Bananas and Marmalade
by Emily Bearn | Sunday Telegraph | September 30, 2001
Damian Lewis is an Old Etonian who plays an American war hero in Spielberg’s latest epic, and dreams of being the next James Bond. Emily Bearn meets the young contender.
Damian Lewis (if the actor’s publicists in London, New York and Los Angeles are to be believed) is destined to be pretty big — he is already big enough to turn up for our interview two hours late. We have arranged to meet at the Midland Hotel in Manchester, which has been Lewis’s home for the past six months while he has been filming a new adaptation of Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga for ITV. Journalists and photographers are milling around the hotel’s palm-fronded foyer, being sporadically debriefed as to Lewis’s whereabouts by Michael, a member of his publicity team, who is directing operations from a mobile telephone. We are plied with complimentary croissants and told that the delay is attributable to Lewis’s intense filming commitments, coupled with a recent unscheduled appearance at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, where he had his appendix whipped out.
When he eventually arrives, Lewis looks calm, robust and fairly confident of the fact that he is one of the swifter-ascending stars of the small screen. He is dressed in jeans and a slightly grubby grey shirt; his orange hair is damp or fashionably slicked, and his freckles suggest he has been in the sun. He is 30, but has the sort of pleasant, negotiable looks that mean he could pass himself off as a decade older or younger. After Lewis has dispatched Michael into the Manchester drizzle to buy him bananas, we retire to a suite in which the bed has been replaced by a table bearing yet more croissants. Lewis eats two, with the rapacity of a man who has missed breakfast, pausing between bites to explain the etymology of marmalade.
We are here to discuss Band of Brothers, an American Second World War drama in which Lewis plays Major Dick Winters, the hero who led an élite US Army corps as it parachuted into France on D-Day. The ten-part series (which swallowed a budget of about £86 million and will be screened by the BBC this week) was produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks and has been attacked for — as one British tabloid put it — casting an “unashamedly American slant on the Second World War.”
Lewis — who, oddly, is cast as an American — disagrees. “It’s good television, and I think there’s also a good history lesson in there,” he says. “The British might not get much attention, but then nor do the French.” One Briton who does get some attention is Lewis himself: his name sails high on the credits, and the series has gained him a Hollywood agent and publicist and a puff in Talk magazine. His career is now set to continue snowballing, following a recent hand-shaking tour of important film folk in Los Angeles. “I was coerced into having a publicist, but I don’t have my own attorney,” he says. “Hollywood’s fantastic, but I take it fairly unseriously. It’s all about self-promotion, which I suppose is what I’m doing now.” Though not averse to publicity, he does not seem hungry for it. “At first I was fascinated by how I looked in photographs, but publicity soon becomes just a necessary tool.”
It certainly may be necessary if Lewis is to fulfill his less modest ambitions. He says he’d like to co-star with Cate Blanchett and Julia Roberts and wouldn’t mind being rich. He’d like a four-storey house in Primrose Hill, not to mention somewhere in the country. “When I’m going to sleep at night I sometimes think of being paid $30 million a movie or being the next James Bond. Who,” he asks, clasping his second banana, “would be your next James Bond? Or is that a really annoying question?”
Though Lewis might not be the most obvious candidate for 007 (it’s hard to imagine him trading in the banana for a martini), it doesn’t seem fair to tout him — and some have — as the new Hugh Grant. Despite an Eton education, there is little foppishness about him. “I used to keep my school very quiet because I thought it was damaging,” he says, in an accent that sounds studiedly rough around the edges. “I think you can’t be really posh and be an interesting actor. I’m a bit of posh rough. At school I didn’t play the beautiful raven-tressed characters. I was a redhead so I played the comedy parts. I’ve never been asked to play good-looking toff lovers.” Lewis pauses, his hand freezing en route for his coffee. “Come to think of it,” he says, “why not?”
The son of a London re-insurance broker, Lewis says his acting career was launched at his prep school in Sussex where, aged 12, he won a prize for his performance as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (“They were my halcyon days.”) By the time he left he had “squawked” his way through five Gilbert and Sullivan productions, and at Eton he won much applause for his performance as Mr. Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby. His prowess on stage was not matched in the classroom, in which he says he “always came last.” After leaving school he enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, since when his acting credits have steadily swelled. He has starred in six television dramas — among them Poirot (1989), Warriors (1999), and Hearts and Bones (2000); an unmemorable Miramax production of Robinson Crusoe (1996), in which he co-starred with Pierce Brosnan; four radio plays; any number of productions with the Birmingham Repertory and the Royal Shakespeare Company, not to mention three audio cassettes. He also briefly alighted on Broadway in 1995, when he played Laertes to Ralph Fiennes’s Hamlet in Jonathan Kent’s Almeida Theatre touring production. Such is the volume of his fan mail that he says he now replies only to letters that come with a stamped addressed envelope.
By now we have been talking for 45 minutes, and Lewis is already an hour and three-quarters late for his next journalist, a gentleman from Time Out. I ask him whether he could ever see himself as a fully fledged Hollywood star: the house in Bel Air, the personal attorney, the lot. Lewis pauses for a moment, contemplating his semi-peeled banana. “The short answer,” he says, “is yes.”