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Daily Mail Weekend Supplement
6th October 2001

Acting Tough

British actor Damian Lewis beat off hundreds of rivals to land the lead in BBC’s Band of Brothers, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ £86 million WWII epic which has caused critical controversy for overplaying America’s role in defeating the Nazis. In this compelling diary, he tells of his own battle to win the role of American officer Captain Dick Winters, his agonizing first meeting with Hanks – and the extraordinary filming regime, which turned actors into men of war.

LATE AUGUST 1999: Call from my agent. Hollywood’s coming to town. Hurrah. Another chance to record myself on tape for some big blockbuster which will gather dust on a shelf in LA. ‘But this is different,’ my agent, Stephanie Randall, stresses, ‘It’s Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. They’re seeing everybody, and they want you to play an American. This is gonna be huge.’

DAY OF AUDITION: I head off on my motorbike. It rains on me. I arrive, soaked, having found the only parking spot left in Soho to park my bike. I walk down some steps into a colourless basement.

‘Damian Lewis?’
‘Yes.’
‘Take a seat please, Damian.’

I glance at the audition sheet. Every actor in London under 30 who still has both his legs is being seen. This is huge. I do the audition and leave. I feel good, and it seems to have gone well. My accent held together – if you like Sylvester Stallone impersonations. I find I have a parking ticket. I ride home thinking violent thoughts. I’ve totally forgotten about the audition.

A MONTH LATER: ‘Damian, remember that audition you did for Spielberg and Hanks? Well, they want to see you again.’ It’s Stephanie on the phone. I return to the same colourless basement, and I’m greeted by the casting director, more enthusiastically this time.

‘You know they want to see you for the main part, Winters. He’s the hero.’ I’m packed off to have American accent training. For some reason, I sound like Jimmy Stewart.

A MONTH LATER: A third audition. Same part, different accent. I think I’m James Caan in The Godfather and have come over all ‘ba da bing ba da boom.’ Christ, someone help me.

LATE NOVEMBER: ‘Damian, I think you’re the only person they’re still seeing for the main role.’ Stephanie sys down the phone. I walk into the same colourless basement for a fourth time. Same line of producers and casting directors – the examination board. I do my piece.

‘So Damian, how would you like to fly to LA on Thursday and meet Steven and Tom?’ says Tony To, who’s running the audition. My heart misses a beat. My pulse quickened. This is definitely a Hollywood moment. In Soho.

‘I’ll have to call my Granny to rearrange lunch.’ They all laugh. It doesn’t occur to them I might actually have to do this. Or, more probably, they don’t care, and the Hollywood machine whirrs into action around me. Flights, hotels and limos are booked, right there in the room. I sit down. I still have to get on my motorbike and I’m breathing way too fast to ride it in a straight line.

48 HOURS LATER (THURSDAY): I’m staying at Shutters On The Beach, an exclusive hotel in Santa Monica. I’m looking out of my window at the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean and the rich yellow of the sandy beaches. I listen to the warm breeze play in the palm trees. I like this a lot. Money is being spent on me here – could I really be in with a chance?

FRIDAY: When I get out of this limo, I’m going to walk into a room and meet Tom Hanks. I must remember to tell him how much I like Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan, Apollo 13, his ‘serious’ work. But all I really want to talk about is Splash, Big, and Bachelor Party, the ones I grew up on.

‘Hey, Damian, thanks for coming. You must be tired after flying all the way from London.’ Tom is speaking to me. Before I can stop myself, I’ve launched into one of the unfunniest jokes I’ve ever made. I rub my arms, and blurt out: ‘Yeah, my arms are pretty stiff,’ (implying I’d actually flown). Geddit? Genius. Traffic comes to a screeching halt. Tumbleweed blows through the room. Silence.

‘Did this guy just say what I think he said?’ At least, this is the look on Tom’s face. His jaw slightly open, a look of utter disbelief in his eyes. The silence lasts a few seconds before Tom, realizing that he simply has to help me out of this horrible moment, yells out: ‘Aw, okay, funny guy. Very good. Sit down over here.’ He can’t possibly give me a job after that, I’m thinking, but undeterred, Tom cracks on. We act together. I play Winters. Tom does all the other characters. My accent is now rock solid. Nothing can shake it. Not even Tom’s beard, now so big for the film Castaway that I can’t be sure it’s even him talking.

‘Okay, you’re too good. Get outta here,’ he yells, oozing bonhomie. Tony To appears from behind another door. ‘Nice work, Damian, you have nothing to worry about.’ A little cryptic for my tastes, but assuming he means a job well done, I go out and get absolutely smashed until five in the morning.

8AM NEXT MORNING: ‘Damian, are you awake? Steven would like to see you at midday.” It’s Meg, the casting director. I cry into my pillow. Little simpering sobs at first, then naked hysterical screaming. The biggest meeting of my life and I’ve blown it. I’ve had three hours’ sleep and I’m still drunk. By midday I’ve had three cold showers, five coffees and stubbed my toe a lot. I walk into the office sweating heavily and shaking. We’re introduced. ‘I used to live in Hampstead,’ Steven tells me. ‘Maybe we know the same people?’ Not unless you’ve been around Kensal Green lately mate, I thought to myself. ‘Do you know Ralph Fiennes?’ he asks. ‘Yes, yes, I do,’ I nearly fall off my chair with excitement that I can actually continue this conversation with Steven Spielberg. ‘We did Hamlet together on Broadway. I played Laertes,’ I say. Steven remembers the show and even me in it. He saw it twice. He liked it. This is good. We chat some more. Steven’s off to watch his kid play soccer. I want to tell him it’s called football. Probably not the best time, though. Tom has to go and buy a Christmas tree with his daughter. They leave. Tony looks at me and says: ‘So, ready for boot camp in March?” I leap up and kiss everyone in the room. I’ve got the part! I’m Dick Winters. I’m in Band of Brothers.

