenly everyone says ‘Where has he come from?’ but I’d worked hard to get there.
‘There was a point when I started thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll never be a TV or film actor, maybe I’m too big or too orange and I’ll stay in theatre,’ but I got over it. I didn’t feel envious of peers who were making movies at 25- I was still too busy running around big stages shouting. I had too much energy and the theatre was the best place for me.’
He’s not just talking about any old peers, by the way- he was at London’s Guildhall drama school with Joseph Fiennes and Jude Law. But his mesmerising performance as Major Dick Winters in Band of Brothers matched anything his contemporaries have achieved.
The casting of a relative unknown in such a key role was a big surprise, not least to Lewis himself. ‘There was a global search for this character,’ he says. ‘They’d done auditions in LA, New York and Sydney. Then they came to London and I got sent up with 150 other actors all trying for this one role.
‘I did the video test and four months later they asked me to fly out to meet Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. I had a meeting with Tom and went out on the town with a mate afterwards, because I didn’t think I’d have to go back and meet Steven. I got home at five in the morning and a few hours later the phone rang with someone saying Steven would like to see me at midday.
I was still drunk when I met him. All morning I was shaking with that woozy feeling, glugging coffee to try and sober up. But Steven was charming and put me at ease. I’d done Hamlet on Broadway with Ralph Fiennes and he’d seen it twice and remembered me. It was all really chummy.’
Band of Brothers soon got him noticed in Hollywood and film offers followed- notable for the recent Stephen King gore-fest Dreamcatcher. ‘It’s been brilliant,’ he says. ‘I love what is happening. It’s given me a career in America and lots of choice about what to do next, which is something every actor wants.’
And what of the other perks of fame?
‘I’m single right now,’ he says. ‘I was in a relationship (he broke up with Katie Razzall last year) but I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t get knickers sent to me in the post- sadly. And the celebrity thing is fun to do as long as you know it’s just a game. But if you start to live and breathe it, then you are in trouble. That’s my take on it, but watch this space and see how badly I screw up!’