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Damian Lewis – Wolf Hall’s Henry VIII – on why it’s his TV star wife Helen McCrory who rules their marriage

When Damian Lewis was summoned to Buckingham Palace to receive his OBE — awarded for services to acting — he decided to treat himself to a new morning suit.

He hadn’t worn one since his school days at Eton, where it is the uniform, but as he would be receiving his honour from Prince William, himself an Old Etonian, he thought it would be an appropriate reminder. ‘I had it made by a Jermyn Street tailor called Favourbrook, but as I’d spent five years at Eton wearing a black morning suit, I had my new one made up in blue material,’ he says.

‘And when I met the Duke of Cambridge at the Palace, I told him: ‘I hope you don’t mind that this is navy blue, Your Royal Highness — I didn’t want you to think I was just showing up in my old school uniform.’ And, quick as a flash, he said (ever the actor, Damian tightens his jaw and drops into a perfect imitation of the clipped royal tones): ‘Well, I should think that would be a bit tight for you by now, wouldn’t it!’

‘And then he stuck the medal on my chest and said, ‘Nice to see you, Damian, we’re great fans, Catherine and I.’ And off I trotted home.
‘Now I’ve been given a gong, I feel like I have been made a school prefect, so I can’t misbehave.’

Not that the impeccably mannered and well-brought-up Lewis is likely to stray off the straight and narrow. If he has a problem, he says, it is his children realising that their father and mother, actress Helen McCrory, are, well, a bit different to other parents due to their day jobs. ‘The street posters don’t make things easy. There was one huge hoarding of me to advertise my TV thriller series Homeland near our home in London.

‘We drive the children to school and it’s only a ten-minute journey, but there’s always a jam at the same traffic light every morning — you know, that achingly frustrating 15 minutes when you’re stuck in traffic trying to travel 100 yards to get your kids to school.

‘Of course, the jam would have to be opposite this 40ft-wide poster of me that was there for about six months.

‘I kept distracting the children from it by changing the radio and talking about anything I could think of, and for three months it worked. Then one morning, my son Gulliver looked up and said: ‘Dad! There’s a huge picture of you on the wall!’ ‘

It was, he admits, the conversation he and Helen had been trying with all their might to avoid.

He says: ‘The children know what Helen and I do for a living, because they come on film sets and meet the crew. They don’t really understand what acting is, because what on earth does acting mean to a child — or to anyone, quite frankly?

‘We tell them we are storytellers because that’s something they understand, that we get paid to tell stories and that makes us very lucky. But very occasionally, one of them will look at me and say, ‘You’re famous, aren’t you Dad?’ And that’s a conversation we try to move on from, it isn’t healthy for anyone.’

It is a subject that will only become more difficult to avoid as far as Damian’s children, Manon, nine, and Gulliver, eight, are concerned.

In the past decade and a half, between being cast as the upright Richard Winters in Band Of Brothers, the grasping Soames in The Forsyte Saga, the conflicted Nicholas Brody in Homeland and, most recently, Henry VIII in Wolf Hall — ‘looking like a beautiful big bumble bee,’ he notes, affectionately — Damian has been a part of some of television’s most visible and successful series.

Now he’s about to hit the small screen again in Billions, a drama series set in the world of New York high finance, in which he will play ruthless hedge fund dealer Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod, who clashes with U.S. attorney Chuck Rhoades (played by Paul Giamatti) in a 12-episode battle of wits that reputedly will make Homeland look like a vicar’s tea party.

It is likely to be screened in the UK early next year.

Put that together with the fact that Helen, having put her career on the back burner while the children were small, has recently re-emerged into the spotlight with TV series including Peaky Blinders, movie A Little Chaos and a startling performance last year as Medea in the National Theatre, and you have one of the most gilded couples in show business.

‘For two actors,’ he says carefully, trying hard not to sound arrogant, ‘we have reached a, shall we say good level, which is near the top of our profession where we get offered good work by often the best people.

‘My wife is a brilliant, talented actress who had to shape her career during the four or five years our babies were very young, and is now in a position where she is able to show her acting chops a bit more. We’re very fortunate. But there’s no perfect situation. If you are being offered good work, inevitably some of that is going to be abroad.’

It is a tough situation for parents of small children, but he says it is a fact of their life: between Damian’s stint filming Homeland in North Carolina and his forthcoming Billions in New York, and Helen’s TV series Penny Dreadful, shot in Dublin, the scheduling of family life has become a logistical nightmare.

‘We try to dovetail so there’s always at least one parent at home and we’re mostly successful, although we did get caught out for a couple of weeks last January when we were both away.

‘And when Billions starts shooting later this year, I’ll just come home from New York on the weekends — it’s amazing how many men I meet going in and out of JFK Airport who spend the week in New York, fly home to London on a Friday night, then back to New York on Sunday night in order to have the weekends with their kids, and I guess I’ll be doing the same thing.

‘But at least I manage to come home sometimes — and the kids will come to us. When I was working in North Carolina and Helen was performing at the National Theatre, they came to stay with me for a month and loved it, with lunch on the set and fun in swimming pools.

