by Jeff Dawson, The Sunday Times, September 30, 2001
Jeff Dawson meets Damian Lewis, the British star of Spielberg’s Band of Brothers, the most costly TV series ever.
Tony To, the executive producer of Band of Brothers, reckons Damian Lewis is like “a young Steve McQueen”. At the very least, the actor turns up to our interview on a motorbike. “I love it when they talk like that,” he laughs, wrestling off his waterproofs in a north London Thai restaurant. “I mean, Steve McQueen’s the epitome of cool, isn’t he? Raced his car, shagged women…”
Aged 29, posh (his words), blokey, but ultra-confident in that public-school way, these are strange days for Damian Lewis. In one breath, he will refer to the house he shares with his brother in London’s unglamorous Kensal Green. In the next, he’ll mention his new chums “Tom” and “Steven”, tossing off their names as if they were a pair of drinking muckers rather than Messrs Hanks and Spielberg. It’s under their patronage that he has suddenly found himself paraded around Hollywood as the Next Big Thing.
“One producer guy I saw there said: ‘So, Damian, everyone’s talking about you. They told me to see you. Now who the f*** are you?’ I thought that was quite refreshing.” It’s a question well worth asking. You may recognise Lewis from the magnificently grim first series of television’s Hearts and Bones; might have clocked him as the headstrong Lieutenant Loughrey in the Beeb’s acclaimed Bosnian peacekeeping drama, Warriors; even noted him shuffling through the odd episode of A Touch of Frost or Poirot. Rest assured, you will be thoroughly familiar with Lewis after Band of Brothers, the 10-part second world war opus that airs on BBC2 from Friday.
On a budget of $130m, and with the weight of “Tom” and “Steven” behind it, this invasion epic has already attained distinction as the most expensive television drama in history. Adapted from the Stephen Ambrose bestseller, it’s the true story of Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division, the series following them from basic training, through Normandy, to their capture of Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” at Berchtesgaden. Lewis, as the much- decorated war hero Major Richard Winters, is the star of the series. No mean feat for an unknown, let alone for an Englishman – especially when the American money people were lobbying hard for a “name”, and a home-grown one at that.
“A 1940s American war hero, an enigmatic man who doesn’t say very much, might actually be closer in spirit and speech to an Englishman than you might suspect,” Lewis explains. “Some people were wondering whether a young American actor would have that old-fashionedness to them.”
Lewis’s initial application was simply as one of many British hopefuls wanting a piece of the latest American gig to hit our shores – filming largely at the disused site at Hatfield Aerodrome. What he didn’t realise, as the several hundred aspirants were whittled down to a final few contenders, was that the part of Winters, for which he had been touted, was actually the lead role. “My head was in the clouds,” he says. “Probably why I ended up getting it, because I was quite relaxed about it.” Indeed, it was only when he found himself whisked off to LA for final judgment before Hanks and Spielberg (”that sort of Hollywood moment”) that realisation dawned. “Steven goes: ‘I lived in London for five years. Maybe you know some people I know.’ And I said: ‘Steven, it’s probably unlikely. Unless you’ve been to Kensal Green lately.’”
They did, though, have a mutual pal in Ralph Fiennes, with whom Lewis had acted on Broadway in an Almeida production of Hamlet. Spielberg had seen the show twice. “He said: ‘You were Laertes? You were fantastic as Laertes. My God, now you mention it, I recognise you.’ And I thought: ‘This is going really well.’” It certainly didn’t hurt. And, having landed the part and “kissed everyone in the room”, Lewis duly returned home, trading in the twentysomething angst of a second series of Hearts and Bones for boot camp in Aldershot. Unfortunately, the gruelling eight months of production muck and bullets was not the only thing Lewis had to contend with. The endorsement of the real-life Winters, now 83, deflected any American flak (”He’s been more than generous to me, sent me stuff,” says Lewis, “though he doesn’t find it natural to talk intimately about his experiences in the war. Heroes are defined by their actions”). But, over here, beyond the inevitable tabloid howl about the Yanks whitewashing history (somewhat misplaced on this occasion, given that it’s a true story), came the BBC’s controversial decision to “relegate” Band of Brothers to BBC2, its appeal being “too niche”.
“It seems, to me, crazy business sense, once you’ve splashed out £8m on something [the BBC’s contribution], not to push it as much as you possibly can,” Lewis grumbles. “But in some ways, the Beeb may have done us a favour. It hasn’t been vastly hyped.” It has certainly had rave reviews in America, as well as huge ratings for a cable TV show. Lewis has dabbled little in television or film otherwise. His first love is theatre, prompted by his father, who worked for Lloyd’s insurance and was a player in the institution’s am-dram society. After schooling at Eton, Lewis attended the London Guildhall, where he studied drama alongside Ewan McGregor and Joseph Fiennes, leaving for rep in Birmingham, followed by the RSC. “There’s nothing more boring than an incredibly successful film actor going: ‘Oh God, I can’t wait to get back to the theatre,’” he says. “Do they go back? Do they f***. They’re earning too much money. But I really do want to go back. It’s just squeezing it all in.”
Not that he is averse to the glam side of things. After jetting over to LA for the Golden Globes earlier this year, he supplemented his schmooze time hanging out at his friend Helena Bonham Carter’s home, which she had vacated while filming Planet of the Apes.
“She was renting Anthony Andrews’s house in the Hollywood Hills, with a pool looking over LA, and I just lived there for a month on my own – hot tub, steam room, big shag pad,” he chuckles. “The sort of place you just know was designed for shagging in. That was a lot of fun. I certainly did the LA lifestyle in that respect.”
He turned down a role in Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott’s now horribly poignant story about US Marines at Mogadishu, and, instead, will next be seen as Soames Forsyte in Granada’s stellar remake of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, which he is currently filming in Manchester and Liverpool alongside Ioan Gruffudd and Rupert Graves. “So much crap is made in movies,” he says. “I’d much rather be doing quality television if the films we’re making aren’t very good. But I’d love to work in America because I’m a megalomaniac. I want to able to do television here, theatre here, film there…”
The new Steve McQueen?
“I’m the Ginger ninja,” he declares.
“Actually, I’m slightly embarrassed I’ve just said that…”