In an exclusive interview with The Rake, Damian Lewis tells Tom Chamberlin why we all, in spite of ourselves, love an anti-hero.
by Tom Chamberlin | The Rake Magazine | February, 2018
Lewis – from Life to Homeland, Wolf Hall to Billions – has become the finest purveyor of modern drama’s moral ambiguities. In fact, writes Tom Chamberlin, if you can think of an actor who has influenced our golden age of television more than him, speak up…
Among the more ambiguous archetypes of the celluloid age, that of ‘leading man’ is perhaps the least defined. Far from the specific criteria of commedia dell’arte and melodrama, in which the characters are demarcated (bad guy = black hat and moustachioed, etc.), the leading man is purely subjective. Arguably he is the origin of celebrity, pulling screen presence into the limelight of fame. But the list of leading men over the years has shown that no colour, size, hair, manner or cultural identity has ever had dominion over the sobriquet. That is until Damian Lewis entered the fray. For Lewis is a man who, above anything else, is an exemplar of leadership and integrity at a time when the acting world could use a dose of it.
Damian Lewis takes charge of rooms when he enters them. Photoshoots with celebrities are often led by either the photographer, who squeezes every image he or she can from the available time; the stylist, whose job is to make sure a well-curated variety of clothes appears in the magazine; or the publicist, who tends to be the powerbroker. The ‘talent’ can often struggle through the day (except, of course, former Rake cover subjects), regarding the experience as a necessary nuisance. Not so with Mr. Lewis.
Cut to the fabulous Corinthia Hotel on a miserable London day, with Britain perturbed by a nuisance (and surprise) snowfall at Christmastime, and Damian Lewis lifts all spirits. He is not supercilious; his way is to make other people in the room feel as comfortable as he seems to be. Learning names, breaking ice with superfluous questions about music or tailoring, about which he has a certain interest: “I think I am style conscious; I think that’s led me down some pretty rocky paths” — he laughs — “reaching for a look. There were some moments there in the eighties I wouldn’t have back again.” His demeanour complements the observations made by The New Yorker when they shadowed Lewis on the set of Billions: “He kept up the banter and thus — on a bone-cold night — his collaborators’ morale.” For anyone familiar with a British Army officers’ mess, he’d fit right in. He has the right amount of self-deprecating brio of an officer in the Light Dragoons, with none of the entitlement that might be expected of one of the world’s most popular actors. If you can think of an actor who has impacted this golden age of television within which we live more than Lewis, speak up. We at The Rake cannot, so we spent some time with him to discover more about the man, and we weren’t disappointed.
It was his early education that fostered an interest in the arts and classics. “From the age of eight I was performing in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, oddly,” Lewis says. “And by the age of 11 I was performing classical Greek and French and we were doing cut-down versions of Shakespeare plays, and I always enjoyed it.”
While school is often the catalyst for a desire to tread the boards, he does remember a specific moment when it became a calling to him. “I was 16 and a group of us put on a play and it was called The Long and the Short of the Tall, a fabulous old moral-issue play by Willis Hall,” he says. “We did it all off our own backs. We had to rent the space, we had to raise money for costumes, create our own sets. I was playing one of the lead roles in it that Peter O’Toole had played in the original, and that was it, really. This was the thing I was clearly most passionate about and I had a focus when I was doing it that I didn’t have doing anything else.”
From Eton, Lewis was accepted at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, an experience that, unlike the holistic education at his school, “is entirely vocational: the moment you get there you’re stuck in a pair of tights and told to walk backwards and forwards across the room without feeling self-conscious; you are being trained for live performance from the get-go.”
