Damian Lewis was last in a desert almost a decade ago. The trip came in the wake of both his acting breakthrough in Band of Brothers, and the death of his mother in a car crash in India.
“The worst thing about that period, though, was losing my Band of Brothers penknife,” he says. This is something of a Lewis trait – making light of something heavy. “I took myself off on my own to Egypt and Jordan with a backpack. And I befriended a Bedouin in the Wadi Rum, who took me camping there. And we got caught in a sandstorm. He was a little fellow called Suleiman. I only realised after I’d left him the next day that he’d nabbed my Band of Brothers penknife. It was very frustrating.” Was this a special memento from the Second World War series, I ask, dedicated to their leading man and perhaps engraved by producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks?
“No, it was just a really cool little Swiss Army knife. But yeah,” the Old Etonian continues, “I went off to the Middle East for a month, and I remember infuriating the locals in Luxor playing backgammon. They played it incredibly passionately and incredibly quickly in Egypt – it’s an extraordinary experience. You just heard the constant rattle of dice and chk-chk-chk of the counters. And I used to sit there, really slowly pondering my moves. And one afternoon I had this whole café gathered behind their fella – this wizened old guy with a beard – and they were all just shouting at me, cursing at me, for playing so slowly. Oh, it was great though,” he smiles wistfully. “I played a lot of very stoned backgammon there.”
We’re in a remote Chilean town situated in the highest, driest desert in the world, and Lewis – clad entirely in Burberry – is sitting in a blood-red sports car, impatiently honking at a children’s marching band as he tries to inch his way through them. Someone, or something, is on his tail.
Among the film crew bustling beside him is stunt co-ordinator Daniel Hirst, fresh from working with Tom Cruise on the sci-fi epic All You Need is Kill, and here to help Lewis with action sequences, including one where he smoothly disarms a gangster. Which, given that the character the 42 year-old is playing is supposed to be a well-spoken English chap who delivers luxury sports cars for a living, is not a skill we’d expect to be high on his CV.
I ask Hirst: was Lewis “fight-ready” after two seasons playing a battle-scarred former US marine in Homeland? “Yeah, he was very easy to teach,” the no-nonsense former British military officer shoots back. “When he went into the first move from the dialogue, even though I hadn’t had time to give him a brief, Damian had the step-to-one-side and control-the-weapon routine pretty straight up. So I think he’s probably done that before.”