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Damian Lewis on Grief, Espionage and His New Musical Ambitions

This Is a Mini-Midlife Crisis, But Not a Full-Blown One

by Simon Hattenston | The Guardian | October 29, 2022

They were the golden couple of British acting, but Helen McCrory’s death last year left her husband shattered. Now he is putting the pieces of himself back together – and finding a new creative energy.

The entrance to the private members’ club is so unobtrusive it is barely visible. I walk up the back stairs to a well-disguised roof terrace. A member of staff seems to know why I’m here, and shows me to a discreet table with barely a word. Damian Lewis is sitting there alone, tucking into a plate of sea bass. “Sorry, I couldn’t wait,” he says, looking up. “I was starving.” We move on to the veranda – an even more private spot. I half expect him to show me a secret code, tell me to consign it to memory, and walk away. It feels like a scene from a spy novel.

Lewis has the urbane ease of a man to the establishment born – a diplomat, say, or an MI6 agent. In his latest drama, A Spy Among Friends, based on the Ben Macintyre novel, he plays the latter. The story is based on the real relationship between double agent Kim Philby (played by Guy Pearce) and MI6 operative Nicholas Elliott (Lewis), the friend tasked with extracting a confession from him. This gripping miniseries is his first role since the death of his wife, Helen McCrory, last year. In that time, Lewis admits, his life has been given a thorough shaking.

It feels as if I’m meeting a man putting himself back together, and not quite sure how all the parts fit. He is still reeling from grief, while also embracing a new life, one that includes a surprise career change.

We’re here to talk about the new drama, but as with so many men, his first language is football. Barely have I sat down and he’s chatting footie. Lewis, 51, is still a keen and talented player, who takes part regularly in Soccer Aid matches on behalf of Unicef. He tells me he recently played with Cafu, Brazil’s most capped male player, who is a year older than Lewis. “He’s kept himself in shape. He’s my age, charging around that pitch.” He asks me who I support. Manchester City, I say. And now he’s started on the phenomenal goal machine Erling Haaland. “He’s like a CGI construct. He could be out of Jurassic Park. He’s got an incredible physical form.” It’s so much easier than dealing with the stuff of life. But that’s not what we’re here for.

I ask why he chose to meet at the club, attached to a music venue called Koko (formerly the Camden Palace). He tells me he is a member – great bands play here, the food’s superb and it’s close to home. Suddenly he looks self-conscious. “I have an awkward relationship with clubs,” he says. “I join them and then I’m not sure that I should go to them.” Why? “You immediately affiliate yourself with everyone in there and I may not want to do that.”

When Lewis was young, he did a lot of busking. I ask if he could have made a career of it. And now the man who was talking fluent football a moment ago is mumbling diffidently. “Erm … well … do you know what I’ve done recently?” I’ve heard he’s making an album of songs inspired by McCrory. “Well, yeah, it’s simplistic to put it like that, but I, erm, I am being a musician. Now. As well as being an actor,” he says, like a stage-shy X Factor contestant. “So I suppose, to answer your question, I could have been a musician. And I’ve ended up trying to be one. I’ve no idea whether I’ll be a good musician.”

Lewis looks wonderful. Great head of marmalade-coloured hair, James Bond handsome and stylishly dressed. One item of clothing stands out. What looks like a towelling waistcoat underneath his jacket turns out to be a T-shirt. Can he describe it? “It’s one of those weird T-shirts you can’t wear on a hot summer day. You just sit there dripping in sweat cos it’s a terrycloth thingummybob like those T-shirts that our dads wore in the 70s that are now back and cool. It’s probably a bit self-conscious of me that I’m wearing this,” he says apologetically. “It’s from a website called Phix. Now Phix claims to be making rock’n’roll clothing, so what you’ve caught me doing is creating someone else. Like a construct.” Is this the new you? He smiles. “It’s a bit sad, but it’s really warm and snug. I was actually looking at the website for gig clothing – what to wear on stage, not on a terrace with you on a Thursday afternoon.”

He returns to the subject of members’ clubs and why he feels uneasy about joining one. “You worry about being seen to be like the other people in the thing you’ve joined. That’s always my concern. I get up in the morning, put on a nice shirt, think: ‘That’s all right, I’ve still got it, that’s OK.’ Walk down the road feeling fairly respectable, semi-fashionable.” He snorts with derision. “You walk into one of these clubs and you look like every other guy in there.” And now he roars with laughter. What, the men are as good-looking as you? “Better-looking,” he says. “Better-looking. There’s a whole milieu of people who have just totally bought into a lifestyle, and now I look like a guy who’s bought his clothes out of the same colour supplement and I don’t subscribe to any magazines!”

