BBC2, Original article at the Times
Damian Lewis: from Eton to Wolf Hall
A post-Homeland Damian Lewis – now in tights and a codpiece for the BBC’s Wolf Hall – talks fame, class and family with Polly Vernon
January 3 2015, 4:50pm
Bloody hell, walking down the road with Damian Lewis is exhausting. It takes two and a bit minutes to get from the studio where Lewis had his picture taken for The Times to the restaurant where I’ll interview him, but in those two and a bit minutes, Lewis is acknowledged by pretty much every person we pass. He is gawped at, pointed at, whispered about, shouted at, physically accosted. “Damian! Damian! Can I get a selfie?” goes one passer-by, his iPhone out and open at the camera app. “Not right now, mate,” says Lewis, jocular and cheery, so everyone will think he’s a nice bloke anyway. “Damian! Damian! Can I have an autograph?” says a keen twentysomething girl in an anorak (hood up). “Old school,” says Lewis, and scribbles his name in her notebook with the pen she supplies.
We walk a little further, attempt to make the wary small talk interviewers exchange with their subjects before the tape recorder is turned on. (The subtext of which is always: “Do I like this one?” – journalist; “How badly are you going to stitch me up?” – subject.) Only it’s tricky to pull off this semi-nicety, because of the furore Lewis keeps causing. More people gawp. More people shout his name. My Google Maps function is failing to locate our restaurant. Lewis is becoming anxious, taut; steeling himself against more requests for selfies.
“Do you want to get off the main drag?” I ask him. “Yeah … maybe …” he says, trying to seem laidback, failing.
Then the restaurant appears, like a dream, and we fall through its doors. We are shown to an excellent table, we walk towards it, past diners too chic to acknowledge a celebrity in their midst. Lewis regains his composure.
“We can have any water you like,” he says, “as long as it’s sparkling.”
He is this smooth most of the time. Damian Lewis is an Old Etonian, with all the charm and entitlement that implies. Plus, he’s an actor, which makes him a cliché of hot ‘n’ cold running charisma, and he’s tall and obviously handsome, which adds to his general swagger. He’s a rotten flirt, a toucher, a beguiler; a creator of instant intimacies. By the time I got to the photoshoot, an hour or so after it started, every member of the assembled crew (up to and including the heterosexual and thoroughly alpha photographer, Mark) is giggling and fluttering like a girl over Lewis’s every move.
Yet he did seem briefly vulnerable out there. Exposed, harangued, wary.
At 43, Damian Lewis is very famous in a very particular way. For nearly two decades, from the first moment, really, that he emerged from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 1993, he did well as an actor. His star ascended in gratifying but manageable increments. He started in theatre, in the RSC, with a lauded Hamlet here and a critically acclaimed Romeo there; transitioned to credible television in his late twenties, landing roles in the 1999 Bafta-winning TV movie Warriors and the 2001 Spielberg epic Band of Brothers. He slipped assuredly from the phase, “When you lose more jobs than you get; when you’re used to hearing ‘No’ more times than you hear ‘Yes’,” to, “A tipping point, which I – God! Thankfully! – passed at some point, when you say ‘No’ more times than you say ‘Yes’.”
Everything was going swimmingly until 2011, when his starring role as Sergeant Nicholas Brody in the hit US TV series Homeland sent him suddenly, internationally stellar. “Homeland became this – although I say it myself – global sensation sort of like that,” he clicks his fingers, “which was overwhelming and quite aggressive at times. And it made me feel … Look. I was in my thirties when it happened. I wasn’t 21, with no experience of anything. I’d had a degree of success that I was very happy with. Enough people seem to know me and stop me and congratulate me in the street, and that satisfies my ego. But I didn’t have people grabbing my arm and going, ‘Oh my God, it’s you.’ And after Homeland, that did happen. Every now and again, you get manhandled.”
He grabs my upper arm in illustration.
“Sorry,” he says. Then: “Of course, if you’d done that to me, I’d have done the vain thing of … slightly flexing.” He tenses a welldeveloped bicep at me across the table. We’re back in the smooth zone again.
I hadn’t expected to like him. Actors are generally slippery interviews: self-involved, yet so anxious to be admired, they won’t risk allowing any true insight into their character, assuming they know what that even is any more, given how much of it they sacrifice while submerging themselves in roles. On top of which, Lewis is posh; raised in north London privilege and boarding schools. He was born in St John’s Wood, the son of a stockbroker, the direct descendant of a Lord Mayor of London and a doctor to the royal family. He doesn’t sound especially posh, more thespy middle class, and he doesn’t look it, something to do with his red hair. I’ll ask him if he feels posh and he’ll say, “No. Um. I feel … me.” But he’ll go on to betray his poshness, asking me where I grew up and where I went to school, apparently unaware that for most people, these are not two separate questions.
