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Great British Hopes: Damian Lewis – Feb 11, 1995

Great British Hopes: Damian Lewis

by Kate Bassett – The Times – 11 February 1995

Damian Lewis

Profession: Actor

Age: 23

Claim to fame: The New York Times hailed him as “The new Ralph Fiennes? The next Hugh Grant?”

Distinctive features: Six foot three. Flaming red hair. “I wasn’t aware of my hair until critics started talking about it as part of the performance,” says Lewis good-humouredly. “Maybe there’s a whole play going on on top of my head.”

Roots: Celtic originally, but grew up on the St John’s Wood-Kilburn border. He was acting with his siblings at about five, then realised he wanted to do it professionally at 16 when he and school friends set up a company.

What’s he totted up so far? An impressive amount. Talent-spotted before he had finished at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he appeared at Birmingham Rep playing the psychopathic Brandon in Rope, then as Romeo. A month later, he was at the Almeida for Moliere’s School for Wives, and this summer he played Hamlet in Regent’s Park.

Whatever next? He is about to be seen playing Laertes to Fiennes’s Prince in Jonathan Kent’s production of Hamlet which tours, then transfers to Broadway. What’s it like as Laertes? “It took quite a time,” says Lewis, “to stop seeing Laertes judgmentally from Hamlet’s point of view. I drove the director mad.”

But about being the new Fiennes-Grant all-in-one phenomenon? “Ah,” says Lewis, who wisely doesn’t take himself too seriously, “the challenge is clearly how to combine them both in my next performance, in five lines.”

What about screen acting? Lewis has been in Mickey Love (a Rik Mayall presentation) and Poirot. “Camera acting uses a very different muscle. I thought it might be oppressive, but I found it focusing and liberating,” says Lewis with articulate enthusiasm. “But I certainly don’t regard film as where I want to end up. I don’t have any great crusade tucked away in my folder, but the importance of theatre lies in the audience’s ability to listen and work. Cinema is far more passive.”

On himself: “I still sing Elvis Presley songs in the mirror: that’s as bad as I’m getting.”