Blimey, there’s a lot to unpick here. How long have you been feeling like this, I ask? “Oh, about a week!” he says.

Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory were one of Britain’s most feted acting couples. He made his name playing Major Richard Winters in the US second world war TV series Band of Brothers, created by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Perhaps he is best known as the former US marine and prisoner of war Nicholas Brody in the espionage thriller Homeland. Lewis seems to have two identities as an actor – in American dramas, he often plays macho military types. In British dramas, he tends to be cast in privileged establishment roles, of which the most obviously privileged is Henry VIII in the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Lewis is fabulous as the terrifying yet needy man-baby monarch. As for McCrory, she was simply one of the greatest actors of her generation on stage (The Seagull, Medea, The Deep Blue Sea) and screen (The Queen, Peaky Blinders, Harry Potter). They had been married nearly 14 years when she died in April 2021, aged 52.

Lewis grew up in St John’s Wood, a well-to-do area of London. His father was an insurance broker with Lloyd’s. His maternal grandfather was lord mayor of London, and down the generations on his mother’s side there is an impressive lineage of aristocrats, philanthropists, shipbuilders and a doctor to the royal family. Lewis was sent to boarding school aged eight, and went on to Eton, the country’s most famous private school. There, he studied drama and learned to play classical guitar. By the age of 16, he had decided he wanted to become an actor and went on to graduate from the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

In the summer months, he would travel around Europe singing and playing guitar on the streets. “I was a professional busker in my early 20s. I had a motorbike, a tent with a hole in it, and I went around the south of France playing market towns, then a bit of Spain. I loved it.” Did he make good money? “Yeah, 20 to 30 quid an hour. Everybody’s on holiday and they’d just chuck in 10 francs.” That’s better than Equity rates, I say. “Certainly is. Certainly is, sir. Certainly is.” He sounds every inch the Old Etonian. After he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1997, acting took precedence. He continued playing music, but just for fun. Often at the end of shoots an impromptu band would be formed for the wrap party, and Lewis would invariably be part of it.

It was a couple of years ago that he started to reconsider his career, he says. “I had always identified as an actor, and that was consolidated by being married to Helen. We felt very much like an acting couple. Life takes you down paths, and I wasn’t resistant to that path because I loved what I was doing. But in lockdown we all sat around thinking, didn’t we?” He looks at me. “Did you? Did you do some thinking in lockdown? ‘Am I going to keep writing profiles on people I’m not really that interested in, or am I going to join the Labour party?’” It’s a strange thing to say – assuming both that I dislike my job, and that I would want to work for Labour. No, I say, but tell me about your moment of revelation.

Actually, he says, the project had its genesis the best part of a decade ago when he sang a couple of songs on a Radio 2 show. One of his fellow guests was the singer and broadcaster Cerys Matthews, whose husband, producer Steve Abbott, was impressed with Lewis’s performance. Abbott suggested that he and Lewis record some songs, but then Lewis spent the next five years playing hedge-fund manager Bobby Axelrod in the American drama series Billions. A couple of years ago, with McCrory seriously ill, Lewis asked to be written out of the sixth series so he could be with his family. That was when he reconsidered Abbott’s proposal.

“Cut to lockdown and I’m noodling on my guitar again and I’m thinking: ‘I would like to pursue that.’ So I called Steve and he said: ‘Can I introduce you to someone I think is the best young jazz musician in the country, called Giacomo Smith?’ and I said: ‘Absolutely.’” Initially they worked on covers, then Smith suggested they write songs together. Lewis had never written a song in his life. “I started writing and found out there was lots that I actually did want to write, and before we knew it we had a record’s worth of songs. We’ve ended up with a rootsy, jazzy, rock’n’rolly, singer-songwritery-type album. If that doesn’t put you off, nothing will.” He grins. “But it’s been really good fun. Really good fun.”