I like him as an actor, although I wouldn’t say I’m a fan. I’m more hung up on his wife, the actress Helen McCrory, star of Skyfall and Harry Potter and Peaky Blinders. They’ve been married for seven years; they have an eightyear-old daughter, Manon, and a seven-yearold son, Gulliver. The raddled old feminist in me irrationally resents Lewis for overshadowing his wife’s substantial acting abilities with the force of his Homeland-generated fame.
So I bring prejudices relating to his profession, his class and his marriage to the table. Poor bloke. But then the battle to get to the restaurant proves bonding; on top of which, Lewis blindsides me with table manners, and an anecdote about an octopus.
The waiters bring us the menu, which is overwrought and complicated. I can’t see anything I want to eat. “You weren’t ready for this, were you?” Lewis asks. “This is ridiculous! I just wanted a chicken caesar salad. But come on! We’ll find something. Here you go.”
He tells me what I want to eat. He’s quite right – I do want the pumpkin soup and the lamb – but I’m not sure anyone’s ever told me what to order before. I wonder if this qualifies as an act of unwelcome, domineering maleness, or of chivalry. On top of which, I find it rather sexy. How complicated.
The waiters leave. Lewis says, “I wasn’t feeling that grown-up then, were you?” No!
“It’s like when you can’t eat fish on certain days. Do you ever get that?” Yes!
“I cooked an entire octopus for my kids on Sunday. It was so gratifying. I’ll show you …” He produces his iPhone, locates a picture of a huge octopus, lying in a pan. Wow.
“Because we’ve got the posh new fishmonger [in London’s Tufnell Park, where Lewis lives – and I almost live], haven’t we? And because my children are such awful north London children, and we’ve taken them to Carluccio’s once too often, they like octopus and squid and all that. So I went to the fishmonger, said, ‘I want some octopus,’ not knowing that he’d just throw an entire octopus into a plastic bag. It’s very heavy, floppy, stringy. From top to bottom, like this.”
Lewis measures out a distance of about a foot and a half between his hands.
“With tentacles! Head, two little black eyes, still there, the body, and then its tentacles falling down off here. I said, ‘That looks enormous.’ They said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll lose about 40 per cent, because a lot of that’s water.’ So you simmer it for an hour. Really soften it up. Then you stick it in the pan with butter and paprika, and some salt and pepper, and it’s lovely! Fantastic! And you chop it all up. I nearly cocked it up, by showing my daughter, who doesn’t allow moths to be killed. I showed her the octopus the night before, long and stringy and huge, and she went, ‘Oh!’ And then she totally forgot about it, and ate it.”
Are you a good cook? “I’m an enthusiastic cook. And I have children who … Look, (a) I should stress they don’t come home crying for octopus; (b) even if they did, they wouldn’t get it, because it’s too expensive. But very early on, because we didn’t want to cook mush all the time, we thought it was quite funny, taking our children to nice restaurants that we went to. My kids have tried everything: octopus, snails … Half of it, they’ll hate. Half of it, they won’t get again because we won’t pay for it.
And then, calamari is kind of everywhere now. It’s fish fritters. Isn’t it?” And so, a posh actor unexpectedly humanises himself in front of my very eyes.
We’re supposed to be discussing his newest acting project. This month, Lewis will co-star opposite Mark Rylance and Jessica Raine in Wolf Hall, a BBC six-parter, the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Lewis plays Henry VIII; the project represents his first attempt to reconfigure his profile after Homeland, which he officially left last year, pretty definitively, when Sergeant Brody was hanged. He’s also returning to the London stage this April, in David Mamet’s American Buffalo.
Lewis and I meet two days after he returned to Homeland for a brief cameo. He featured in the fevered imaginings of Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison; Lewis’s Brody and Danes’ Mathison enjoyed/endured a will-theywon’t-they romantic narrative, which was arguably the most compelling plotline in a generally compelling and plotty show. Fans of Homeland were delighted to see him back, then disappointed that he was only a fantasy. That must have been gratifying to Lewis.
“Oh, yeah. Of course, it’s flattering. But, you know, there are people who see the show more objectively, who I think generally agree that it was time for Brody to go. As compelling a character as I think he was, he was sort of … in the way. Ha ha!” We really should talk about Wolf Hall, I say. (Lewis agrees, although doesn’t seem particularly bothered.) Preview tapes weren’t available before our lunch, so I don’t know if the show’s any good. I do know that some of Lewis’s scenes were filmed this summer in Oxfordshire, and that he was papped wearing a large red codpiece. In fact, it was too small to be historically accurate. Hilary Mantel (whose involvement with the production began and ended at script stage) said she hoped the show wasn’t descending into “nonsense”. “It’s perfectly possible to do good history and good drama,” she said. “They are not mutually contradictory.”
