Damian Lewis interview
The ex-Etonian talks schooldays, silly movies and choosing his own career
Although he must be fed up with every interview ever written about him mentioning his red hair – often in tones that suggest he was born with a third leg – today it’s not Damian Lewis’ hair that first catches the eye. It’s what’s on top of it. This is a small red and black-checked trilby hat. It’s the sort of headgear only an actor, or possibly an unusually flamboyant butcher, would ever dream of wearing.
We’re meeting in an engagingly sleazy theatrical club on the Charing Cross Road, a place where the walls are hung with pictures of actors and actresses in a variety of exotic costumes. There’s also a wafty scarlet satin curtain screening us off from the rest of the place. None the less it’s Lewis’s hat that I keep glancing at as it sits on the table between us. Is it a joke? A touch of absurdity to quell any suggestion of vanity? Or is it the opposite? Something he actually thinks looks good on him?
After an hour in his company, I’m still not sure. All I know is that Lewis probably doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of him or his hat. More than any other actor I’ve ever interviewed he seems entirely contented in his own skin. Admittedly, this isn’t saying much, but in Lewis’s case the self-assurance seems to come off him in waves.
Perhaps this is why he doesn’t seem remotely protective of his image. In his new film, Your Highness, Lewis may make his entrance dashingly mounted on top of a horse, but it’s not long before he – along with everyone else – is reeling beneath a seemingly endless barrage of fart jokes, dwarf jokes, chastity belt jokes and so on. “Basically,” he says, “It’s a Stoner Frat Boy movie crow-barred into a medieval fantasy.”
One of the many odd things about Your Highness is that you practically need a jeweller’s eye-glass to find Damian Lewis’s name on the credits. It’s true that he’s not on screen for long, but as I watched his name appear long after those of Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman. Zooey Deschanel, Justin Theroux and Charles Dance had swept away, two things struck me. Either Lewis’s career is hopelessly on the slide, or else he’s not bothered about how many lights – if any – his name appears in. Patiently, he explains how it’s all to do with the American studio system and how British actors “are really just hired as local talent… so they don’t have to pay us as much.” All this is perfectly plausible, but by the time he’s finished, I’m still wondering if there’s a part of Damian Lewis that regards striving too blatantly after stardom as being just a bit… vulgar.
“Vulgar….” he repeats in a ruminative sort of way. “Mmm. Maybe with my upbringing, that might be so. It’s not strictly true to say that I don’t care, because I do care enormously, but I find that what I am ambitious for changes quite often. Possibly that might have something to do with my education…”
Ah, his education. This is the other thing people always mention about Damian Lewis – thus cramming him into yet another half-exotic, half-freakish pigeonhole. The son of an insurance broker father and a mother who served on the board of the Royal Court theatre, he was sent to Eton after prep school in Sussex.
“It’s certainly true that I was brought up in that British amateur tradition, the one which always held that if you were reasonably good at cricket, knew one or two Latin texts and a few zingy Oscar Wilde quotes for dinner parties, you were pretty much ready to go and run some outpost in Hindustan. But do I regard ambition as vulgar?” he wonders, still ruminating away. “No,” he concludes, “I’m sure I don’t. However, I think I have an ear for outright vulgarity as far as scripts are concerned and I try to avoid that.”
Apart from this one, of course?
“Well, this is a silly film and sometimes it’s quite nice to make a silly film.”
There had been Etonian actors before Lewis – Hugh Laurie, Christopher Cazenove – and there have been Etonian actors since – Dominic West, Will Keen – but for some reason Lewis’s old school ties have seemed stronger than most. Perhaps it’s because he appears to embody so many traditional Old Etonian qualities.
Along with the confidence, the conspicuous charm and the air of effortlessness, there’s something that, in certain lights at least, could convincingly pass as a sense of entitlement. And that’s not all. Rather weirdly under the circumstances, he can seem – literally – to have a stiff upper lip. It’s never long, however, before it starts to quiver with amusement.
Lewis is understandably keen to play down his educational credentials – along with any suggestion that they might have affected his career. “Even though I went through that system, I’m not disproportionately moneyed and titled. I also went into a profession where no amount of old school ties could help me.”