A cadre of Old Etonian actors, including Eddie Redmayne, Dominic West (a contemporary of Lewis’s), Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, have, like politicians who have benefited from an Eton schooling, been criticized (many consider unfairly) for their perceived privilege. That such a large number can come from one elite institution can’t be a coincidence, is the accusation. It does perhaps underemphasize the number of actors from Lewis’s alma mater – or any other school, for that matter – who don’t manage to make a living from acting. It is an issue about which Lewis was perhaps foolhardy, because he never aspired to fame and fortune in the first place. “I never ever thought about [being out of work] consciously,” he says. “I went forward instinctively, blindly, and just always feeling I was in the right place, always happy that I had made what I considered to be a bold decision that had been to go to drama school, and so I felt emboldened by that and pleased with myself that I had made that decision; the Royal Shakespeare Company and the West End were summits.”
The idea that, years later, he would be a central figure of the western world’s subscription-based television viewing was anathema to him. He says: “I had no notion, ironically, of being in television, American television. The T.V. we watched at home growing up was CHiPs, The Dukes of Hazzard, and M*A*S*H. But it seemed like it was a foreign world and was nothing to do with my experience. I really wanted and loved theatre. My father really was the instigator: he took us to loads of theatre, and that was what I aspired to.”
His line of sight adjusted to the changing landscape of movies and television as the millennium signaled the rapid cultivation of the digital age, and new opportunities opened up. He says: “I think what then happened was quite interesting; there were friends around me, contemporaries, people just ahead of me, who were suddenly making movies or T.V. shows on rather a grand scale, and I suppose it piqued my curiosity. A friend called, [was] like, ‘I just made a movie in Jamaica!’, and I was like, ‘Well, what was it?’ ‘It was for a studio for Warner Brothers.’ I was steeped in theatre and the idea of theatre. It became sort of important to me that I too could have an experience of that, as it was so exciting and new and it was nothing I knew about.”
The biggest phenomenon to emerge at this time was that of the mini-series. Historically, big-budget series such as Brideshead Revisited were few and far between. As the 20th century came to an end, shows were being commissioned that challenged the received wisdom that popular T.V. should be in 30-minute slots (Fraiser, Friends, etc.). The West Wing (1999) was perhaps the benchmark for this transformation. Damian was working with Royal Shakespeare Company in the nineties, and while playing Laertes in Jonathan Kent’s 1995 production of Hamlet, a director named Steven Spielberg was in the audience. Spielberg would later offer Lewis the leading role in his 2001 mini-series Band of Brothers, the screen adaptation of the Stephen E. Ambrose book of the same name. Damian thinks this tale is apocryphal, but then again, Spielberg has form in taking lesser-known British theatre actors for his projects, having cast Chiwetel Ejiofor in Amistad while Ejiofor was still at drama school.
Lewis says of the period before casting that, “I’d been filming a relationship drama called Hearts and Bones, and [was] somewhat protected from the hysteria that descended on L.A., with all the actors of my generation who wanted to be in this thing – Spielberg and [Tom] Hanks were going to come together and make this the most expensive T.V. drama ever made, $120 million at the time, and it was going to be a continuous 10 hours about the war.”
Nevertheless, a new stage was set for him. Spielberg cast Lewis as Richard Winters, the steadfast, respected, courageous and heroic officer in Easy Company. In the show he grows from platoon commander to battalion commander, overseeing the conclusion of the war after VE Day. Lewis’s performance was stellar, and complicated, too, as Winters’s journey took him away from the men who loved to be led by him and with whom Winters loved being in the thick of it. It was not a point-and-shoot soldiering role. The responsibility kept shifting and priorities adjusting, but he was ever the hero despite his median rank and diminishing combat duties. He had a sense of moral responsibility, and not just a physical one.
In a pre-principal photography exercise, Lewis found that he had to quickly hardwire his temperament to prepare for the role. “We went on this boot camp for 10 days – we were down at Longmoor camp on the Hampshire-Surrey border. I was pulled to one side and was told, in an accelerated way, what it’s like to train and be promoted through the ranks, so that by the end I would be leading the 50 men. We were asked to be in character for the entire 10 days. I was promoted very quickly. I started as a lieutenant, became a captain, then major. People were calling me sir, asking me certain questions, and I had to immediately adopt a bearing of someone who knew the answers, and be coherent, and incisive, all the things I’m often not myself.”
