Original article at the Times
Damian Lewis on Wolf Hall and his hot new indie film
Damian Lewis has swapped Homeland for the Highlands, playing a church minister in The Silent Storm; then there’s the small matter of playing Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
October 18 2014, 1:01am
There’s something about Damian Lewis in a long black cassock that drives women wild, or at least into the arms of the church. In his latest drama The Silent Storm, which premiered at the London Film Festival this week, Lewis is a deeply repressed, sanctimonious, Scottish Presbyterian minister whose anger lurks like molten lava beneath his piety. Lewis plays the minister Balor opposite Andrea Riseborough as Aislin, a dark, Celtic, druidic creature rescued from the sea to become his dutiful wife. The stormy relationship brews on a remote island, filmed on Carsaig Bay in Mull and set in the 1950s. Trouble arrives on the island in the form of a third character, the poetic 17-year-old Glasgow delinquent Fionn, played by Ross Anderson. The handsome lad’s presence and the closure of the kirk while the island’s mine is deactivated send Balor apoplectic. “So, Damian, what drew you to play a psychotic Presbyterian minister?” I ask, as the actor flops down on a plump purple sofa in the bar of the May Fair Hotel amid the hurly-burly of the festival.
“My understanding of who is mad or inappropriate or excessive is not the same as anyone else’s,” says Lewis cheerfully. “I don’t find Balor wild and insane. I find him not dissimilar to some other parts I’ve played. This is a man driven by passions and honesty, which manifest themselves in that autocratic way. He is certainly a victim of his own rigidity.”
Riseborough says she and the film’s director, Corinna McFarlane, “thought of Damian as a great antlered stag, and me as the doe. We wanted to let them loose in the same room and see what happened when the s*** hit the fan.”
The part, which Lewis carries off with glorious and violent zeal, has strong parallels with his most famous incarnation as the fanatical Sergeant Brody in the CIA television series Homeland, for which he won an Emmy and a Golden Globe. Indeed, a nation mourned last week as Brody, who was apparently left hanged at the end of the third series, failed to make a miracle recovery for series four. “Some people think Homeland’s better without me … ” says Lewis, laughing. Brody fans in mourning can take comfort that Lewis will be starring as Henry VIII in the BBC television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in the new year (more of which later).
Brody is now in the actor’s DNA, however, gone but not forgotten, and Lewis is interested in comparing the two characters. “Brody is a pawn in a bigger story, a victim from the moment that the Twin Towers are brought down on 9/11. He chooses to go to war, America chooses to go to war, and from that moment he is never himself again. He is changed by his circumstances and what he is changed into is terrifying because it carries with it real menace. He comes back with this fervour. He’s radicalised, and comes to a greater understanding of what is going on in the war, and in the end makes a political stance against drone bombing and the massacre of innocents.” For a moment, in his passionate explanation, Lewis has the steely, far-away stare of Brody, and it’s rather disconcerting. We have one of the little designer biscuits that come with the coffee to calm down. He continues: “Balor is also a man of circumstance, he is a product of his environment. His backstory, which we discussed beforehand, is that he served in the Navy in the war and is comfortable at sea, on the vast ocean, in the wilderness, and there’s a metaphor there if you’re looking for it.”
From the television series Band of Brothers to Homeland and now this, Lewis has displayed an uncanny skill at getting to the conflicted heart of a military man or a soldier of God, and his analysis displays a fine intelligence that many actors lack. Balor (bit of a spoiler coming) so believes in God and the fiery pit that will consume all who stray that when his church closes he decides to dismantle it pew by pew and transport it to his flock, who now work in a factory on the mainland. “It’s a Fitzcarraldo moment of obsession,” says Lewis, referring to the Werner Herzog film in which a madman takes a ship over a hill in Peru.
In fact, Lewis has just returned from working with Herzog in Morocco, on the set of The Queen of the Desert, about the Edwardian explorer Gertrude Bell. Nicole Kidman plays Bell and Lewis plays her (unconsummated) passion Charles Doughty-Wylie, alongside James Franco and Robert Pattinson. “I told Werner about dismantling the church when we met for lunch in Casablanca, but you never know what his response will be. He has this whole schtick about not having any irony … ” Lewis launches into a perfect imitation of Herzog’s German accent ” … and then you realise it’s all a performance.”
Lewis can turn his tongue convincingly to almost any accent, from the American of Band of Brothers to high-end British in the upcoming John le Carré adaptation Our Kind of Traitor. He even does a perfect Glasgow dialect – my native city – and says his father-in-law is from there. Lewis, 43, is married to the actress Helen McCrory, 46, who recently stunned the West End with her Medea. For The Silent Storm, however, I had felt that his Western Isles voice was a little over the top. “Quite an accent.” I begin.
“You don’t need to say any more than that,” Lewis comes back. “I’m here to tell you it’s absolutely authentic, theatrical as it sounds. I listened to tapes going back to the Twenties when they were more isolated, and that accent had an almost Scandinavian sound – hup, hew, hy!” Obviously this is better live than on paper, and we’re getting stares across the bar.
