In rank with Spielberg and Hanks
by Kensal Green, The Evening Standard, May 16, 2000
It’s incredibly easy to spot Damian Lewis as he wanders into the gastro-pub near his flat in Kensal Green. Not only is his hair very ginger – brazen- coloured, really – but he’s wearing a khaki jumper and trousers which make him look, from a distance, like a soldier without the boots.
Most people will know 28-year-old Lewis as a soldier – Lieutenant Neil Loughrey, the morally-compromised British Army officer in the BBC’s acclaimed drama Warriors. This was the kind of TV event which provoked debate (about the UN’s role in Bosnia) well after its broadcast date and thus bestowed instant fame on its actors. In its wake, Lewis was offered a part in the BBC’s current late-twenty-something series Hearts and Bones. He plays Mark, miserably married to Dervla Kirwan (as if that were possible), desperately trying to leave his early-twenties behind, but not making a very good fist of it. I get the feeling that this pub on the Harrow Road is full of Marks.
Right now, though, Lewis is back in khaki. He’s shooting a 10-hour Second World War epic for TV, produced and part-directed by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks (who collaborated on Saving Private Ryan). This mammoth, $120 million project, based on a book by Stephen Ambrose called Band of Brothers, tells the tale of the 101st US Airborne Division, an elite group of paratroopers, which played a crucial role in the D-Day landings. The cast is unstarry, with the exception of David Schwimmer, aka Ross in Friends. But thanks to Spielberg, who makes a habit of arriving in London and waving magic wands (cf Sam Mendes), Lewis plays the lead. “I auditioned in London,” he says, matter-of-factly. “It was October last year, so they hadn’t seen Warriors. After the third screen test, it was all very quick. I was called into a room and one of the producers said: ‘So Damian, how would you like to fly to LA this week and meet Steven and Tom?’”
He recorded one final screen test in LA with Hanks himself, and then “went out and got lashed with some friends”. This was a big mistake, as it turned out.
“I got back to the hotel at 5am, and then got a call from the casting director at eight. “Steven would like to see you today,” she said, which I hadn’t been expecting at all. Aggghhh. I had three showers to wake myself up and then went to see him. I was probably still drunk.”
Not that he’s a particularly big drinker. This evening, he sips a ginger beer and soda concoction, and eats a wimpish bean salad. Very late-twenty-something. It’s important to keep fit, he says, since he’s spending this week “being blown up a lot”.
Band of Brothers won’t be short of explosions, but they’re being absolutely rigorous about historical authenticity. As Tom would say, it’s a “social document”. Training has been equally rigorous, including a 10-day boot camp. Training for Warriors, by contrast, consisted of a visit to an officers’ mess. “We did the tasting for the next month’s wine list.”
Until Warriors came along, Lewis was hardly known outside the theatre. The stage remains his first love, he says. As a boy, his insurance-broker father took him to see flashy American musicals as a treat before returning him to boarding school. And at school, he was always cast in the Gilbert and Sullivan extravaganzas for which the headmaster had a passion. This all sounds very English, very middle class. In fact, Lewis is Welsh “more than anything else”, hence the Celtic colouring.
Drama school followed and then extensive stage work, including stints on Broadway alongside Ralph Fiennes and a nine-month spell at Stratford for the RSC. Lewis swears by the experience. “I fell in love,” he says. “I had my motorbike and I was playing good parts. It was very exhausting but I was very, very happy.” The woman he fell in love with is called Ellie Garnett, an actress, and still his girlfriend. He describes himself as “romantic” and says he thinks about marriage “all the time” though he’s not specific about with whom. The motorbike, meanwhile, is Lewis’s other passion. He talks about it a lot – how he rides down to the south of France with Ellie on the back, how he crashed it horribly two years ago, and was left with mood-altering concussion for several months. “I cried a lot and got very angry,” he says, and I can see how he might, since he strikes me as quite a passionate bloke, particularly when he’s talking about his career and how, you reach the end of your twenties and start wondering whether to overhaul your entire life before it’s too late.
Hollywood doesn’t intimidate him but neither does he relish the prospect of “being sold over there like the newest sports car”. It’s a nice dilemma to have, though, and perhaps this is why Lewis’s super-confidence occasionally seems like arrogance. Perhaps it’s what comes of playing a commanding officer. Or perhaps – and I’m aware that this is horribly un-PC – it’s got something to do with the colour of his hair.