From a Repressed Tortured Soul to a Possessed College Professor
by Staff | PBS Masterpiece | May, 2003
Whether they realized it or not, viewers of the popular Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks miniseries Band of Brothers were watching an English actor in the starring role of Major Richard Winters, the taciturn American hero of an airborne unit during World War II. The real Major Winters is salt of the earth from Pennsylvania. The actor Damian Lewis is from London’s Abbey Road and attended Eton. Otherwise, you’d never know the difference.
While on hiatus between the production of series one and two of The Forsyte Saga, Lewis played Jonesy, a possessed college professor in the forthcoming film of Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher.
Lewis recently talked by phone from London about the Forsyte remake, Soames’s inner life, and what it’s like to play an alien.
Have you read all of Galsworthy’s Forsyte novels?
Yes, absolutely. I also bought a couple of books on Victorian mores and social customs. And I have some quite useful printouts from the Internet about the roles of wives and husbands in Victorian England. So I’ve got a wealth of information to go on.
Did you watch the 1960s BBC adaptation as part of your research for the role of Soames?
No, though I have seen little clips of it. That was a seminal piece of work, and a whole generation loved it. But I find that television dates very quickly. The language of the camera has moved on since then, audiences have become more sophisticated. We would find it very sedentary compared to what we expect now. Our cast is a lot younger than theirs, and I think the relationships are scripted in a slightly different way, more ambiguous perhaps. I’ll see it someday, but I don’t feel the need to go to it for guidance.
Who is Soames Forsyte?
He’s fastidious, smug, and conceited. But he’s also a person capable of love, though unfortunately unable to express it in a satisfactory way, especially to a young woman. He understands life in terms of contracts, property, and duty. And if any of those things is threatened, he falls apart. He can be cruel and small-minded, but that’s often generated by this repressed passion that he’s unable to express fully, or successfully, or healthily.
I went to English boarding schools and grew up around people very much like Soames and in a milieu very much like the Forsytes’s, even down to wearing tails, and stiff collars, and cravats. So I feel quite at home in the environment in which The Forsyte Saga takes place. But I’m a more ebullient person than Soames is.
How do you perform such a conflicted, complicated character?
You’re hitting at a central point about acting, which is that for all the research you do, acting is finally an instinctive craft. My responses are not governed by some piece of information I have, but by what Gina McKee or Ioan Gruffudd or Rupert Graves is saying to me on the set. The scripts helped, and also the conversations I had with Sita [Williams], the producer, and Chris [Menaul] the director. We didn’t want a simple villain in Soames. I think it’s more challenging for the audience if they’re presented with a character they hate but also feel sympathy for, who presents them with moral questions and has them thinking, God, I feel so sorry for Soames, but he just raped his wife! That’s far more interesting.
That rape scene is very famous.
It’s famous because in 1967 it was so novel to see something that explicit on TV. Now we’re used to images like that, and the question in everyone’s mind becomes, how graphic will it be? Our rape scene isn’t at all graphic. It’s suggestive, but still terribly shocking within the context of the drama. It should be shocking — psychologically and emotionally shocking.
Is it very difficult to do a scene like that?
Yes, it’s horrible to do. And it was all the more horrible because we happened to be filming it on September 11th. Gina and I were doing this harrowing scene as news was filtering in about what was happening in New York. It was a very weird, very upsetting day. We were just acting, and meanwhile this real thing was going on.
Do you think Irene is a little hard on Soames?
The best way to look at it is that Irene has married under duress. Her stepmother has said ‘we are poor, we need to make this marriage, he’s a good man, and he loves you.’ But she can never love him. They don’t share any of the same passions. Perhaps there’s an element of self-loathing in her repugnance of him. She has agreed to do this thing that she really doesn’t want to do. And it’s for her convenience, really. In the beginning, there’s no reason for her to hate him. He hasn’t done anything bad, wrong, ugly, or cruel. He just represents something that she knows she can never love.
There are hints that the Forsytes have an inferiority complex about their origins as farmers. Is this an important element in what makes them tick?
Yes. They’re only two or three generations into the money. They’re not an old family with standing, and they certainly don’t want to be reminded of that. Old Jolyon Forsyte, played by Corin Redgrave, is a bit of a maverick, more of a fully rounded, loving person than the other Forsytes, and he likes to stir up the family on this score. At the dinner party in the opening episode he alludes to their humble origins. The pride and snobbery of the Forsytes is such that no one wants to be reminded of that. They want to feel they’ve always belonged to the upper class. It’s that very English thing of “clubability,” that obsession with belonging to the right places.
What do you think audiences find appealing about The Forsyte Saga?
Part of its appeal is that every very single character is hypocritical, which makes them all incredibly real. But first and foremost, it’s a great story. It’s a ripping yarn, as we’d say. It’s melodramatic, it’s glamorous, it’s got people falling in and out of love. It has everything an audience wants: lust, betrayal, deceit, joy, ecstasy. So it appeals on many levels.
In Band of Brothers you starred as Major Winters, the consummate laconic American. How did you get that part?
[Steven] Spielberg and [Tom] Hanks were clear that they wanted to use some English actors, but I don’t think anyone expected to find Major Winters in London. I just got lucky. I had four screen tests over here. They thought, this guy has all the qualities we’re looking for, and his American accent is okay. So they flew me out to L.A. to meet Steven and Tom. We had a chat, and they offered me the role. It was all very exciting, a little Hollywood sort of story.
Both Winters and Soames are very interior guys.
I guess I’m just good at playing repressed individuals. I’m lucky because those are often the roles that catch people’s eyes. It’s the Steve McQueen element, all that bubbling energy bottled up inside. It’s a very compelling quality on the screen. I’ve been lucky that I seem to be able to pull it off. Of course, the two roles are polar opposites. Winters was a lion-hearted hero, a leader of men. Soames is anything but. Soames is a pathetic man in many ways.
You just finished filming Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher…
I play a soft-spoken college professor, a really sweet guy. He’s one of four friends who have known each other since childhood. He gets hit by a car and ends up with telepathic powers. You cut to six months later; they’re all in a cabin in the woods on a hunting weekend. Then aliens land, and the movie takes a different direction. I get possessed by an alien, and I walk around killing people.
You play an American again?
I play an American, although I adopt a different voice for the alien. Spot the difference. I’ll leave that up to you.
Is there a particular direction you’d like to go with your career?
I’m not very good at strategizing. All you can do is attach yourself to the good work. If you think you don’t want to play another psychopath, but the script is amazing, and the director is fantastic, and the story is incredible, then you may end up playing your third psychopath in a row. You have to go where the good writing is. That’s the only way you can be stimulated, fulfilled and in the end, good — probably.