Interview: Damian Lewis, actor and star of The Sweeney Damian Lewis, actor and star of The Sweeney.
12:56 Sunday 02 September 2012
FRESH from the US hit Homeland, which won him fans in high places, Damian Lewis is relishing his role in a great British classic set on his home turf
DAMIAN Lewis is 42, smart, and a bit roguish, and while he has never been enamoured of Hollywood and never chased it hard, even after getting the lead in Band of Brothers, he is currently hotter than steam after torturing audiences with the quietly terrifying TV show Homeland. Obama invites him to dinner and the Clintons are big fans too. Yet this month you’ll find him in cinemas behind a desk, as a by-the-book penpusher in The Sweeney, remonstrating with Ray Winstone for his thuggish police tactics and grumbling about paperwork. It’s like getting Mo Farah to do an egg and spoon race. “I don’t even get to drive a fast car,” he agrees, cheerfully.
Thanks to ITV4, surely no one can forget Regan, Carter and the original Sweeney, with its spirit of drink, violence and dysfunction muscularly embodied by John Thaw and Dennis Waterman. For three years in the 1970s, their Ford Granada raced across London’s derelict and utterly untrendy docklands, chasing birds and nicking villains.
Almost four decades on, the new UK movie has turbo-charged the flying squad; the force is now based in a steel-and-chrome skyscraper, eschew “plain” clothes policework for snazzier threads, and have sex in the City’s hotels, rather than under floral nylon bedspreads in north London. For 2012, Regan and Carter have been recast as Ray Winstone and the rapper Plan B – or Ben Drew, as his mother calls him – while Lewis has a supporting role as Frank Haskins, their long-suffering boss.
Back in the mid-1970s, Haskins was paunchy, balding Garfield Morgan, gulping milk to ease an ulcer inflamed by both Regan and Haskins’ unseen missus, who was forever ringing in to give him grief about some marital faux pas. Lewis had met Morgan a few times at a theatre golfing club (“an august bunch of pissheads”) before his death, but warns that the new Haskins is a changed man. “I’m not a man in his 60s for a start, but I don’t think they quite knew what to do with my character. I’m the most boring character in the whole film. I kept saying to the director ‘It’s all very well, and you can put me in as many nice suits as you like – I’m still strutting around the desks,” he mockingly complains.
“But I was there for a week and it was a right laugh. I’d met Ray once at Ascot quite a few years ago, where we drank a lot of champagne, which is the way you should meet Ray. And last year you couldn’t put on the radio without hearing Ben’s album, so I had fun, and making a film in London doesn’t happen often now.”
The film also leaves the door open for a sequel and the promise of more action for Lewis next time, so maybe he’ll get to use one of the more famous Sweeney phrases notably missing from the current film. “Shuddit it, you slaaag,” offers Lewis amiably.
Today, between mouthfuls of a late breakfast of bacon and scrambled eggs, he has an urbane playfulness reminiscent of David Niven in his anecdotage, or one of Lewis’s guest turns on Have I Got News For You. It’s a sharp contrast to many of his dramatic roles, which tend to be clipped and rather inscrutable. Men like Soames in the Forsyte Saga, or Homeland’s marine sergeant Nick Brody, appear in control and carry themselves with the confidence of a leading man, yet have the eyes of a watchful adolescent. Screen directors often want their actors to “go bigger” but Lewis chooses to go smaller, and inside. Often it’s not so much a question of what his characters are trying to express, but what they struggle to contain.
Lewis was born and raised in London. His father worked in insurance at Lloyd’s, while his mother had been an actress herself and was on the board of the Royal Court Theatre. At the age of eight, he was sent away to prep school in Sussex, which sounds young but he refuses to indulge in any stories of estrangement or weeping in his bed after lights out. Instead he recalls it as “idyllic, very Cider With Rosie.” From there he went to Eton, and by the time he reached his A-levels had decided he wanted to become an actor, “as you could tell from my exam results”.
He was turned down by three drama schools, then ended up at the Guildhall in the same year as Joseph Fiennes, with Ewan McGregor and Daniel Craig just in front. Even back then, McGregor’s ferocious focus stood out. Lewis remembers him declaring he wanted to be a screen star and being taken aback. “I hadn’t been allowed to watch TV when I was growing up, so all my ambitions were in theatre.” On the other hand, like McGregor, Lewis hit the ground running. He was 23 when he played Hamlet in Regent’s Park.
