Original article in the Times
AND HE DOES THE SCHOOL RUN…
From brooding Marine in Homeland to North London family man – Damian Lewis tells Robert Crampton about his double life
Good news for Homeland fans. The second season starts soon. Even better, Damian Lewis, when I ask him about the likelihood of a third season, says, “I think this show will run five or six years unless they screw it up. As long as we can keep it credible… I don’t see why we can’t just keep going on and on and on.” For those of us – 2.7 million of us, to be precise, very good for Sunday night Channel 4, and including every critic in the country, all of them in rapture – who spent Monday mornings this spring debating the twists and turns of the previous night’s episode, the promise, from the show’s co-star, no less, of lots more to come is thrilling indeed.
But hold on, Lewis is still talking, and what’s this he’s saying now? “I’m not sure – and this is only conjecture on my part – I’m not sure Brody will last the distance. It feels like he might not.” Oh dear. Brody, for the uninitiated, is Lewis’s character, US Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody, rescued after eight years’ captivity in Iraq, seemingly gone to the bad. It’s a role Lewis inhabits so well, I half expect him to turn up to the interview in full dress uniform and looking highly stressed.
How stupid is that? Rather, on this sunny September lunchtime in a pub garden near his home in North London, Lewis is casual in jeans and open-necked shirt. He has fretted a little over the choice of pub. Such and such a place is “not suitable, there’ll be a brawl”, and settled on the Lord Palmerston. His sonorous, actorly tones boom around the enclosed space, a mark of his self-confidence. I suspect he’s one of those people who doesn’t lower his voice on the Tube. Good for him.
He is “a bit the worse for wear” after attending the GQ awards the night before. He won TV Personality of the Year. “The evening got slightly out of hand,” he reports, ordering Cumberland sausage and mash by way of a cure. He also has a half a bitter – “I can’t let you drink on your own” – but then moves on to coffee. The barmaid asks if we want to open a tab. “Oh no, don’t encourage that,” he replies, disappointingly for my purposes. He asks me to make him a roll-up – “It’s like being with my wife, she likes these” – but only half smokes it. I think he might be that rare thing, an English actor who isn’t pretending to be a bloke. Although he does play football. Eight-a-side at Coram’s Fields in Bloomsbury. “Quite a high standard.”
“The awards were actually very humbling,” he says, a little thespily, confirming my initial impression of an old-school luvvie. “Most of Team GB were there. I find myself eye-toeye with Bradley Wiggins, and he’s telling me how much he loves my work, when I’ve just managed to rattle off some lines in a half-interesting way and he’s won seven gold medals.”
Self-deprecation is a feature of his conversation, such as when I mistakenly say he’s 42 and he says, “Don’t hurry me along just yet. I’m 41. Every year is important to a shallow, vain actor.” And yet, as he later admits, it’s a bit of an act in its own right. “At boarding school you affect this laid-back, laissez-faire approach when actually you’re like a hamster on a f***ing wheel underneath. You affect this, ‘Oh, I don’t really care too much,’ and you’re pedalling away furiously. I think I probably suffer from that a bit.” Which is not to say he’s secretly a monstrous egotist, just that he takes himself and his work more seriously than he might otherwise imply.
The boarding school he mentions is Eton, a part of his life he hasn’t always been keen to discuss. To be honest, I don’t think he’s that wild about talking about it now. His body language – half-turned away, hand passing over face frequently, a certain hunted, indeed Brodyesque, cast to his features – suggests a reluctance to dwell on the years 13 to 18 that I have witnessed in other products of Britain’s most famous secondary school. A strange situation has arisen in which some of the most privileged people in the country feel persecuted. Of course, this seems absurd, but there’s no denying the phenomenon is widespread.
“I was aware,” says Lewis, “as I was entering into essentially a left-wing profession, of a potential prejudice, so I never mentioned that I’d been to Eton. Once I felt comfortable I hadn’t been typecast, I did mention it, then every article started, ‘Eton-educated Damian Lewis…'” So, he’d made the right decision to keep quiet? “Yeah. I’m not sure it was the brave thing to do, but it was prudent.”