While an understanding of WWII military bearing was important preparation, the role required him to represent real men, which in the case of Winters who was still alive at the time threw up certain problems. Lewis says: “I had his diary from the war in four black folders, all of which were completely un-anecdotal. They were all about the maneuver, they were all about the mood of the men, position and the morale. It was very, very dry, he didn’t go into his own experience, how he felt, the terror, or anything. Whereas someone like Bill Guarnere, or Babe Heffron, you could sit in a bar till 3am, and they’d be blubbing, telling stories and sharing their experiences and it would be really fun. Dick wasn’t like that, he was a far drier character, and trying to get things out of him was really quite hard because he wasn’t always incredibly forthcoming. His catchphrase was ‘Follow me’, and people would. I [went] to some of the other men, asking what it was like being under Richard, and [they would say], ‘Overwhelmingly we felt like we would get the mission accomplished and that we would also all come back. He was that good; we would get it done, no matter how dangerous, he would get us all back safely as well.’ He was just a natural born soldier whose actions spoke louder than words.” Fit for praise but tough to wear his shoes on screen.
This tallies with the final words of the series, where Winters (the real one) says, “I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day, when he said, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’, and Grandpa said, ‘No, but I served in a company of heroes’.”
From hero to anti-hero. Lewis’s character choices since then, especially the most popular ones, are far removed from the clear-cut decency of Major Winters. While his characters aren’t necessarily heels, he has carved out a niche in the moral ambiguity market. It is something, he says, he doesn’t particularly seek out, but he has found a certain amount of peace with. “Sometimes I think it’s a bit of an accident that I’ve fallen into that type of role but I really enjoy watching people who are compromised in life, through desperation or a fault of their own.”
These characters include the wrongly imprisoned Charlie Crews in NBC’s Life, a man who seeks illegal but understandable retribution for the injustice committed against him. Whether in Dexter, Luther, Sherlock, or any other successful television show (eponymous or not), the hazy values or fragility of the protagonist has garnered accolades and consistently high viewing figures. Lewis says: “I think something happened in T.V., and it was right at the time of Band of Brothers was being filmed, and it was happening on another HBO show called The Sopranos, where you might argue that was the vanguard of this new kind of T.V. we all watch, which is what David Simon, who wrote The Wire, called ‘modernized drama.’ So there has been a lot of pressure on people, on show creators, to have a story of the week every week, and Band of Brothers was part of this but was just a one-off series.
“You didn’t have to have a ‘crime of the week,’ necessarily, and there were shows that are still doing that brilliantly. But these were like a 10-hour movie. At the center of this, because you had so much time to tell the story, you could delve into much more complex characters. I think Tony Soprano was born out of that, and he was a gangster and murderer and the hero all at once. It was a sweetspot for the T.V. hero or anti-hero. [Charlie Crews] was a good guy with quirks who had been exonerated of a triple murder he never did. But shortly after that, if you look at all the male characters at that time, you had my pal Dominic [West] in The Wire, playing McNulty, and then shortly after that you had Walter White [in Breaking Bad], and you had Don Draper [in Mad Men], all of whom are massively flawed – but you back them.”
To Lewis, morality isn’t relevant when establishing character, because the adjudicator for that is always the audience member. The skill, especially on stage, lies in having people empathize with the character’s perspective, good or bad. He says: “I think trying to make people understand why you do what you do, whether they like it or not, really is the heart of your job. So, for example, I was just playing Edward Albee’s The Goat in the West End [last] summer – so much fun, but I completely underestimated how exhausting it would be convincing the three people I was on stage with and the 900 people watching that it was O.K. to fall in love with a goat if you can just allow your imagination to go there. And even O.K. to know that any sex I have with that goat is because of love, not as a result of a strange aberration. But I enjoyed it immensely, and that play is so skillfully written, and some audience members come away feeling oddly sympathetic for the man who has wrecked his marriage, wrecked his family, for the love of a good goat.”