Has the album got a title yet? “Yes. Mission Creep.” I tell him I’m never sure what “mission creep” means. “Mission creep is when you go to war and you invade one country, and before you know it you’ve invaded another. You allow your mission to spread and go where you shouldn’t.” Why that title? Another smile. “Are you a mission creep?” he asks himself. “Or is it a mission creep? Or ‘That mission creep.’” So is there a hint of self-loathing in the title? “No, not particularly. Not particularly.”

But he admits he is wary of overselling himself. “There’s nothing more annoying than an actor who thinks he’s Bruce Springsteen. By the way, I don’t think I’m Bruce Springsteen. This is a mini midlife crisis, but it’s not a full-blown midlife crisis.” If anybody is entitled to a bit of a midlife crisis, surely it’s Lewis.

Had he discussed his ambition to be a musician with McCrory? “Yes, she knew I was talking to Steve and meeting with Giacomo.” Did he tell her he was really going to go for it? “At that point, it hadn’t formulated that much in my mind.” I ask whether the change in direction is to do with McCrory’s death? “Not consciously, but it’s inevitable there’s change. When you’ve been married to someone and they die prematurely, you’re left careering in a different direction. And that throws up … ” He speaks slowly, stops and starts again, making sure he gets his words right. “It’s a very fertile, very creative, raw, open time, as well as being flattening and difficult and sad. It’s all those things at once. Anybody who hasn’t been through it won’t fully understand, but I think anybody who has been through it will.”

McCrory’s death came as a shock to the public. She had hidden her illness. In lockdown, she appeared with Lewis on TV, cheering up the country and raising money for the NHS. After her death, he wrote a lovely tribute to her in the Times. It was as funny as it was moving. He talked about her great qualities, and the advice she left for him and their two children (Manon, now 16, and Gulliver, 14). He started the piece: “As I sit down to write this, I can hear Helen shouting from the bed: ‘Keep it short, Damian, it’s not about you.’” He said he had never known anybody who so consciously spread happiness or enjoyed life as much as his wife did; that his children had “the fearlessness, wit, curiosity, talent and beauty of their mother”. Lewis wrote that McCrory told them: “I want Daddy to have girlfriends, lots of them, you must all love again, love isn’t possessive, but you know, Damian, try at least to get though the funeral without snogging someone.”

Today, Lewis tells me that he felt wiped out after her death as everything caught up with him. “For four or five months, you’re physically drained. Helen was ill for four and a half years. They say that the first day of diagnosis of an illness that could be terminal is your first day of grief. You are in a state of semi-grief while the person is still alive because there is always the sense that something might go wrong at any point. There’s a hyper-alertness and you are incredibly present and charged at all times. You’re on a sort of war footing. You’ve got something to deal with that gives you great focus. Everything is going into getting that person better.”

Later on, was he on a war footing to make sure the end of her life was as good as possible? “Yes, yes, yes – until the moment of death you’re fully engaged in living the best possible life that can be lived for the person dying, and for you as a family and for the children. And it takes an enormous amount of energy. So the collapse in death, the exhaustion, comes with that.”

I’m thinking about what he said about death being a fertile period. Can he expand on that? “Well, death is oddly ecstatic. Along with birth, it’s the ultimate act of life, and it brings this enormous energy to it. And you carry that energy around with you. However deep and profound your sadness, a new beginning always has an energy to it. And it is a new beginning when your wife dies and you’re left on your own. Life has changed. So there is an energy in that.”

The way he discusses death and grief is admirably honest. Has he written about this in any of the songs? “No. People will, you know … they’ll find in the songs what they want to find in them.”

In recent weeks, just after he announced the new album, he has been pictured with the Kills singer Alison Mosshart in London and New York.

I ask if he would like a drink. “I want to drink more coffee.” Does he fancy an alcoholic drink? “No, I can’t drink alcohol today. My daughter is 16 today. Sweet 16. We’ve got a little surprise dinner for her tonight.” How have the kids been? “Amazing. They’re incredible. That’s all I’m going to say about them.” He says he thinks he has said enough about Helen and the family.

I tell him how much I like A Spy Among Friends. We talk about how the top British private schools proved such a fertile recruiting ground for not only spies but double agents – of the Cambridge spy ring, Philby went to Westminster, Anthony Blunt to Marlborough, Donald Maclean to Gresham’s and Guy Burgess to Eton. Was Lewis ever approached to be a spook? “No,” he says. Were any of his contemporaries at Eton spies? “Rory Stewart?” Has Stewart ever admitted to it? “No, I’m only guessing.” (Stewart has always denied being a spy, but says that if he had been, he would not be able to confirm it.)