We discuss Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent complaint that there was too much “poshbashing” in Britain. (Cumberbatch went to Harrow.) “Well, Benedict is a bright lad so he presumably had reason to say it.” For himself, Lewis hasn’t “ever felt got at” because of his privileged education. “I don’t think it’s been brought to bear on my career in any way. Anyway, I’m not the floppy-fringed cherubic posh-looking guy. I was always the redhead trying to be funny.”
Does he get fed up being asked about Eton? “I don’t blame people for being interested. I have a degree of interest myself. At the same time I’ve always been aware, and while I was there I was aware, that it was not fashionable. My bad Mockney accent predates Guy Ritchie’s.” His voice now – resonant, commanding, befitting the RSC stalwart he once was before television came calling – bears little trace of that pretence. At the time, however, “I toned it down. Being at Eton in the middle to late Eighties, you felt a bit out of time.”
These days, of course, old Etonians are all the rage, nowhere more so than on American television, whose most highly paid star, Hugh Laurie, went to the school. Then there’s Dominic West, Lewis’s friend and nearcontemporary. Other acting alumni include “a couple of lads a few years younger, Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne. It is no longer odd that people come from that sort of education and end up doing something creative.” If nothing else, as he points out, the creative industries have grown hugely in the course of a couple of generations.
Lewis’s father was a stockbroker, “but the family story is that dad is an actor who never became an actor”. His mother, who died in 2001 in a car accident in India, was descended from a former Lord Mayor of London, and before that, a 19th-century baronet. Not fullon blue-blooded aristocracy, but not far off.
Although Conservative politically, Lewis’s parents “were very liberal, if anything maverick in their outlook. They were completely supportive of me saying I didn’t want to go to university, I wanted to go to drama school.” Part of the reason, he says, for sending him away to a Sussex prep school was because, “My parents believed – with much justification I think now that I’m into school-run hell – that we should get out in the fields and get our knees dirty and get away from the precious competitiveness of North London day schools.”
That very morning, Lewis had taken Gulliver, his four-year-old son, “for his first day of school. It was glorious and heartbreaking at the same time. I picked him up before I came to see you.” Lewis is married to the actress Helen McCrory. They have another child, a daughter, Manon, aged 5. Filming Homeland takes him to North Carolina for five months of the year. “I make these mad dashes back for 48 hours. If it looks like I’m not going to see Helen and the kids for a four-week stretch, which is too much for me, I’ll bomb back after a fortnight.”
The time away almost led to him turning the job down when first offered it. “Now, knowing what Homeland is, it’s inconceivable I wouldn’t be part of it. It would be a small personal tragedy if I’d said no, which I very nearly did. I’m very glad I did it – I feel like the luckiest actor on the planet at the moment – but at the same time those five months can on a personal level feel like something to be got through.”
The deal with his wife is when he’s not shooting Homeland, her work takes priority. Who does what and when “is an ongoing conversation that will never go away. I would never dissuade her from a job. If she wants to work, she must. I am happy to take time off. I love co-parenting, but it is harder because the roles are less defined and it’s an endless challenge to communicate every day.”
What if he were offered something really good in the period his wife was supposed to be working? “I’ve made a commitment to be home November, December, January.” Fair enough, but what if it were a dream part? “Then we would have to have A Conversation [his tone implies upper case], which is our clause.” Has The Conversation happened yet? “No, but there are already difficulties on the horizon. It’s an imperfect world. You heard it here first.”
A few years ago, Lewis and McCrory moved to Los Angeles so he could be in Life, a drama that ran for two years. “Gulliver was born there. I was working 75-hour weeks, Helen essentially lived on her own with two small children. She was remarkable.” The upshot of that was that he felt he “owed her time. So I took all but two months of 2010 off. It was glorious. Lovely. We’re both much nicer when we’re being parents at home full of love and joy.”
That’s all well and good, I say, but now, though, with this hit on his hands, doesn’t he feel he has to make it count? Strike while the iron’s hot? “I don’t get caught up in that. I’ve had periods in the limelight before.” Besides, he says, there is “a discrepancy in the game I talk and what I end up doing. I have conversations with agents and say, ‘Yeah, I’m really committed to being a big film star, let’s go for it,’ and then they end up frustrated because I say, ‘Actually, I’m just going to be at home for a bit with my children.'”