FOUR MONTHS LATER: BOOTCAMP AT LONGMOOR, NEAR PETERSFIELD, HAMPSHIRE, MARCH 23: ‘You better not give up on me Winters. I’m watching you Winters.’ I’m on my 70th sit-up. I’ve been given a personal trainer to get in shape and for the moment it seems to be working. But I’m on my way to 80 and my stomach has cramped. Captain Dale ‘no namby-pamby actor s**t’ Dye, a Vietnam veteran, is hulked over me and letting me know who’s in charge. It’s the first morning of a ten-day basic training. It’s 6am, we’ve been on a five-mile run and now we’re being watched doing 45 minutes of physical training. All before breakfast. Captain Dye addresses us only by our character names. We’re not allowed to have mobile phones or contemporary literature. We’re in 1942, whether we like it or not. Already he is instilling in us the feeling that we are special, or will be if we make it. This drive for authenticity is exhilarating. All I know is, the deeper I involve my imagination and give him the ‘heart’ he asks for, the more rewarding all this will be. Tom Hanks made it perfectly clear in a trademark tub-thumping speech to us all that we have a social responsibility to document this period of history as accurately as possible. I think he’s right. I’m the lead role in this show, which is going to be seen by millions of people worldwide and has a budget of £86 million. When I’m Damian Lewis, I’m nervous. When I’m Dick Winters, I can do anything. Now that’s drama therapy.

DAY 2: ‘Who’s Winters? Who’s playin’ him? Is he English?’ There are murmurs in the camp – a lot of the guys don’t know who I am yet. Is this where the trouble starts? I brace myself for a bit of Limey bashing, but incredibly, I seem to have the full respect of all the men resent. People are asking for my opinions and calling me ‘Sir’. Suddenly it’s clear I’m in a 24-hours-a-day, ten-day Method rehearsal. I think to myself, ‘If they want Method. I’ll give them Method,’ and start dishing out a lot more orders.

DAY 3: The training regime in the mornings is now established. We run in formation and sing: ‘Mama, Mama, can’t you see, what the Airborne’s done to me?’ Singing together makes the five miles easier. I feel like I’m in a movie already, not preparing for one. Guard duty tonight. Each man is to patrol the perimeter for one hour, in temperatures below zero. It’s too cold to sleep, but I don’t think sleep is valued particularly highly around here.

DAY 6: Promotion today. I’m now Captain Dick Winters. Injuries have started to happen. David Schwimmer [Herbert Sobel] has twisted his knee performing field manoeuvres and has become ‘officer in charge of cigarettes’. Thankfully, Schwimmer is taking his responsibilities seriously. With no booze for ten days, people are smoking furiously. Neal McDonough [Buck Compton] has cut his lip open with the butt of an M1 rifle and has had stitches without anaesthetic. ‘Well Buck wouldn’t have had anaesthetic, ‘ he chimes, grinning widely.

DAY 7: We have a massive simultaneous attack today on a train. With a six-man training team sniping (with blanks) at our 50-man company. I lead the assault. It’s a total disaster. I’m shot so many times I feel like a sieve. I fail to control the men. I get torn apart by Captain Dye, who tells me I’d better get them in order. I’m so immersed by now, believing that I’m in 1942 and that I’m Dick Winters, that I go and hand out the biggest roasting in military history to my men. And what’s more, I expect to be listened to.

DAY 8: We move into our week of jump training today. There’s one major problem. I’m scared of heights. Thankfully, today is spent jumping off chairs on to mattresses, practicing our falls and rolls.

DAY 9: We visit RAF Brize Norton for a day in jumping school. Today I’m going to jump off a 60ft tower screaming from the top of my lungs ‘One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand. . .’ After this, you’re supposed to open you chute. Looking up, the platform doesn’t seem so high. Looking down, I want to cry. I can’t hold on to anything because I can’t get any grip. My palms are sweating too heavily. A jump trainer edges me out. I look straight ahead at the horizon and leap into the void. I land about five seconds later. I’ve done it. Parachuting becomes addictive. Apparently.

DAY 10: The day of the ‘propblast’, airborne slang for big drink. Boy, do we need alcohol. It’s been ten days of authentic military training and everyone is incredibly proud to have got through it. So we all get drunk and hug each other a lot.

FIRST DAY OF FILMING: APRIL 4, 2000: Arrive on the disused runway at Hatfield Aerodrome. This will be our home for the next eight months. Here we will walk through film sets constructed to look like the streets of France, Belgium and Germany. We will storm dykes and cross the Rhine. It’s the first day of an epic undertaking. Band of Brothers is about a small group of ordinary men. The faithful retelling of Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division and its achievements in World War II. How the men suffered and how they prevailed. They’re American in this series. But they could just as well be English, French, or German. It’s an eager bunch of actors that turn up on that first day. All stories and japes. But within an hour we’ve changed into our combat gear, have lined up in formation and are marching the half mile to the set. Word gets around and hundreds of people in the production offices start flocking to the side of the runway. Can this really be the same bunch of actors they’d hired? We look like real soldiers. We know we’ve turned a few heads and we’re quietly smug about that, but no one is in the least bit complacent, because we know this is day one. Zero hour. Day one of an eight-month shoot. The soldiering starts here . . . . .