‘As for the times I can’t be with them — Skype is a godsend, although if my children are in the middle of watching something on TV, forget it! We’re a family of gipsies, really, and we find ways to deal with it. Getting it right, getting it wrong, the usual.’

One of his own ways of dealing with it, he says, is to make a point of remembering exactly which part of his life is work and which part is home. ‘I made a decision very early on always to be aware of that.

‘When you’re away from home and working on location, if you’re not careful, you can let that become the time you let rip. You work hard and after you finish work you go out and have a great time and socialise, and this, that and the other . . . but you run the danger of the time when you’re away from family becoming the fun time, and the time when you go home being about getting up at 5am and looking after the kids until you’re ready to stick a fork in your eye.

‘So what I do is, I turn my away time into just my work time. There’s lots of work I can be doing when I’m on location and not on the set, and that’s what I do when I’m away.

‘It’s not necessarily the healthiest way to pass the time — when I was playing Brody in Homeland, I got quite introspective and spent too much time mulling things over in my mind. But the pay-off is when I come home, I make that the fun time with Helen and the kids — it’s the time I look forward to.’

He smiles. ‘Helen likes it, too. My traditional greeting from her when I do turn up is, ‘There you are, Damian, welcome home, here are the kids, I’ll see you in a couple of days!’ ‘

He says, happily, that in his marriage it is Helen who is in the driving seat, and has been from the first. They met on stage in a family drama called Five Gold Rings at the Almeida Theatre in 2003.

The play received lukewarm reviews, but Helen’s performance as a young wife desperate for a baby impressed everyone, not least Damian, who has described her as ‘the finest actress in Britain’. He also fell in love with her. She did not fall into his lap easily. ‘I had to work hard. And in this circumstance, every man in the world knows what working hard means.’

He came with a reputation as a playboy: he graduated from a party-loving year at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama that included ladies’ men Jude Law and Ewan McGregor, and his own past flames had included Channel 4 news reporter Katie Razzall, TV personality Tamara Beckwith, and actress Kristin Davis.

Helen was different. Three years older than him, the daughter of a diplomat and ferociously intelligent, she made it plain she was interested in a commitment or nothing at all. ‘My wife,’ he says, ‘is much more sensible and has much better taste than most people.’

In short, he was hooked. Three years after their first meeting, their daughter Manon was born; Gulliver appeared a year later; in the interim they got married.

And as for the question of who rules the household? ‘You’ve met my wife,’ he says. ‘So I’m not going to bother to answer that!’

He was born in 1971 in St John’s Wood, North-West London, the son of a City broker and the grandson on his mother’s side of Sir Ian Bowater, former Lord Mayor of London. ‘I suppose you could say I was a privileged kid.’ If the family weren’t millionaires, they had enough to afford a good education: Damian went to Ashdown House in Sussex, and then to Eton. From the beginning, he was drawn to drama.

‘My parents had a fancy dress cupboard when I was little with a plastic gun and a wand and some outfits — my brother was always Spiderman and I was Batman.

‘I liked to play football when I was at school — I still do, but I was always happiest when I was in the theatre and I was lucky enough to be in schools where acting was encouraged.

‘There are a lot of similarities between acting and sports. When I play sports, I enjoy being part of a team and I enjoy that feeling of going out on to a football pitch and just focusing on the ball, and the patterns that you share with team mates, the way you work with each other.’

Lewis adds: ‘I think that being on stage gives you a similar experience — it’s an athletic, physical endeavour, and it gives you that same experience of working with other people combined with the same degree of complete absorption in something else.’

He hears himself becoming actor-ish, of which he has a horror, and stops. ‘We might call that mindfulness nowadays,’ he shrugs. ‘I just find it very enjoyable!’

He makes it clear that team work is something he values highly. ‘To use a football analogy, ‘no player is bigger than the club’, and that’s as true for a TV show as it is for the game.

‘You might be playing Henry VIII of England or you might be playing a spear carrier — someone is going to make you stand in line for lunch, so your ego will never get a chance to swell that much.

‘And the theatre is even worse for the ego because, there, you don’t get looked after at all. There’s only one person responsible for your props, and that’s you. There’s only one person responsible for getting yourself to theatre on time, and that’s you. No one looks after you but you!’

On the other hand, he adds, the theatre has a tradition which television does not — that of going to the pub. ‘You’ll laugh at this but I truly believe going to the pub and having a pint with the rest of the cast is an essential part of the bonding experience between stage actors.’

Team work aside, though, it’s a fair bet not many of his cast mates are the recipients of an OBE.

‘Oh, that.’ He looks embarrassed. ‘It was extremely flattering, although I have to say I was perplexed because there are a lot of other very notable actors who don’t have an OBE and I’m still not sure why I got one.

‘But I am not a republican — I like our monarchy, and I very much like the Queen — so I obediently trotted along to the palace like a good boy.’ He thinks about it and nods in satisfaction. ‘It was all very nice.’ Quite so.

Source: Daily Mail