It was 2011 when Lewis (who was into his rakish forties by then) would be back in uniform – and the cultural zeitgeist – when he was cast as Sgt. Nicholas Brody in Showtime’s Homeland. Homeland was enormously successful, and one of the last shows that people were patient enough to wait a week for, rather than stream through Netflix or other subscription T.V. (although Netflix have now reverted back to the anticipation/tedium of a week’s wait for a new episode). And the name on everyone’s water-cooler-conversation lips in those days was Damian Lewis. “Brody was a complicated character and he was a pawn in a bigger game,” Lewis says in an uncustomary moment of understatement. Brody was highly complex, and his inconsistent loyalties kept the audience undecided (perhaps confused) at times as to whether they backed him or wanted to see the back of him. (Also, how about the moxie of the showmakers, at a time when the world was experiencing terrorist atrocities aplenty, to cast not just a white American but a white American soldier as the enemy? It was about as twisted and interesting, not to mention risky, a premise that has ever been produced. Either way, the portrayal earned Lewis an Emmy and Golden Globe for best actor).
Shortly after his Homeland departure he appeared in the BBC’s highly acclaimed Wolf Hall as Britain’s most famous sovereign, henry VIII. The series was largely based around the feudal entanglements and politicking that went on within the court, with Mark Rylance taking the lead in one of his most significant screen appearance. Lewis’s commanding performance – the cocked-up arms, the long tense pauses before saying nothing, the terrible intentions uttered through his handsome smile, the imperiousness – felt like the perfect casting, and it aroused his theatrical muscle memory: “He’s a stunning man. On the one hand, he was a paranoid, genocidal maniac and on the other he was one of the most creative and influential monarchs we’ve ever had. He altered the course of our history, for the better. He is just such a flamboyant, colorful character to play – who wouldn’t want to play him?”
Which brings us neatly to his latest screen incarnation, and another duplicitous, morally unsound chap, Bobby Axelrod in Showtime’s Billions: not exactly a parable of largesse. Lewis calls Axelrod “arguably the most criminal person I’ve played. Again, the audience weirdly kind of likes it.”
Billions is a show whose popularity jars with the political zeitgeist in a similar vein to Homeland. The appetite for banker-bashing is widespread, so a television show that glorifies, even fetishizes, the mechanisms and strategies (especially the proscribed ones) by which money is made – you’d think it would be avoided, no? Evidently not, for Billions is returning for its third season next month off the back of two very well-received predecessors. Axelrod is constantly under the gaze of U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, and the driving narrative of the show is Axe’s escape-artistry against Rhoades’s vendetta. Believe it or not, the audience roots for crooked Axelrod as opposed to the lawful (albeit increasingly less so) Rhoades.
“Bobby Axelrod speaks to the American Dream, he’s a blue-collar guy from humble beginnings who did really well by having ideas and the chutzpah to go out and do it,” Lewis says. “That’s how America sells itself to anyone who wishes to come.” But does he have any conclusions as to what, counter-intuitively, keeps the audience’s loyalties on his side? “People like Bobby Axelrod are loved because they win. Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, etc. – they’re desperate men and you join in their passion and their desperation.”
If you buy this argument, and Lewis certainly spoke with a confident, analytical cadence that gave the impression he’s thought about this before what does it say about our society? Perhaps it is an extension of morbid curiosity –seeing how the other half lives? “It could be an accurate reflection of how we see ourselves: we have allowed the banking sector, and men in offices in regards to younger women, to behave in a certain way,” Damian says. “Maybe there has been a moral shift until the whole thing blows up in our face and there are incriminations and the court of public opinion emerges where everyone gets to have their say on whether it should have been allowed to happen or not.”