So he discovered the limits of his ambition. Which is fine, I tell him, because it means you must be a fundamentally nice person. “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far,” he says, ever ready to deflect intimacy with a practised quip. “It shows you can be ambitious for different things. Because I’m certainly ambitious.” This said with a steely tone, as if for the benefit of any casting agents reading. “But I’m ambitious in smaller ways too. I’m not very good at letting the weekend slide by. I want the weekend to be the Best Possible Weekend it can be. I’m not always the most restful person to be with. I throw my toys out of my pram occasionally, get anxious, like anyone.”
In any event, becoming a film star, as opposed to a TV star, does not any longer suggest an automatic elevation. The film industry is going through one of its stagnant, formulaic phases; television, by contrast, especially American television, especially American television drama, is enjoying a golden age, one cracking series after another, so many it’s hard to keep up. “A lot of independent film types have migrated to TV,” explains Lewis. “And US TV has become more ambitious, going on location, going abroad, going into long-form drama, hiring foreign actors. Long may it continue.”
One of the first results of television’s new courage was the series that made Lewis’s name, Band of Brothers, in 2001, at the time the most expensive TV series ever made. As in Homeland, Lewis played an American soldier, this time a real-life Second World War veteran, Major Dick Winters, who led an infantry company in the last year of the war. Band of Brothers had a huge impact. “I’ve had people salute me in the street. They come up: ‘Major Winters, I just wanna shake your hand and thank you for everything you did.'”
What? And they’re not taking the piss? “Oh, yeah, maybe they are,” laughs Lewis, pretending he’s been duped. “No, you know what Americans are like, very earnest. And people develop an intimacy with characters on TV because you’re in their sitting room. It’s different from being up on a silver screen. It’s more invasive.”
Lewis met the real Winters when Band of Brothers was filming, but they didn’t really stay in touch. “This Band of Brothers cottage industry emerged afterwards and all these old boys were wheeled out and for some of them it has been a terrific ten years. I had mixed feelings about it and felt the need to distance myself. As an actor, I wanted to avoid the idea that I had won the Second World War. Dick was a very private man, the epitome of actions speaking louder than words.” When Winters died last year, Lewis wrote to his widow, Ethel.
Although he’s good at portraying these strong, silent military types, Lewis isn’t at all like that in the flesh. He’s loquacious, a little verbose even, emoting in the way actors are traditionally supposed to, something of a party animal (a fabulously good dancer, according to a friend who’s seen him in action), not campy but not ruggedly masculine either, although he has become a slightly unlikely sex symbol in recent months, something that he characteristically mocks. “I did try to lose a bit of weight for the first season of Homeland and I didn’t actually quite get there, but in the end it turns out no one wants to see me with my clothes off, so that’s OK.”
He is, he says, “a bit of a softie”. As a teenager, forced to choose between indie rock and Duran Duran, he “was right in the Simon Le Bon camp in a fairly dreadful way. And prog rock.” The point is that when he plays these tough, self-contained, duty-bound guys, Lewis really is acting.
“I’m not a switch-on, switch-off actor. I have to immerse myself and stay engaged with the material all the time. That can be fun, unless the character is in a constant state of anxiety and paranoia, which Brody is; then it can be quite wearing. Revving myself up from nothing into this other reality is an ordeal and I find it gets harder and harder. And also it prevents you from doing other things. I can’t read a novel on set, for instance; it’s too immersive. I just sit reading The Spectator. And the New Statesman,” he adds, “just to cover my tracks.”
It sounds as if, as and when Sergeant Brody’s number comes up, Lewis will be happy to come home, play more golf and more football, spend more time at his holiday home in the Brecon Beacons, see what turns up, maybe do some more telly here. He has hosted Have I Got News for You four times and loved it. “It’s the thing I most enjoy doing. Maybe that’s why I won TV Personality of the Year, not TV Actor of the Year. Maybe I need to get a Pringle sweater and some grey loafers.”
Until then, it’s back to North Carolina to finish the second series. “There’s such enthusiasm for this show, such love, everyone second-guessing away like crazy. It seems like a show that’ll run and run. It is the best job in either film or TV. It’s just fabulous.” And then, he can’t resist adding, with the charm and candour that come from irresistible confidence, “He says with some bias.”
The second series of Homeland begins on Channel 4 on October 7