“Bless her,” says Lewis. “I think she’s rightly protective of her work. I bumped into her, totally by chance, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and we had a lovely chat. She was … gorgeous.” And what of co-star Rylance? “Mark was a big deciding factor in me taking the job. I’ve been a fan of his for many years. He’s a trailblazer in theatre, has been for 20 years.”
I loved him in (Jez Butterworth’s Royal Court hit) Jerusalem, I gush.
“Yeah,” says Lewis, looking at me with vague pity. “But Jerusalem isn’t even his …” He tails off. I’ve just basically said I like Rylance’s greatest hits compilation album, haven’t I? “Mmmmm,” says Lewis. OK.
“But Mark is … extraordinary. As a man and an actor. He’s mischievous and deep-down competitive. Not as an actor. As an actor, all he wants is an ensemble. He wants collaboration. As an actor, he couldn’t be more generous. But … the man who brings the board game on is the man who’s good at the board game.”
Rylance, I’d heard from other sources, was in the habit of carrying a backgammon set with him, and challenging the cast and crew to games during any downtime.
“I love backgammon,” Lewis says, “because I think I’m going to win, but I often don’t. Mark brought this fantastic game called Pucket – you must spell that correctly, ha ha – and it’s a brilliant, brilliant game. Go and look at it. It’ll make you giggle a lot.”
Damian Lewis will windbag on endlessly about acting and actors, given half a chance. So I ask him if he’s ever had therapy, and he says no, then, actually, yes.
“I had about three sessions, after my mother died [suddenly, in a car crash in India, in 2001]. He was extremely good, but it was unhelpful. It didn’t add anything. I didn’t leave [therapy] from fear, I left from … Being an actor is a constant exploration and examination of … others. Of self. Of things that motivate people. So you do sort of have that training [in psychology] anyway. You’re an observer. And if you’re good, you’re a sympathetic and understanding observer. I think actors are a force for good. I think actors can be a glue. A societal glue. Their empathy, their sympathy, their … understanding of other people, their generosity of spirit, their willingness to engage, to commit, sometimes just socially … Actors can open up social occasions with their warmth, with their wit. Social masseurs.”
Do you think it makes you a better person, being an actor? “Ha. First time anyone’s suggested that to me. Oh. It’s true they can be – we can be … navel-gazing. Narcissistic. Afraid. Shy. At times.”
Can you be those things? “I have the capacity to be that person.”
You check yourself on that? “Yes, I do. But. Um. More often than not, before I’ve realised it, there is someone called Helen McCrory who will tell me to get my head out of my arse.”
Lewis’s wife phones during the meal.
Lewis speaks to her briefly and civilly; I get no insight into their dynamic other than she takes the time to ask him how he is. “I’m very well, thank you,” he replies, almost formally. I do wonder quietly how two actors can coexist in the same marriage without ending up locked in some Taylor and Burton derivative struggle for power and the limelight.
Is there any competition between you? He pauses. “Um. No. There really isn’t. The only competition arises with whose turn it is [to work]. And that’s it.”
So the deal is, one of you is always at home with the children? “The truth is, we’re just like any other working couple. The parents at the school that our children go to – I don’t know what the percentages are, but there are many where both parents work. And the difference with filming and theatre is that with theatre, you go away in the evening when the kids are looking forward to seeing you and you’re reading them stories and putting them in the bath and kissing them goodnight. And if you go away filming, you might be gone for a month. And that’s a little bit different from what the other working parents are doing.
“But I wouldn’t change our particular set-up for anything. I find the elasticity, the drifting quality … I haven’t gone away since August 3, anywhere; I haven’t left home. When I say, ‘Daddy’s working,’ I go to my study upstairs, but I’m in the house. I can take them to school, I can pick them up from school if I want, and by the time I work again, it’ll be January. So. Six months of just doing that. In January and February, I will go away for four weeks, and that will be incredibly hard. You don’t really store credit with children. When you come home, they’ll tell you that you’ve been away for a year, and when you say, ‘No, darling, I’ve been away for four weeks. I was at home for six whole months before and we spent a lovely time.’ ‘No, you weren’t!’ It’s slightly crushing.”
Do you feel guilty? “Enormous guilt!” And how does being away affect your relationship with Helen? “Re-entry. It’s all about re-entry. And I don’t mean that as a double entendre. When you come back, having been away, that period of re-entry, coming back into the family solar system … Obviously, because I’m an actor, I’ve cast myself as the Sun. So when the Sun has been away, and the Sun comes back, all the planets have to realign. And you think: ‘Oh, I’ve only been away for a month, it’ll be great. Helen and I will be up and running within a few days; the children will love me instantly.’ And it’s just not true. Everyone needs to recalibrate. It takes three or four weeks. It just does. For it all to be cosy and lovely. For it to settle.”
