Soldiering on: Damian Lewis in Homeland
After his breakthrough 10 years ago in Band of Brothers, Damian Lewis’s finest work has been for television, his latest role that of a US Marine held captive for eight years
A decade on from Band of Brothers, Lewis, about to turn 41 and with a busy, successful and cleverly below-the-radar career on both sides of the Atlantic, explains his approach to work. ‘You want to do something that feeds you and that is stimulating and challenging to you. It makes your time more interesting.’ But such an approach makes for a professional progression with ‘a slower burn. No question. No question,’ he repeats. ‘Associations are the quickest way forward in this business. Not what role you played but who you worked with – what company you keep.’
It has to be said that Lewis has done all right by forswearing the showier roles – for which a drama school contemporary of his, Ewan McGregor, plumped from day one. ‘Ewan was in the year above me. He always said, “I don’t want to be a theatre actor, I want to be a film star.” He was really clear about it. But I was going, “What? Films? I don’t know anything about films! How do you even know how to be a film star?” ‘ Lewis’s head and heart lay with Britain’s theatre tradition. ‘I was still stuck in the 1930s, with Tyrone Guthrie and the Old Vic and Richardson and Gielgud and Olivier.’
On graduating from London’s Guildhall in 1993, Lewis quickly enjoyed notable successes on stage, with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Hamlet on Broadway in 1995, and in a National Theatre production of Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community. But following Band of Brothers, television has been the platform for his greatest work. Playing the emotionally cruel patriarch in the 2002 remake of The Forsyte Saga and in the American drama Life (he played a wrongly imprisoned detective in the show, which ran for two seasons from 2007), Lewis has excelled. And the past six months have seen his small-screen success scale new heights.
In Homeland, made by the American cable channel Showtime, Lewis plays Sergeant Nick Brodie, a Marine who disappeared while serving in Iraq eight years previously. Liberated by US forces and returned home to a country that had long thought him dead, Brodie is greeted as a hero – by his brothers in arms, by a government keen for a propaganda victory in the never-ending war on terrorism, and by his wife and two children.
But there are complications and suspicions. Brodie’s wife, believing she was actually a widow, has begun a not-so-covert relationship with one of her husband’s closest comrades. His military buddies wonder why the back-from-the-dead Marine – regimental motto: semper fidelis (always faithful) – won’t wrap himself more tightly in the flag and play the patriotic let’s-kill-us-some-terrorists card. And within the CIA, an experienced Middle East analyst, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), is convinced that, in his eight years in isolated captivity, Brodie has been ‘turned’ by his jailers. Homeland‘s intriguing central proposition is this: what if jihadists had allowed the PoW to be discovered and liberated so he could return to his homeland, and thereafter set in motion the greatest terrorist outrage committed on American soil since 9/11?
‘I thought it was ambitious and controversial to suggest that an American Marine – who is as great a symbol, a defender of their belief systems and freedom, as anything else – might possibly betray his country,’ Lewis says. At last month’s Golden Globes, Homeland won Best Drama Series. Lewis, nominated in the Best Actor category, lost out to the former Frasierstar Kelsey Grammer, but Danes was crowned Best Actress in a TV Drama.
Amplifying the intrigue are the fractured psychological states of Brodie and Mathison. The CIA agent is as damaged as she is brilliant, suffering from a career-blotting incident in Baghdad and a bipolar disorder she keeps hidden from her superiors. This dovetailing of the lead characters’ emotional states increased his enthusiasm for the part. ‘They both suffer from extreme trauma,’ he says, adding that both are cut adrift, their behaviour compromised by their mental and emotional turmoil. ‘And this recklessness is what brings them together.’
The American producers of Homeland, Howard Gordon (24) and Alex Gansa (Entourage), offered Lewis the role, without an audition, over the phone while he was in Manchester last December filming the child-trafficking TV drama Stolen. They had seen him in the title role of Keane(2004), a brilliant and cruelly neglected independent film about a man searching for his missing daughter. ‘In Keane, Damian holds the frame for the first 45 minutes of the movie all on his own,’ Gansa says. ‘It was just such a bravura performance. It also was about a very disturbed and troubled person, which obviously Brodie is, so we thought he’d be perfect for the role.’
Homeland, full of psychological twists and turns, has enjoyed impressive ratings in the US since premiering shortly after last year’s 10th anniversary of 9/11. This timing was a marketing stroke to which Lewis professes not to have been privy. ‘And it was lost on me, how powerful that was. Clearly that wasn’t accidental,’ he says, ‘but I had no idea that that’s what was going to happen.’
