Company of Men
by Tom Dart, The Times, 29 September 2001
Not even Damian Lewis understands Why spielberg and Hanks Have cast an old etonian as a second World war gi. But He’s not complaining.
At first, it seems his energy comes from adrenaline, nerves, but there is nothing remotely nervous about Damian Lewis. Athletes and politicians would pay good money for a dose of the 30-year-old Londoner’s drive and effusive self-confidence. His voice is rapid, distinct and animated. We talked in a restaurant in Manchester, where Lewis is currently filming The Forsyte Saga for ITV. He has appeared in the West End and on Broadway, but is best known for his television work -in the BBC’s Hearts and Bones and Warriors, where he played a British soldier in Bosnia. His latest role is as another soldier, but on a different scale. Lewis plays Lieutenant Richard Winters, the lead in the Second World War epic Band of Brothers, a ten-part television “event” from the American channel HBO, which starts on BBC2 this week.
Produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, whose Saving Private Ryan began the current vogue for vast-budget naturalistic war dramas, the series is adapted from the historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s nonfiction book about E (”Easy”) Company, an heroic US Army troop that first parachuted into France on D-Day, fought its way across Europe and captured Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest home in Bavaria. The term “mini-series” hardly seems accurate for Band: at $ 120 million, it is the most expensive television series ever filmed. It was shot in Hertfordshire over eight months last year on a set that sprawled across 1,100 acres. The Government was so keen for it to be made in Britain that the film-makers were offered tax breaks and Tony Blair wooed Spielberg and Hanks personally.
American critics have praised the series warmly, I told Lewis, but some felt awkward about the balance between entertainment and realism. “The Americans think that? We don’t stand a chance over here. The thing is, Spielberg and Hanks are so passionate about that period of history that it is a bit of a triumphal march.” But the veterans themselves have been unanimous in their praise. As Lewis points out: “They’re all agreed that the essence of what they went through is incredibly accurate.” War may be inherently the greatest human drama, but even this most authentic of programmes occasionally drenches the screen with emotional prompts: the Stars and Stripes fluttering proudly as stirringly patriotic music tugs at the heart-strings. War is not romanticised, but the sentiments it evokes are. Then again, what is so wrong with that?
“You want to invest in them emotionally in order for it to be a rewarding experience, so you don’t just feel like you’ve seen a lot of faceless warfare for ten hours. I think the series will succeed or fail on thatI (but) sometimes I’m not convinced,” Lewis adds, perhaps a little harshly. Of course, without the dramatic tension and excitement to guarantee ratings, there would not have been the scale of budget available to make the battle scenes as documentary-realistic as they are -with the gore toned down for a primetime audience, naturally. Segments of interviews with E Company’s real-life veterans preface each episode, and it mostly avoids the chief criticism of Saving Private Ryan: that visual pyrotechnics ultimately failed to make up for the rather cliched plot.
The other criticism of Band’s cinematic elder brother, at least in this country, was that the British effort was ignored. This is an accusation that several easily outraged British newspapers also levelled at the television series when it was premiered, in June, on Normandy’s Utah Beach in front of an audience of veterans especially flown over from the US. The BBC relegated it to BBC2 after paying more than Pounds 5 million for the rights because, they said, it was “not broad enough for a mainstream audience”. “It’s not anti-British, it just doesn’t mention the British,” says Lewis. “I hope we’re not patronised. I did as much as I could to make sure we weren’t.” Given that the series focuses on a close-knit group of American paratroopers who saw combat deep into enemy lines with minimal backup, the background presence of British troops is not surprising. Perhaps it says something about the attitudes of the two nations that while the Brits whinged, the Americans accepted the fact that half the cast would be UK actors playing real-life Americans -with the lead role going to an Old Etonian RSC alumnus -with barely a murmur.
The pressure on Lewis must have been intense, but he coolly shrugs that suggestion off. “They never did talk about me being British. There were some people who always believed that they might cast the part with an English actor because a Forties American has an old-fashionedness about him that might be more in keeping with an English sensibilityI I was aware that I was doing a big project and it was all quite exciting, but I was just concentrating so hard on not sounding like Jimmy Stewart whenever I opened my mouth.” Not expecting very much, in 1999 Lewis had gone through several auditions with scores of others until finally, “the producer asked me to leave the room, I come back in and he says, ‘So Damian, how’d ya like to fly to LA on Thursday and meet Steven and Tom?’ And I go, ‘Whoa, OK, great,’ and start hyperventilating.
“He was in a run-down casting suite just like they are in London. I was so jetlagged I felt like I’d had a lobotomy and the one thing pushing me through was adrenaline. I stared just a little bit too long at his face, you know: is that Tom Hanks? He had this huge beard. I made a really terrible joke as soon as I walked in the room. He said, ‘Thanks for flying all the way from England,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, my arms are a bit stiff!’ He looked at me and said, ‘Oh, OK, funny guy. OK siddown,’ and I just thought he was not going to give me the part there and then. Afterwards I went out and got trashed.” (Which isn’t very LA, but is very London.) The next day, a hungover Lewis was woken at 8am and told that Spielberg wanted to meet him; the part was his. “They’re both on my Christmas card list. Whether I’m on theirs of course is arguable.”
The cast was sent to boot camp in England for ten days to bond and live like soldiers. Although the actors are largely unknowns, David Schwimmer, Ross in Friends, makes an appearance in the first episode as a cruel commanding officer. “Because everybody was so in character, people started to take on characteristics relationship-wise, so the dynamic of the group started to become cliquey according to who the real-life characters liked or didn’t like. Schwimmer wasn’t liked by anybody, but he’s such an easy guy he sort of dealt with that,” Lewis says. “I started writing a diary in boot camp because Winters had written a diary in boot camp. I remember writing: when I’m Damian Lewis I’m nervous about the task in front of me. When I’m Dick Winters I feel I can do anything.” Lewis spoke occasionally with the real-life Winters, who is now too frail to give interviews. “He was always supportive and generous towards me. He kept saying on the phone, ‘Hang tough.’ As a man he’s a lot more restrained than I am. I’m certainly less heroic. We were obviously all incredibly privileged and honoured to play these guys, and when we met them it certainly brought home the weight of responsibility about getting it right and being faithful to their memories. But at the same time I think they were all secretly quite flattered.”
As is Lewis by all the attention and praise he has garnered so far, although he is trying to keep his feet on the ground. Lewis’s portrayal of Winters has the everyman ordinariness and authority of a Tom Hanks performance, but perhaps with more subtlety, more depth; pundits have been tagging him “the next big thing”. The prospect of more UK television is not in doubt, but when he returns to LA in a few days, Lewis will discover whether the buzz around him stateside has been big enough.
“It’s come at a good time in my life. I’m 30 and not 23 so I feel sanguine about it, and to be honest I feel quite ready for it. I know that may sound cocksure, but I’ve done quite a lot now in acting and in life so the glitz and glamour of LA isn’t blinding and it isn’t overwhelming. It’s exciting but I feel I’m kind of in control of it, should it happen. And frankly, bring it on.” Band of Brothers starts at 9pm on BBC2 this Friday.