His blockbuster TV roles have made him a global star but Damian Lewis’s heart will always belong to north London. He speaks to Charlotte Edwardes
by CHARLOTTE EDWARDES |
Damian Lewis is not as charming as he first seems. And I mean that as a compliment. Sure he can schmooze: he remembers everyone’s name, their kids’ names, their mum’s name — given half a chance he’d ask after hip ops and bunions — and he’s a great giver of bear hugs, back slaps and pumping handshakes. After 10 minutes in the pub where we meet, he has the room eating from his paw. Not because he’s a Hollywood actor, a veritable red-carpet ‘celeb’ with blockbuster TV shows such as Homeland and Billions under his belt, but because he engages everyone. For instance, he identifies the indie rock on the sound system and turns towards the bar, arms wide, crying: ‘Oh my God, who likes The Shins?’ A busboy steps forward and is congratulated. It’s great theatre.
But in truth, Lewis is a bit angry. And no I’m not reducing him to the cliché of the fiery redhead; he says this himself. He’s angry about big things: greed, selfishness, prejudice. But also smaller things, such as bad driving (‘Makes me crazy!’) or the street lighting in Tufnell Park (‘Why can’t we have lovely charming ones like Canonbury?’) or litterbugs (which he would definitely argue was a big thing). ‘I’m not averse to telling people off,’ he says. And do they reply, ‘Hold on aren’t you…?’ ‘Ha! No. It’s more: “Who the hell are you and why are you telling me what to do?”’
‘But I do have a temper,’ he continues. He blames this on boarding school. It’s no secret that Lewis went to prep school and then Eton — along with Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and Dominic West. It’s something he’s proud of (although ‘to be perfectly honest, I find it irrelevant and unimportant and, luckily, so does everyone else in my industry’). Nonetheless: ‘There is a latent anger in a lot of people that went to boarding school at an early age. I was eight. And I loved it over the five years, but I think the adjustments for eight-year-olds are a lot. And I think it informs who you are for a long, long time.’
Embarrassed, he adds: ‘This is probably not particularly insightful. But if you learn a mechanism that early to deal with situations that are foreign to you — trying to find your place within a group — you naturally suppress a lot of your own instincts. And I think exercising that amount of control is very clearly related to outbursts of anger later on.’
Later, he adds two more things to his angry list, semi-tongue-in-cheek: ‘The flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs — a nonsense! And, that the tree outside my house — which I sponsored — is a weedy silver birch, when I asked for a jacquemontii. That makes me cross every time I walk past it.’
We’ve met in his local, The Bull & Last on Highgate Road. Almost my first sight of Lewis, 45, is hopping up and down in his boxers changing back into his clothes after the photo shoot. He’s chatting to the team as if this were the most normal thing in the world. Of course, stripping down will be part of the job description if he gets the part of James Bond, as has been tipped. ‘By the time they make a decision [on Bond] I’ll be dead,’ he says. ‘So no one need worry any more.’ Then he adds, soberly, that he believes Daniel Craig will do another turn.
Actually Lewis would’ve given Bond a run for his money as a young man about town. I met him in the 1990s when we were in our early 20s through my then-boyfriend. After Eton and a stint at Guildhall and Central Drama School, Lewis bagged himself a pretty solid reputation as a stud; he gunned around on a motorbike and always had super-clever girlfriends (not least the Newsnight journalist Katie Razzall). Ambition roared off him like mud off tank tracks. But he kept up with his circle from school — many of them also did well in film and the creative arts. Although his friend Charles Cumming, the spy-thriller writer, was said to be disappointed to find, in a second-hand bookshop, a copy of his work inscribed, ‘To Damian, with love Charlie’.
As breaks go, getting a call from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks for the 2001 TV series Band of Brothers, is up there. Fellow cast members included then unknowns Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy and James McAvoy. They roved nightclubs in a big posse trying to pick up girls. ‘We had a good time mucking about during Band of Brothers when we were young and,’ he puts on a quivery voice, ‘single.’ Was he ever single for long? ‘Depends on your definition of single,’ he laughs. Lewis tolerated the ribbing from friends about his Hollywood life, his pin-up status, and the multiple pairs of girls’ knickers sent in the post. From Band of Brothers, he took the role of Soames in The Forsyte Saga, growing his popularity as the most dashing redhead since Charles Dance.