“I had a Danish taxi driver when I was at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and I told him his accent sounded almost Scots.” (Lewis and McCrory were on stage at the festival reading from The Love Book, a poetry anthology.) Lewis and McCrory have been married since 2007, and live in north London with their two children Gulliver, 7, and Manon, 8. The children came up to Mull on holiday during the shoot, but mostly the couple take turns to be away on film sets. “I’m so happy because I’m at home looking after the kids right now, but Helen’s in Dublin doing Penny Dreadful.” This is the Showtime horror television series. “She’ll probably be bathing in goat’s blood.”
Lewis is, by now, rather an expert on maintaining balance in a marriage, and his take on Aislin and Balor is fascinating: “It’s a good depiction of the way in which couples feel that they are owed by the other. If any relationship is to survive, compromise needs to be made.” Knowing grins go round the sofa, where we are now joined by McFarlane. Our Relate-style session with Damian continues: “With that act of compromise, somewhere deep inside you, you feel you’re owed, however much you try not to say it. Balor feels he is owed by saving her from death, but he is frustrated because she maintains her independence, her own belief systems. They’re a conun-drum as a couple and he never fully understands her.”
Writer-director McFarlane felt that the relationship in the film was more universal than specific, a way to look at men’s power over women. She was also amazed – at 33, this is her first full-length feature – by how Lewis and Riseborough looked like husband and wife immediately. “I was like: ‘How have you done that?’ We were in stitches every time they talked to each other when they were off camera, hanging around, since they were acting married. They were just committed.”
Riseborough, 32, who had recently been on large sets such as those of Shadow Dancer and Oblivion with Tom Cruise, found the intimacy of the island inspiring as the cast and crew, deprived of a mobile signal and internet, had to hunker down and become a makeshift family. “With me and Damian … I don’t know the word, and God knows I’ve been in a relationship before, but on set it immediately felt very known, we are known to each other.”
Her relationship with Fionn (Anderson) was the precise opposite, and includes a hallucinogenic romp through the bracken in the movie. “This felt magical, nubile and tantalising and exciting and confusing and sexual. We were like two Bambis together,” she says, pausing to laugh with Anderson. “It was awful to have to put on my pinny again and deal with the chicken ****.”
Rarely do you meet a cast of a film who, a year after shooting, are still so engaged and friendly with each other, and indeed Lewis, who was promised to me for 20 minutes, hangs out for an hour. For The Silent Storm was a little film that could and suddenly did when Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson got behind it with their company EON, which produces the Bond films. With some downtime before the next 007 shoot, Broccoli read McFarlane’s script and used her film industry muscle to bring it to Lewis and Riseborough.
The only time I’ve seen Broccoli was on stage at a Q&A, where she seemed scarily powerful, however it turns out that on Mull she became not merely the producer but the chauffeur and general mother figure to the cast and crew who were billeted by the week in holiday cottages and crofts near by, often moving each week in tourist season. “She overheard me say my pillow was like a brick and she arrived in her car from London with two duck-down pillows from John Lewis,” says Lewis.
There is clearly something about the tiny, fasttalking, smart and slightly bonkers McFarlane that inspires others, and her own journey to The Silent Storm has a near-mythic quality.
After her father, a Glaswegian orphan, had a life-threatening illness diagnosed, Mc-Farlane decided to explore her Scottish roots and write. She fitted out an old Land Rover with a bed, gave up her London flat and headed north. She found herself landing on Mull in the middle of a storm looking for a location. Down a singletrack road a massive tree fell across her path. “I just ran down the road screaming, went through a gate, and ran to this house. I ended up getting drunk with the owner and spending the night in a wrought-iron bed in a power cut in a storm, which is exactly how my half-finished script began.”
McFarlane had found her location, Carsaig Bay, and in the morning the owners showed her the jetty where Powell and Pressburger filmed the 1945 romance I Know Where I’m Going! “In the footsteps of giants,” says McFarlane.
“It was so poetic the way in which this story was born,” adds Lewis. He slings on his coat and is about to head off, but not before a few questions about the just-finished Wolf Hall. Looking at Lewis’s jeans, neither McFarlane nor I are convinced he had the bulk to carry off the part of Henry VIII but Lewis knows his stuff. “Before you ask, I did like playing a genocidal lunatic, and you should know that Henry had a 34in waist until his late thirties, when he had an accident and stopped hunting. Then it was 13-course meals and he went up to a 54in waist. He was the Elvis of his day and I played him like Elvis,” jokes Lewis. “I just put on a fat suit and got on with it.” “And a large codpiece?” “I came with that already.” Lewis laughs, and disappears into the street.
The Silent Storm will be on general release in 2015
‘Brody is a pawn in a bigger story, a victim from the moment that the Twin Towers are brought down’
‘I don’t find Balor wild and insane … This is a man driven by passions and honesty’