Ping-Pong, Dressing in Drag, and More Details About Those Guitars!
by Gabrielle Donnelly | Express | April 8, 2019
BOBBY AXELROD, the hedge fund manager at the centre of the financial drama Billions, is brutal, thuggish, ruthless and dangerously sexy. In other words, he’s a complete animal – or not, depending upon which side of the Atlantic you live. According to Damian Lewis, who plays Axelrod, he has noticed a marked difference between the reaction of American audiences to his character and the British.
“I think we can all agree that Bobby is corrupt,” he laughs now, affectionately, of the Billions character, Bobby Axelrod.
“He’s an old-school scrapper, a gangster, an alley cat: his motto is, ‘Why use a scalpel when you can use a sledge hammer?’
“But on the other hand, it turns out that in some ways he’s also quite progressive and quite liberal in his political views.
“That’s what makes him fun. It’s interesting to me that when I’m walking down the street in New York and someone recognizes me, they’ll go, ‘Yeah! Bobby Axelrod!’ ‘Yeah, love you, man!’ But when it happens in England, people go, ‘Oh. Bobby Axelrod. You’re a real ****hole!’
“I’m not quite sure exactly what that says about both places but it says something!”
Lewis, 48, knows a bit about both England and New York these days, since he spends his time commuting between New York, where the series is shot, and London where he lives with his wife, actress Helen McCrory, and their two children, Manon, 12, and Gulliver, 11.
“We work it out,” he shrugs of his ever-travelling schedule.
“We actors are all gypsies and we all have to travel for work.
“I have friends who have bought a house in LA and been very excited – It’s great! I’ve moved the whole family to LA and it’s going to be so good! No more travelling!’
“And then they find they get three years of work in Toronto or Vancouver or even back in London! We just muddle through somehow.”
He admits that, constant jet lag and the proceeds of Billions and other series such as Homeland, Band Of Brothers and Wolf Hall have all helped make life pretty comfortable for the Lewis household.
“We have a very nice sound system in our house which I spent a load of money on a couple of years ago.
“My wife complains that it makes her feel like she’s in a hotel because the same song comes up in three different rooms at the same time, but I like that.
“And I’ve also just spent quite a lot of money on a new guitar – which means I now have four guitars, which sounds extravagant. It’s a brand-new Martin, a lovely smoked black one, which I picked up in a sale.”
He is quick to add that he is not the only one in the family to get presents.
“I’ve just bought vintage guitars for my kids. There was one with a picture of Roy Rogers, the cowboy in the 1950s, for my son. The department store Macy’s put out a lot of half-sized guitars called ‘family guitars’ which Roy Rogers had obviously given his name to, and I picked one of those up for my son.
“And one for my daughter from the 1930s, which has lovely graphics painted on, either Tahitian or Hawaiian. They’re both very nice.”
Guitars have been pretty much a lifelong love for Lewis, who recalls early days making a living from busking.
“I did it for two summers in the south of France,” he smiles, clearly relishing the memory.
“I was very young, 21, 22, 23, I used to have a motorbike, and I’d drive it down through France and set myself up for a month, play my guitar and sing to people in the street and make money. I’m not a great guitar player but I did learn classical guitar in my teens and then realized that busking was what I wanted to do with that.
“I really enjoyed it and at one point could play 60 songs off the top of my head – although they were all songs with very simple chord structures so I didn’t get any better by playing them.
“Given that, I played all sorts of things – lots of Beatles, lots of Elvis, the Eagles, the Doobie Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel. Really, what I was playing was wedding music for really uncool weddings!”
Cool or not, he remembers, he went down a storm in sunny Provence.
“There was a square in Aix-en-Provence where there were five restaurants surrounding a little fountain, and none of the restaurants could get away from me because I’d put myself right in the middle and play to all of them!
“The people eating and drinking in the restaurants would pay me in beer, and then they could really never get rid of me because I’d just sit there getting drunker and drunker and drunker.
“There were a couple of nights when I’d suddenly look up and the waiters were actually putting the chairs on the tables, and I was still there, playing to nobody, with a line of bottles in front of me. It was a lot of fun – they were good times.”
When Lewis turned to acting the money began to pick up.
He cannot recall how much his first earnings were, “but I do remember the job. It was the 1980s, I was 21 and still at drama school learning my craft, and Rik Mayall, who was then very popular in The Young Ones, made three one-hour films for TV, and I got cast in one.
“I had five lines and I think they cut four of them! So whatever I got, it wasn’t very much.
“I do remember that when I left drama school and went professional, my first year’s earnings was £12,000. And then my second year was £16,000 which was still not much but at least it was going in the right way!”
It’s a fair bet he won’t have to hit the bit-part trail again, however.
It was Band Of Brothers that made him famous in 2001; since then, he has established himself as one of the most bankable television actors in Britain and America, playing everyone from a conflicted former US Marine sergeant in Homeland, to King Henry VIII in Wolf Hall, to his current incarnation, the conniving New York hedge fund boss.
He says that once Billions, now in its fourth series, is done he would like to take a comic role.
“I love doing comedy and I haven’t done enough of it lately. I recently got a call from Sharon Horgan – have you seen Catastrophe? It is so good. And I got very excited about maybe doing something with her, but the timing didn’t work out.
“Jesus, when I was at the Royal Shakespeare Company, I did a Ben Jonson play where I was in full drag wearing four-inch heels, and I had a great time.”
In his down time, he says, a little surprisingly, he likes to play table tennis.
“I am not a great player but I do love it. I played it a lot when I was a kid and was actually the ping pong champion in my school.
“I was about 11 or 12 and I used to play every final against this great kid called Alan Cho, who was Korean – he played in the Korean style and I played in the Western and we had these amazing battles. I think why I liked it so much is because I used to beat him.”
He stops, and looks a little guilty.
“That’s a very Bobby Axelrod thing to say, isn’t it?” he grins.
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