While his upbringing may have been privileged, it plainly wasn’t at all desiccated. I once read that, aged 10, Lewis used to stand in front of his bedroom mirror pretending he was a guest on Wogan – then a five-nightly BBC1 chatshow – and answering imaginary questions in an American accent. Was there, I wondered, any grain of truth in this?
He grins, not remotely abashed.
“It’s all true! I’ve always been a narcissist.”
He was, he says, very quiet until he was about seven or eight. “My little brother Gareth (who directed him in the 2007 feature film, The Baker) was much more outgoing and noisier. Then all that disappeared and I was noisy thereafter.”
He’s not kidding here. Lewis’s normal conversational voice could blow your ear muffs off at 20 paces. Even when he’s in one of his introspective phases, the decibel counter never drops far below the red.
At Eton he once played in a production of Nicholas Nickleby – he was Wackford Squeers – alongside Jeffrey Archer’s son, James. This, in retrospect, was a peculiarly portentous moment, given that not-so-many years later Lewis appeared as Archer Snr in a TV spoof biography, Jeffrey Archer: The Truth.
“I remember when I was doing Nicholas Nickleby, James Archer came to see me at the interval and said “my father would like to see you after the show.” It felt rather as if I had been summoned by the Queen and I was cocky enough to think, ‘Who the hell is he to summon me?’ But anyway, I went, of course, and he said, ‘You are going to be a star and I want front row seats to your first performance in the West End.’ And, of course, I did play him later on. It was rather weird.”
At Eton, he was clearly a glamorous figure – not necessarily a complete stranger to self-doubt, but far from paralysed by it either. “I was, if you like, a successful schoolboy in that I had a degree of talent in all the required things that make you a success at school. I suppose other boys would look at me and say, of course, he did great at school. He did this and he was captain of that…”
Were you very confident with girls as a teenager?
“God no!” he exclaims. “My face expanded in about 13 different directions when I was about 16. I looked quite odd and I also had red hair, of course. I relied on making girls laugh. Perhaps I appeared confident, but I was like a hamster on a wheel, endlessly scampering round and round to stay on the same spot.
“It was probably the same when I went to drama school. If you were to ask anyone who was there with me [he was at Guildhall] they’d probably say I was boorishly confident. Certainly I always spoke too much when in retrospect I should just have shut up and listened. But in a lot of respects being there did me a lot of good. It wasn’t cool to be posh – quite the reverse – and for the first time in my life, I was in a minority.”
Lewis left drama school early because he was offered an acting job – and he’s never really looked back. At 23, he was playing Hamlet in Regent’s Park. “Tim Pigott-Smith (who directed it) always says he gave it to me because I shouted better than anyone else.”
His big break came when Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg – against a barrage of advice from casting directors – picked him to star in the epic HBO series, Band of Brothers. Based on the history of the 101st Airborne Division during WW2, Band of Brothers was the expensive TV mini-series ever made – with a budget of around $125 million. Lewis, whose command of American accents hadn’t moved on that much from his imaginary days on Wogan, effectively had to carry the whole thing.
“It was pretty daunting. Normally, I never go to a gym, but before we started shooting, I thought I’d better. I reckoned I was in really good shape, and then I looked around and I was half the size of everyone else. A lot of these American actors have this – in my view – misplaced view that they have to look like Action Man. The trouble is, they all run the risk of being interchangeable.”
The series went on to win six Emmys and a Golden Globe. Yet even then, Lewis says, life didn’t change that much afterwards – mainly because he decided not to live in LA, but to stay put England.
“I was just wary about it. I had a feeling that if I committed to being in LA I might have been sucked into big budget films and found myself there 10 years later, single and unhappy. That said, Band of Brothers opened lot of doors for me. For instance, I’ve gone on to play Americans in five or six jobs in the last few years – films with Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez and Morgan Freeman. Sadly, none of them has been a big hit – but who knows, the next one might be. It’s also afforded me the opportunity to do the little films that I much prefer. They’re just much more stimulating from a creative point of view.”
Read the rest of the article at the Telegraph