“Then we have a big debate about what an alternative is, and that is why Billions is a clever show. It is a show about power and the corrupting nature of power, whether it’s political on Chuck Rhoades’s side, who has become clearly more and more corrupted by his own desperate need to bring down who he thinks does so much wrong. So maybe that says more about us than we care to admit. What would you be prepared to do when going after the thing you most want? And I find a lot of dramas speak about that, that’s a central questions often.”
Immorality aside, as is always the case with actors, fans are so consumed with the characters they are known for playing that one forgets these are real people with real lives. Personal lives are often so wrapped up in the actor’s career that they are irreparably damaged. In Damian’s case, he has sensible kept his private life out of the spotlight. It is not a secret, however, that he is married to Helen McCrory, of Harry Potter and Peaky Blinders fame (among other sate and screen work). Together they have two children, a daughter, Manon, and a son, Gulliver. One of the issues of a successful acting career is the peripatetic lifestyle: your time is owned by a studio while you are in their employ, and the jobs can often take actors away from their families for months at a time. I ask Damian if, despite his success, he regretted this aspect of the profession.
“’Do I regret it?’ is a good question,” he says. “Yeah, it’s feast or famine with us. And that goes for any actor, whether you’re a successful one or an actor who struggles to get work. You spend a lot of time at home if you’re struggling to get work, and then you get work [and] you just up sticks and go immediately, so it’s a fairly chaotic existence without much structure. I try to implement [structure] in my children’s life, and then get upset or frustrated that we didn’t get something done together as a family. There is no set pattern, and finding that liberal side of you that just allows yourself to roll with it all is essential, otherwise, you’re constantly frustrated by that.”
Fortunately, things aren’t completely futile when you are as in-demand as Lewis has made himself, for he now has the opportunity to opt out of work for periods of time. “It’s in your gift to say no. And that’s just what you have to do. You can have months on end at home and then you probably have the added bonus of knowing that you’re going to get something down the line, and that’s really a wonderful position to be in. But you have to be strong enough to say no to the job, and choose family over going to work. Both Helen and I are mostly really good at that, but every now and again we do get caught out and we find ourselves both working. You’re right to say that when you’re working, the machine is bigger than you are, you don’t get to pick or choose your hours, you’re just in it.”
That is not to say that when actors have time at home it is like they never left and people are just happy to see them, or at least in Lewis’s experience. “You do a lot of guilt-parenting after jobs like Homeland, and you say no to jobs for three months, and then you’re just at home with your kids and you’re taking them to school and you’re even arriving at 4pm to pick them up from school. There’s always a little bit of earning it back, re-entry into the family atmosphere [after working] there’s always a bit of earning it back from your wife – she would be unthinking of senseless if she wasn’t going to make you work a bit harder for having gone away. But the children do too, they come running out and they throw themselves at your and it’s the most glorious moment, but it will pop out in the next few days – bang-bang-bang, you’ll get it from your son, like, Woahhh, they’re really working me over.”
One of the more gratifying aspects of our interview was discovering that Damian Lewis is a family man through and through, and part of the vanguard of ‘modern’ fathers who break the British, antediluvian mold that precludes expressions of love and affection. As a new father I was keen on some tips. Lewis was clear: “Saying ‘I love you’ to your child at night, and having them say ‘I love you, Dadda’ back is enough to make you choke a bit. Just always say it, make it part of the conversation, because it’s just the loveliest thing to be able to say that with your child: ‘I love you, I love you.’ It’s just so nice, it’s so glorious. Of course, actions speak louder than words. The old cliché, ‘It gets better and better’ – it really does. More and more you get to know them, the love’s unconditional – you accept that – but getting to know them is great fun, and realizing you love this person as much as you ever did as you’re getting to know more and more about them, it just deepens and deepens.”
While talent and acclaimed work can be a way into the public’s heart, perhaps it is the human side that makes Damian Lewis something of an inspiration, a counterweight to his characters’ darker values that are a constant fixture in society. Lewis is kind, a depressingly unfamiliar quality in the rich and successful. If you’ll permit me, a true leading man.