A household name both sides of the Atlantic, Damian Lewis came to international prominence starring in Band of Brothers, furthering his reputation in The Forsyte Saga, Life and numerous stage plays.
A consummate actor of theatre, film and television, his recent triumph in Homeland won him a Golden Globe and an Emmy. In a great scoop for Epigram, he granted me an exclusive interview. I tried to uncover a few pearls of wisdom from the most exciting British actor of the moment. For many students staring nervously into the precipice of recession unemployment, Damian Lewis’ characters seem unrealistically cool and successful. Decisive and worldly, these soldiers, cops, business executives and assassins don’t rely on others. I asked him what advice he would offer graduates making their way in the world. But his own life wisdom is refreshingly clear. ‘Work hard, play hard,’ he summarises deftly. ‘Understand what makes you happy and do it.’
Such an approach has clearly served him well: he has dined with the U.S. President and been directed by Steven Spielberg. But his drive is evident. ‘I still think I’m trying to make it. A bit like chasing one’s tail. Not healthy, but part of the condition.’ Modest, certainly, but that attitude betrays the aspirations of a winner. I suspect that he does not consider sitting on his laurels to be a viable option. If he retired from acting today, he said that his dream job would be teaching. Well, an audience is an audience.
Rest assured, even someone as successful as Damian Lewis can encounter bumps on the road. ‘The cold sweat you get on stage the moment you know you have absolutely no idea what to say next haunts me in my dreams,’ he observes. Famously, his eyebrow was slashed open by Ralph Fiennes during a performance of Hamlet. Pretty awkward, but dramatic at least. ‘Worst moment though was when I was at The RSC. and heard my cue over the tannoy system. I was still in my dressing room four floors up and quite literally skidded to a halt at the end of my hysterical dash on to the stage. The other actors were pacing up and down. If looks could kill…’
As a notorious master of accents, perhaps mimicry is effortless. I wondered if there was any accent he had struggled to perfect. ‘I played football with Paul Gascoigne for a week and spent every moment I wasn’t with him trying to be him. I sounded mad. But then so does he. That was Geordie.’ I guess he won’t be adding The Pitmen Painters to his CV any time soon.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that to reach the top of your game you must be an arrogant prima donna. In order to prepare for a role, Damian Lewis declares that he has ‘no rituals. Just quiet time on my own when I need it.’ Neither does fame seem to have gone to his head. I am confident that he keeps Balotelli-style antics to a minimum, but surely, I joked, there are some inescapable consequences? ‘I haven’t burnt anyone’s house down if that’s what you mean…’ That fame has not created a pyromaniac is certainly reassuring for his neighbours. Indeed, the single role from cinematic history which he would most like to have played is reassuringly respectful to an historic masterpiece of acting: ‘Ben Braddock in The Graduate.’ Homeland might be Damian Lewis’ biggest success to date, and certainly is in terms of awards. The tense storylines leave many viewers desperate to uncover what happens next. Does he tell anyone what happens before it airs? ‘My wife. Leave her alone.’ You heard him.
Despite a significant number of interviews, there is never a great deal of personal information about the avid Liverpool FC. fan in the press. I wondered if he draws on this ability to play his cards close to his chest when portraying the mercurial Sergeant Brody. ‘Brody doesn’t know who he is anymore. He’s become a kind of sociopath, extremely adept at compartmentalising. Every actor needs a bit of this.’
Homeland flags some contemporary political issues, such as nationalism, power relations and the nature of war. Does its leading man think that mass entertainment can convey serious political messages? ‘Yes I do. Especially in long form drama.’
Acting aside, his performances in charity football match Soccer Aid proved solid. When I asked him which celebrity he considers to have been the worst player, he named Alastair Campbell. It just goes to show: follow Damian Lewis’ example, and you too could outplay the most powerful opponent.