Lewis talks about his family in romantic terms. As well as deploying adjectives like “cosy and lovely”, he talks about their “large, lovely, tumbledown house, full of life and chat and Sunday lunches”, and his children’s ongoing campaign to persuade him to get a dog.
Did you always want to be a father? “Ah, very much. I come from a big family. A big, garrulous, happy family of six. Four children. I think I imagined … If I’m honest, I imagined a family re-enacting my childhood.”
You were happy? “I was.”
And in no way resentful about being sent to boarding school (to Ashdown House, in East Sussex, a school that is, incidentally, being investigated for claims of historical sexual abuse; then on to Eton) at eight? “Certainly no resentment. I look at my time as an 8-13-year-old, down in Sussex, on the edge of Ashdown Forest, in a rather Laurie Lee-esque way. Bucolic. Romantic. Climbing the rhododendrons and playing in the ha-ha. Smashing cricket balls around.”
So it wasn’t awful? “No! It wasn’t awful. But I know what happens to you as an eight-yearold when you’re sent to those places. I know what it does to you.” He pauses, because, he says, he’s trying to find a way to phrase the next bit without reusing an expression he deployed on Desert Island Discs, “when Kirsty asked me the same thing”. But he decides to go ahead and reuse it: “Because it’s my expression, and I like it. It’s a ‘sphincter-tightening exercise’, is what it is. It’s a moment as a young boy when you learn to deal, quickly, independently, and away from your home. It is a life-forming experience. And the homesickness and crying at bedtime … Others of my generation, who send their children away, would argue that that’s OK, that it’s not the end of the world, you get over it and they will have a brilliant time. That would have been my parents’ view. But on balance, I think I decided that wasn’t OK.”
For your kids? “Yes.”
You and Helen talked about sending them to boarding school? “We still talk about it.
My children are right at that age. We thought about it and discussed it enough to know that we wouldn’t do it. But there are times when I look at my children bouncing off the walls, and stuck in a slightly precious north London environment where everyone’s worrying about the blah blah blah, and I do think they could be running around, muddy knees, playing sport for an hour and a half, every day of the week. And they might just be doing that. Maybe. But …” But ultimately, no? “Ultimately, no.”
What else? Well, he says his fatal flaw is a torturous decision-making process on role choices – “Although I’m sure my wife would come up with others” – and that he’s attempting to live his life according to a Dolly Parton principle, “Which I’m going to misquote, but it’s: ‘Don’t be so busy earning a living that you stop living.'” We talk about the time he had dinner with the Obamas at the White House: “I found myself in a three-way conversation with the president and Warren Buffett about fracking, and just … pinching myself under the table. I took a great wodge of flesh and I dug in.” We talk about his newly acquired OBE: “I think they must have overheard our conversation and thought, ‘This man is so advanced on fracking, he should get an OBE.'” We talk about his pin-up status. “It’s all sort of … icing, isn’t it? And if people fancy me from afar, it feels a bit like it’s happening to someone else. They’re in love with a construct of their own making.” He tells me he has, at times, been embarrassed about his Eton education, although not any more. “But, as a teenager, trying to fit in. That’s the time I felt most selfconscious about it. Just felt that it wasn’t cool, to be at a posh school like that. I would chat up girls in a mockney accent, absolutely!” Can you still do it? “Course I can, course I can,” Lewis says, sounding not unlike Boycie from Only Fools and Horses.
And we talk about his fame problem. I tell Lewis I was quite alarmed by the general public’s response to him earlier; he looks crestfallen. “Oh. I was about to say I think I’ve controlled it quite well. But maybe not.”
We talk for two hours. I was only supposed to get one, but the food took its time and Lewis has a lot to say, plus I don’t mind his company one bit. He’s entertaining and very pleasant to look at, and I feel as if he’s eternally trembling on the brink of doing something as hilarious, shocking and alluring as ordering my food for me. But I wrap things up, and walk him to his cab, which has been idling outside.
“Will you be nice about me?” he asks. I’m not sure yet.
“Oh well. Good luck with it!” Thanks. Will you read it? “No!” Lewis laughs, as if I’m quite, quite mad to suggest such a thing. Then he blows me a kiss, gets in his car, whizzes off.
Wolf Hall is on BBC Two this month
‘If people fancy me, it’s like it’s happening to someone else. They’re in love with their own construct’
Lewis wears a large red codpiece in Wolf Hall. In fact, it is too small to be historically accurate