Damian Lewis Shines in A Spy Among Friends
by Benji Wilson | Emmy Magazine, Issue #7 | June 28, 2023
As the unwitting accomplice to one of Britain’s most notorious traitors, Damian Lewis shines in A Spy Among Friends.
When Alexander Cary, an executive producer on Homeland, called his old friend Damian Lewis, star of Homeland and Billions, and said he had the rights to Ben Macintyre’s nonfiction bestseller A Spy Among Friends, the question wasn’t, did Lewis want to do it —the question was, who might Lewis play?
The obvious answer was Kim Philby, the most notorious Soviet double agent in history, who rose high in the ranks of British intelligence in the 1940s and ’50s while funneling secrets to the Russians. But Lewis was more interested in playing Nicholas Elliott.
“Although Philby is the rock star — he’s the brilliant, charismatic, urbane…well, traitor — I wanted to play the guy that we knew less about, his best friend. Elliott’s tragic arc is that because of his adoration and love for Philby, he facilitated his treachery over thirty years. He kept excusing him, kept defending him every time it seemed like Philby would be exposed.”
A Spy Among Friends, a six-episode limited series on MGM+, tells the latter part of Elliott and Philby’s story, when Elliott of all people was sent to Beirut to interrogate his old friend (played by Guy Pearce) and bring him back to London. It’s giving nothing away to say that he failed — Philby defected to Russia in 1963 — but the show chronicles Elliott’s emotional turmoil after that betrayal.
“When I first started looking at Nicholas Elliott,” Lewis says, “I thought, ‘You’re just a blundering, upper-class twit. Why were you unable to see what was right in front of your very eyes?'”
But on reflection Lewis recognized a negligence rooted in the British class system. “I think he was blinded by the code, the code of people who are members of the same clubs, went to the same schools, wear the same ties. They look at their friends and feel like they’re seeing exact representations of themselves. Why question that status quo? Why challenge it?”
Lewis was himself educated at Britain’s elite Eton College, alma mater of Elliott and much of Britain’s aristocracy and ruling class. He notes that Boris Johnson, David Cameron and several other architects of Britain’s current travails are of similar pedigree.
“It’s very interesting how in Britain people from that background and those kinds of schools have been politically very prominent in just the last ten years suddenly, again,” he says. “And it’s been a bit of a mess. Our story is set sixty years ago, but I would say these things remain relevant, always.”
This year’s first-round Primetime Emmy nominations ballot includes a total of 51 Best Limited Series contenders. Voting members of the television academy had until June 26, 2023 to cast their 2023 Emmy Awards nominations. The official nominees will be announced Tuesday, July 12, 2023. All those involved in the A Spy Among Friends project are hopeful for a nomination!
The 75th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will be broadcast live on Monday, September 18, 2023 at 8:00 pm ET/7:00 CST/5:00 pm PT.
Source: Emmys/Television Academy