Ironically it was another stage Hamlet – as Laertes in Ralph Fiennes’ Broadway production – that brought Lewis to Steven Spielberg’s attention while he was scouting for young male actors for his ten-part TV epic Band of Brothers. Lewis met with Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who was the series co-producer. “Spielberg said, ‘Oh I lived in London for five years, maybe we know the same people?” And I thought, ‘Who do you know in Kensal Green.’”
Band of Brothers also gave early breaks to James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Tom Hardy. Hardy, says Lewis, was much envied because he got the show’s sex scene, but as Major Richard Winters, Lewis was the focus of the show, “which brought a kind of responsibility”. Even now, he gets fan mail from the troops in Afghanistan, asking him to autograph their box sets. “I was filming in Crete and got mobbed by the US navy. Their commander had been showing them the series as a motivational exercise.”
As part of the preparation for the show, they were sent to an army base for a historical and physical boot camp. “We were called by the names of our characters, had to speak in American accents and had our phones taken away,” he notes. “And every morning we were up at 6am for a long run and dozens of sit-ups.” It’s ironic that he gets so many military roles – as well as Homeland, he began his TV career with a BBC drama called Warriors – because at Eton he dodged the school cadet force “because the last thing in the world I wanted to be was a soldier”.
A few years later, he turned down another poignant war story, Black Hawk Down, because of a schedule clash with one of ITV’s rare forays into epic period drama. As the obsessive aristocrat Soames Forsyte in The Forsyte Saga, Lewis’s flame-haired looks appeared to ignite something in well-read female viewers who abhor the obvious and crude, bringing him a sudden influx of women’s knickers in his fan mail. Flattered but abashed, he tried to dispose of them discreetly but, on arriving back home from dinner one night, discovered the local tramps had been rummaging in his bin, leaving behind an underwear trail that could have made Tom Jones swoon.
Pictures of him squiring girlfriends, including actresses Kristin Davis and Sophia Myles, and TV news producer Katie Razzall, dried up after he met the actress Helen McCrory when they both appeared in a production of Five Gold Rings in 2004. The play didn’t last long, but the relationship has. They married in 2007 and their two children Manon, five, and Gulliver, four, attend local schools in London. For the last two years, Lewis’s commuter belt had widened from the North Circular to flying between the Homeland set in North Carolina, and Tufnell Park for five months of each year. “I go home every three weeks, and Helena and the kids come out to America when the summer holidays begin. And when I’m home in London, I can pick them up at 3pm,” he pauses, and gives a short barking laugh. “You can tell I don’t think about this. The parent thing preys on your mind all the time: ‘Christ, are we doing this right, or are we damaging our kids?’”
They have resisted a move to Los Angeles after spending two years there while Lewis starred in Life, another American TV show “with me working long hours on the show, while Helen sat at home with the children”. The deal for now is that one parent is always at home in London, with a nanny providing continuity, but the year is shared so that McCrory is able to take up acting jobs as well – she’s currently working towards a revival of Love Love Love with the Royal Court Theatre, then will be seen in the new Bond film Skyfall in November.
Lewis has just finished the second series of Homeland, but begs off giving clues as to where Brody will go next after almost blowing up the American vice president in series one’s cliffhanger finale. Claire Danes’ government agent, now thoroughly unmanned and undermined, is still obsessed by him both politically and sexually, but appears to have been cast aside in favour of Brody’s marriage and running for congress. There is more at stake now, but although the tortured marine has proved ruthless, the question remains whether the former PoW is a fanatic or just fanatically ambitious.
The bleak, espionage–filled drama has been a cult success in America with some heavy-hitting fans. After Obama revealed that he ringfences Saturday afternoons to catch up on the show, the whole of Washington tuned in to find out what the boss was watching, and when David Cameron came to the US earlier this summer, Lewis and McCrory were invited to the state dinner.
At the start of the evening, when Obama worked his way through his line of guests, Lewis couldn’t resist asking the President if he could give warning when he planned to go into Iran “so the show could be as current as possible”. He says, “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I’ll be sure to let you know.’ And then a security guard took me firmly off down the line, saying, ‘That’s enough sensitive chat like that.’”
Homeland has entranced government, but it also speaks to the wider world about secrets and a society of surveillance. We talk a little about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks (“I’m afraid it’s a very middle-of-the-road view, in that of course people have to be accountable, but if it endangers lives then it shouldn’t be released.”) but also his own experience at the hands of opportunistic phone-snappers. “I’ve been in a restaurant and you think the next table is texting a friend and then the flash goes off and you realise you’re being photographed. They don’t even need to know who you are, they just go, ‘I know the face, so I’ll get a picture.’”
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