The series was adapted from an Israeli show called Hatufim (Prisoners of War), and has even been singled out for praise by Barack Obama. The news that the President was a huge fan inspired an editorial in the New York Times. Headlined the pungent aroma of paranoia, the column was published around the time of December’s season finale. Having spent much of last year in the US, filming the show and promoting it, Lewis agrees that Homeland taps into the zeitgeist in its portrayal of ongoing anxiety in the US about terrorist threats. Osama bin Laden may have been ‘got’ last May, but there’s a feeling that the threat from al-Qaeda and associated groups has only splintered and scattered.
In TV terms, Lewis continues, ‘the immediate response to 9/11 was the more muscular, testosterone-filled 24. Which was [all about] plot. And it was very clearly good and evil. And we feel a bit differently about the war on terror now. We’ve gone to war in the name of defending Western democracy and our freedoms, but a lot of us don’t like the way in which those wars have been perpetrated, and we feel ambivalent about our governments as a result.
‘So, what if a soldier starts to think for a minute independently of the machine?’ Lewis says carefully, mindful of avoiding any potential spoilers. ‘And what conclusions might he arrive at? Of course it’s fiction. But it’s not too far off a realistic what-if situation.’
We meet in early January, in the lounge of a photographic studio in Kentish Town, north London, within (hefty) walking distance of the home Lewis shares near Parliament Hill with his wife, the actress Helen McCrory, and their children, Gulliver, five, and Manon, four. We discuss Gully’s budding enthusiasm for Arsenal, the nearest home team in north London. It’s a vexing topic for Lewis, an ardent Liverpool fan. Growing up in well-to-do St John’s Wood, his insurance broker father was notionally a ‘Gooner’ but – being more of a rugby fan – never took his son to Highbury to see them play. So instead in the late 1970s young Damian was bedazzled by Liverpool, ‘the coolest team with the coolest players who were winning a lot. And,’ he grins, ‘I have been that shallow ever since.’
But with the family having already done a two-year stint in Los Angeles (when Lewis was filming Life), and as Homeland requires him to be in North Carolina for five months a year (season two starts filming in May), Lewis acknowledges that local football allegiances matter more to him now. ‘Unless something changes, I imagine we’ll be in north London for the best part of Gully’s growing up. So you think, it’d be great if he supports his local team, be part of the community. Because that’s lovely and I never had that. I went to boarding schools, and I went young – for my parents’ generation that was accepted. I really felt I only became a Londoner when I went to drama school at the age of 18.’
He is fond of casually dropping the names of his drama school contemporaries. Ewan McGregor, Joseph Fiennes (‘We would potter next door to see Ralph playing leads at the RSC’), and more long-term friends such as Dominic West, whom he knows from his Eton days. ‘Dom was a couple of years ahead of me,’ Lewis recalls. ‘You’re a young kid, you want to be an actor, and I saw him playing Hamlet, and I remember thinking, “Wow, he’s f***ing sensational… in his funny little tights,” ‘ he jokes in a slangy, sweary London accent that belies his stoutly upper-middle-class background and 10 years at boarding school. ‘I mean, he’s a 17-year-old doing Hamlet – how great could he have been, let’s face it!’ Lewis grins, affectionately ribbing his peer and his own youthful callowness. Then, more joshing: ‘But, cor, I fell in love that day.’
Throughout his twenties Lewis worked steadily. But he was 30 before Band of Brothers brought him headline success. His vivid portrayal of the real-life hero Major Dick Winters in the Spielberg and Tom Hanks-produced HBO series still reverberates to this day, not only for the Damian Bunnies, but for the military families he regularly meets while filming in the US.
Lewis tells a story of shooting an episode of Homeland in a Presbyterian church. The minister’s son was in the US Army, and had just returned to Afghanistan for a second tour, ‘and he was struggling mentally with his time there’. He asked if Lewis might film a video message to send to his soldier son. ‘He wrapped his arms around me, squeezed me tight, and we both looked at the camera and I just said, “Hello, what you’re doing out there is extraordinary, thank you so much. And I hope you get home soon.” And this father, his eyes were filled with tears. Band of Brothers,’ he reflects, ‘brings a sort of a terrifying responsibility, and it’s also been very moving.’
It must be freighted with deep personal memories for Lewis, too. His mother was killed in a car crash in India in 2001. In the year of his breakout success, when he was suddenly thrust into the spotlight, he was also coping with crushing private anguish. ‘Well, it was a lot to take in,’ he says slowly. ‘It was a transforming year or two, definitely.’ Another pause. ‘And it is a shame that my mum isn’t around to see more of it. That’s all. Because she was the proudest hen in the coop.’
Lewis met Helen McCrory a couple of years later, around the time the actors appeared in Five Gold Rings (2003) at London’s Almeida Theatre. Michael Attenborough, who directed the play, remembers Lewis as a brilliant stage actor. ‘When he walks on stage he has a kind of energy inside him. People give it fancy names like presence and charisma, but they’re posh names for energy. Damian walks on and you know something is going to happen. There’s something inside him that’s combustible and energised.’
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