He Was a Troubled Soul
by Mark Daniell | Toronto Sun | March 5, 2020
Billions star Damian Lewis plays the late Rob Ford in the new political thriller Run This Town. But down the line from the U.K. to promote the film, he wants to make it clear that it isn’t a straight biopic of the former crack-smoking Toronto mayor.
“This is a film about the younger generation around him in Toronto,” Lewis says. “It’s about the younger millennials who were affected by working for someone like Rob Ford.”
Written and directed by Ricky Tollman, the film pools together ambitious journalists and editors alongside social-climbing political aides as it dramatizes the scandal that plagued Ford’s steward as Toronto mayor.
In reality, it was Globe & Mail columnist (then a reporter at the Toronto Star) Robyn Doolittle who broke the story. Tollman’s film gender-swaps the character, casting Ben Platt (Netflix’s The Politician) as a struggling reporter who chases the infamous crack video in a bid to get out of writing top 10 lists.
Aladdin star Mena Massoud and Nina Dobrev play two assistants to the mayor, desperately trying to keep Ford’s behaviour under control.
“The film is mostly interested in the aftermath and trauma of being so close to a human wrecking ball like that,” Lewis, 49, says. “What does it do to you when you work for someone who behaves that way? That’s what the film is about. Of course, the film is a thriller, too, because everyone is trying to find out exactly what went on, which is why I loved it.”
Run This Town loosely revisits real events, including a night when a drunken Ford brought prostitutes back to City Hall and his over-the-top-reaction to losing his gig coaching a high school football team. It also recaptures a media scrum in which Ford boisterously denied making crude comments to a female colleague by saying, “I’ve got more than enough to eat at home.”
“He was clearly a troubled soul,” Lewis remarks.
With the film hitting theatres today, Lewis talked to the Sun about why he wanted to play Ford, how he felt about him after shooting was completed and why you have him to thank for Timothee Chalamet.
I think I speak for everyone when I say I was quite surprised when I heard you were going to play Rob Ford in Run This Town. What made you say yes?
I think he’s a fascinating character to play. He was a troubled, complex, nuanced human being who got himself in a lot of trouble whilst being loved by certain sections of the electorate. He was a populist representative and, in some ways, a foreshadowing of the current president of the United States. Those were the creative and political reasons for doing it.
What was the pitch that sealed it for you?
I wouldn’t have cast me either (laughs). But Ricky called up and said I want you to do this. I think anyone who is able to think outside the box like that has my immediate attention. I had a look at it and we discussed how it would be done and it seemed like an exciting challenge creatively to take it on, so that’s why I did it.
How did you react when you first saw yourself in full makeup?
I was terrified. I was able to put on this prosthetic over three-and-a-half hours and then when I peeled it off, it was like shedding skin.
How much did you know about mayor Ford before taking this on?
When I really heard about him for the first time is actually when he died (in March 2016). I read his obituary and I remember there was the news and a recap of his life and what he’d done. He was such an extraordinary character, so he stuck with me. But I learned much more about him subsequently after.
Rob Ford was beloved in Toronto. He was someone I met several times over the years and whom I liked as a person. You capture a lot of different sides of his personality in Run This Town. How did you come away feeling about him?
I found parts of him to be likable and other parts of him to be unlikable. He was a very troubled man. He was dealing with addiction. He was a slightly directionless son of a wealthy father. Likable, personable, but wealthy and perhaps a little entitled as well; that came with his privilege. I saw a little bit of a spoiled child in there who wasn’t happy when he couldn’t get things his way. I saw someone who had a very broad and loose grip on policy. He was a man who dealt in broad strokes and not so much the details. I think he was needy. I think he needed affection. But he was a complicated guy. I could see why he would be a popular guy to vote for as your mayor. He had a big personality, full of humour and charisma, and those people are easy to like and they’re easy to vote for. They’re very persuasive and seductive, and he was those things. Still, I think he was a pretty terrible politician and, in the end, he indulged in some criminal activities, so he was clearly a troubled soul.
How did you go about researching him?
I read news (articles) and I had access to tapes of him in assembly at city hall discussing the minutiae of the day-to-day politics of running a city and not really having a grasp of the facts. But what I took away from that, as far as I can tell, people liked him. He was a likable guy, but wayward.
Did you see parallels between Mr. Ford and Donald Trump?
There were small similarities. I don’t think Donald Trump struggles with a crack cocaine problem or alcoholism. What I would say is, they are two rich kids, the sons of two wealthy fathers, and both have populist agendas. He didn’t hold any of the powers that Trump has, but in terms of being a populist, yes. It’s the same as when (U.K. Prime Minister) Boris Johnson was the mayor here (in London). He made populist-type policies and decisions and he was also charismatic, likable, and buffoonish at times. There are those similarities.
In addition to Run This Town, your fans have more Billions to look forward to when Season 5 debuts this May. What’s in store for your hedge fund titan Bobby Axelrod?
We’re going to introduce a few really fun, new characters that people are going to love. But there’s a new adversary for Axelrod this season that finds him fighting on all fronts as usual.
Homeland is wrapping up. You were on the first couple of seasons along with Timothee Chalamet. Way back then, did you think he’d become as big as he has?
What’s happened to Timothee is one in a thousand. I recommended him to my agent. I told him, ‘I’m working with this kid and I think he’s fantastic both in front of and behind the camera.’ So I did make that recommendation and he did end up going with my agent, who is one of the most respected agents in the business. So he’s got me to thank next time he’s up onstage.
So Timothee owes it all to you.
It’s all thanks to me (laughs).
What’s the movie or performance that made you want to become an actor?
When I was young, it was Saturday Night Fever…
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