Later, I talk to Alex Cary, Lewis’s good friend and collaborator, who wrote and produced A Spy Among Friends (and was also a producer and writer on Homeland). Cary describes Lewis as “cocky and funny, but also quite humble”. That’s an unusual mix, I say. “Yeah, I’m the same. I was always the guy at school who wanted to be at the back of the class making jokes. But I was always careful that I didn’t want to hurt people, and I think he’s like that. He likes to be the class clown, but he also has a deeper understanding of people’s feelings. He’s a very kind person. And he also likes to piss about.”

Cary says that the more they explored the story of Philby and Elliott, the more personal it became to them. “It’s about our people, posh white men, and how they’ve endangered the country. And that’s what makes it timely. How their friendships, their clubbiness, have endangered the country. ” Like Philby, Cary went to Westminster. “The two characters cared more about themselves and their club and way of life than the country itself.”

Perhaps this explains Lewis’s ambivalence about clubs. Eton is, after all, one of the world’s most elite clubs. “Damian and I have sat in the pub and discussed the benefits of going to Eton and Westminster. You have access to certain things, and there is a comfort zone you can step back into when shit gets rough.” How does Lewis feel about it? “I think he was very grateful for his background. And I feel grateful for mine, but I also feel it’s dangerous to allow it to cage you.”

The thing is, Cary says, the people in politics who are now seen as representative of private-school culture weren’t seen as such when they were at school. “David Cameron and Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg [all of whom went to Eton], these fucking people appear and you go: ‘Wait a minute – when we were at school with you turds, you didn’t represent us.’ We can’t go: ‘Well, we’re not one of them,’ because we clearly are, but we’re embarrassed by them. There’s a fashion now that everybody wants to escape from the posh white man. I think our job is to shine a light on these people.”

Back at the private members’ club, I ask Lewis why Eton has produced so many celebrated actors (Eddie Redmayne, Dominic West, Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie are all alumni). It hasn’t, he says. “As a percentage of people coming out of Eton, there are almost no actors. There’s a little clutch of us who did well. The drama programme at Eton was brilliant. So if you had the talent or inclination, you could do drama 24/7 if you wanted to.”

In 2017, he told the Guardian: “The cut and thrust of a successful school can be very bonding. I was always encouraged to be on teams at sport; I got a lot from that. Would I send my son to Eton? I might.” In the event, he didn’t. “It wasn’t the right thing for my son,” he says now. “We just decided what was best for him.”

Does he worry about the dearth of social mobility in the acting profession? So many successful actors come from privileged backgrounds, while the less well-off struggle to pay their way through college – if they can get there in the first place. Lewis says the most important thing to focus on is where today’s writers come from. “It’s about ensuring people from all different backgrounds are given the confidence to write, and that when they don’t meet with immediate success and financial reward, they’re given a second chance. That’s the only way we’ll get a broad representation of everything we are.”

This is hardly a problem confined to the arts, he says. “It’s true of any self-employed business. How long can you keep it going before you need to make money? Obviously if there’s independent wealth attached to young artists or their families, then they can be supported through the bleak first five or six years, and then they could meet with great success in years seven and eight. A pattern might emerge where people who don’t have that independent money have given up by years seven and eight, so we’ll never know whether they would have been successful or not.”

Lewis likes to talk about politics, but he is less forthcoming than Cary. We are talking before Liz Truss’s resignation, and he makes it clear that he is no fan of the system that allows people to become prime minister without a mandate from the country. “It’s really wild what’s going on. Maybe I’m reading the wrong newspapers, but I haven’t seen a proper debate about changing our constitution so that a ruling party should not be able to remove its leader without having a general election. It really sticks in the craw.”

He looks at his phone. It’s time to leave. His parking space is about to run out, and he’s got to prepare for Manon’s surprise birthday dinner. On our way out, he tells me he plans to tour with the album, which will be released next year. “We’ve got some festivals booked.” Which ones? “Well, we’re hoping for Glastonbury and a couple of others.” Wow, start at the top, I say. “Well, it will be 11 in the morning in a faraway field, I would imagine.” He loves what he’s doing, but he’s not getting ideas above his station, he insists. “I don’t think I’m suddenly a rock star.”

Read the rest of the original article at The Guardian