BECOMING AN AMERICAN HERO: BRITISH ACTOR HAS WON ACCLAIM FOR HIS ROLE IN `BAND OF BROTHERS’
by Virginia Rohan, The Record (Bergen County, NJ), October 21, 2001
21 October 2001
by VIRGINIA ROHAN
Every day during the filming of “Band of Brothers,” Damian Lewis diligently worked with a dialect coach because he was determined to sound like a flesh-and-blood Yank.
“My American accent, before I did ‘Band of Brothers, was kind of wishy-washy, a cross between John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart,” Lewis says in a crisp, unmistakably British voice. “I feel quite comfortable doing a straightforward American accent now. I was kind of an honorary American for last year.”
Mastering Ameri-speak is one of many impressive feats Lewis pulls off in HBO’s 10-part World War II miniseries. The London-born actor, virtually unknown in America before this role, has won critical acclaim for his poignant and convincing turn as Richard Winters, the laconic lieutenant who quickly emerged as the leader of U.S. Army’s Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.
Based on historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s bestseller of the same title, “Band of Brothers” follows this disparate group of men from their paratrooper training in Georgia to their amazing sweep through Northwest Europe from their harrowing jump into Normandy on D-day to their fierce, bloody fight in the Battle of the Bulge to the capture of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden.
Along the way they became an elite, highly decorated group of soldiers one daring and successful attack on a German battery near Utah beach, masterminded by Winters, is still taught as a military maneuver at West Point. They also forged a death-and-time-defying bond to become, in the truest sense, a band of brothers.
The real Winters, who rose to the rank of major and still lives in his native Pennsylvania, appears in many of the on-camera interviews that precede each “Band of Brothers” episode. He was one of the key consultants on Ambrose’s book.
Lewis describes the experience of playing, and meeting, Winters as “incredibly daunting, but a privilege as well.”
“He’s 83 years old. As a 26-year-old he was jumping into Normandy in 1944. He established himself as a natural leader, a person who was able to think quickly under extreme fire,” Lewis says. “He was a brilliant soldier, and a superb athlete, and getting the soul of this guy was challenging. He’s your archetypal enigmatic hero. … He wasn’t a drinker, wasn’t a womanizer, wasn’t a smoker. He commanded huge respect with people, and I feel that meeting him, I had to earn his respect.”
Lewis pauses. “It doesn’t mean he’s a cold man. But I had to find a way to make silences interesting.”
On the phone from Los Angeles, on the morning of a “Band of Brothers” screening, Lewis amiably chatted with television writers about the experience of making the miniseries, and his improbable casting in HBO’s most expensive and ambitious project ever. This interview took place a couple of weeks before the miniseries Sept. 9 launch and the terrorist attacks of two days later, which led HBO to halt an enormous “Band of Brothers” marketing campaign that the network had felt was key to drawing viewers. (Although viewership has indeed fallen from the 10 million people who watched the initial installment, HBO claims to be happy with the roughly 6 million viewers who are now tuning into each episode.)
Lewis is not the only British actor in the enormous cast, but he holds the most prominent and coveted role in the $120 million miniseries, executive produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Nobody was more surprised by Lewis casting than the actor himself. Selected from a London cattle-call audition, he did a video test, then got a call to read for the Winters role. Soon thereafter, he was flown to Los Angeles to meet Hanks and Spielberg, after which his agent announced, “So Damian, how’d you like to go to boot camp?”
And boot camp is what Lewis and his fellow actors underwent to prepare for the miniseries.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Dale Dye who was not only the miniseries adviser but plays Col. Robert F. Sink, commanding officer of the 506th ran that camp at a military base outside London. During 16-hour days, the actors learned the basics, from how to wear a uniform and stand at attention to sophisticated field tactics and parachute-jump training. (The culmination was a trip to the Royal Air Force Base at Brize Norton, training site for British paratroopers, where each actor jumped from a 40-foot tower and earned his wings.)
“Nothing prepared me for being up at 5:30 in the morning on cold English mornings in the mist, and then having Dale Dye shouting at you as you struggled to get to your feet,” Lewis says. “The first day, Dale Dye said, ‘I’m watching you, Winters. You better not give up. He was after me, because he expected more from me than he did from anyone else.”
Dye and the other trainers demanded that the actors stay in character during boot camp.
“It gave me the luxury of practicing my American accent,” says Lewis, adding, “I was supposed to be this incredible leader for 10 days.
I’d say, ‘Hey, guys, I don’t know. I realized very quickly, within two or three days, that people expected me to order them around.”
Even though Lewis has always “played a bit of sports,” he found the training physically grueling.
“I looked a little bit like rice pudding before, and afterward I looked like a stick of celery,” he says. “I just sort of shrunk. The love handles went. The flabby arms went. We got in good shape.”
It was only fitting, he says, that he develop his physique.
“I saw pictures of Dick Winters. They used to have an officer’s Olympics, and he would regularly win it,” Lewis says.
It was during those training sessions when Lewis and the other actors first met their real-life counterparts.
“With Dick Winters, I would say, ‘How exactly did you wear your boot knife? He’d say, ‘Well, I wore it on the left. Then he’d send me a faxed photo of how he wore it,” says Lewis, adding that Winters also pointed out when something in the script did not ring true. “We had a scene in Episode 2 where I collapsed by a log. He said, ‘There’s no way I would stop by a log and rest, even for 20 seconds. ” (Hanks changed the scene.)
Winters is not one to revel in telling his war stories, Lewis says.
“The way Winters has dealt with his experiences is to militarize his memories,” the actor says. “When I asked him for emotional responses, like how he felt when he was on the dike in Holland and had to kill a young Nazi soldier, or surrounded by 50 SS troops, he would always reply, ‘I didn’t feel fear. I didn’t feel anxiety. I just felt focused about getting the job done, on doing what I needed to do.
“I couldn’t really probe any more than that. To hear him talk about his memories, it’s all who was where when, who did what badly. His memory is very precise. It’s military recollections, not emotional ones.”
One of the most powerful sequences in the miniseries comes in next week’s episode, “Why We Fight,” when Easy Company finally enters Germany, to surprisingly little resistance, and a patrol in a nearby forest happens upon a Nazi concentration camp. Abandoned by the Nazis, it is filled with emaciated and starving prisoners. The soldiers cannot fathom what they’re seeing.
Lewis says that scene was a “moving” experience.
“We produced this camp to scale,” Lewis says. “We had scenes where people would pull back the doors on freight trains and piles of bodies fell out. They mixed real-life extras in there with dummies. It was really, really gruesome.”
Back home in England, Lewis next project is a “reinterpretation” of “The Forsyte Saga,” the 1967 British drama based on John Galsworthy’s novels about a Victorian family that aired in the United States in 1969 and ‘70. (He’s playing the central role, Soames Forsyte.)
But it will no doubt take him awhile to shed Winters and “Band of Brothers.”
“We experienced a camaraderie and a bonding over eight months that was not dissimilar to the way the men of Easy Company bonded,” Lewis says. “Of course, we weren’t being shot at by Germans and I could go home and sleep in a bed at night. But by the end of the eight months, I was in rags.”
The miniseries left the actor with a profound respect for the story’s real soldiers.
“A war veteran might well say to us, ‘We’re not heroes. We were ordinary men who did extraordinary things. That’s what was asked of us, ” Lewis says. “But having studied it and acted it, and met the guys, I’m here to tell you that people make choices in situations, and these guys made heroic choices repeatedly.”