But three days after his 30th birthday, his mother Charlotte was killed in a car crash in India where she’d been on holiday with his father, J Watcyn Lewis, a city insurance broker. ‘It was on the road to the Taj Mahal. She had always wanted to see it and she saw it. And she was extremely happy.’ Charlotte was survived by Lewis and his brother Gareth, 44, and their older sister and brother (Amanda, 54, and William, 52) from his mother’s first marriage to Anthony Russell, an insurance broker.
Lewis hasn’t yet visited the site of the accident. Will he? ‘Yeah, possibly.’ Was it any comfort that she was happy? ‘Some,’ he says. ‘Not much.’
He saw a grief counsellor after his mum died, but is equivocal on how helpful it was. ‘This might sound simplistic, but we are so engaged in how we feel as actors and what we do, our whole, the whole grist of what we do is observations of psychological patterns and responses in others, and also yourself.
‘[The counsellor] said: “I think you understand fully well what’s going on and I can listen but… I think you know.”’
And then he changes the subject to the plate of fish and chips he’s just eaten: ‘God that was delish.’
Sitting in a pub with him in the afternoon is fun. He drinks lager, tells me my chocolate truffles look like poo balls and lets me dig into his sticky toffee pudding.
We talk about the next series of his hit American TV show Billions. He plays a hedge-fund manager called Bobby Axelrod, a man whose philanthropic public persona masks insider trading and bribery. Lewis has just returned from Los Angeles where, he says, he’s been asked repeatedly to link in these fictional billionaires and the election of Donald Trump. The idea clearly makes him wince. ‘Billions isn’t interested in going in after the current events story in an overt way. It’s authentic because it makes sure that the stories are authentic, believable versions of things that really happened: the deals that are made, the companies that are bought and sold, the asset-stripping that goes on. So it is relevant and real and a reflection of what goes on in those worlds.’
At times, he talks thoughtfully and deliberately, but he also shoots his mouth off. Two years ago, he apologised to Sir Ian McKellen after saying that he was worried in his 20s that if he didn’t get out of theatre, ‘I would be one of those slightly over-the-top, fruity actors who would have an illustrious career on stage, but wouldn’t start getting any kind of work until I was 50 and then start playing wizards’
He says he’s a little vain, and he doesn’t mind being called a pin-up — as he has since becoming a household name in Homeland, in which he played US marine sergeant Nicholas Brody — but on the other hand, he doesn’t much want to be a poster boy for a major brand. ‘Except possibly Gaviscon,’ he says looking at his demolished pudding.
Do people ever proposition him now? ‘In a sexy-time way? Now I think of it, no. And I’m deeply furious,’ he laughs. ‘But seriously I don’t think you give off the single vibes if you’re not single.’ Up the road is the house he shares with the actress Helen McCrory and their two children, Manon, 11, and Gulliver, nine (they bought it from Hugh Laurie). They work hard, they socialise.
Lewis plays football for a team in King’s Cross called Anvil FC. He’s always loved the game and uses it as a form of therapy. ‘I enjoy the total absorption in a white ball and 10 other guys and the focus, and the way it releases everything else from your mind. It’s brilliant, it’s the best occupational therapy I can think of. You run around and get fit and it releases any anger or tension that you have. I used to play at 7.30 on Thursday mornings in New York. I’d haul myself out of bed, even if I’d had a night shoot that finished at 2am and go and play. I love it.’
He’s ‘pretty good’ on six hours’ sleep consistently, ‘if I’ve not been carousing overly’. ‘Helen and I have quite good energy levels. She has this neat trick where she can go and go and go and go with focus and energy and determination and then she’ll just quite literally collapse like a little wind-up toy and fall face forward. And then she’ll go to bed with the children at 8pm and sleep until midday the next day: an extraordinary marathon sleep, like a reboot. And then — “boing” — she’s off again.’
She calls a couple of times during the course of our interview and he talks to her in a coaxing, calming voice. Theirs is an old-school romance that makes me feel like a withered old cynic. Much of his unrealised ambition lies in playing parts with Helen as his opposite number. ‘Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing,’ he says but also, ‘Anthony with Helen as Cleo one day.’