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Damian Lewis: Man on a Mission

On The Record

by Paul Kirkley | Weekend Magazine | July 27, 2023, Issue #658

Damian Lewis has the acting world at his feet – so why has he stepped out of the comfort zone to release a debut album and take it on tour? He tells Paul Kirkley about the challenge of changing career lanes – and why the first person he needed to convince was himself.

Damian Lewis has a cast-iron excuse for having slept through his 10am appointment with Weekend – he’s been up all night shooting scenes for his latest role as a vampire in supernatural comedy The Radleys. And vampires, famously, are not morning people.

“I shouldn’t really be up now, but I’ve made a special exception for Waitrose,” says the actor, when we finally convene three hours later. He tugs at the curtain to reduce the sunlight that’s streaming into his hotel room – he’s a vampire and a redhead, don’t forget – and apologizes for the mix-up. Having finally got to bed sometime after 4am, the 52-year-old is looking handsomely disheveled, in the midst of a hectic week that’s seen him juggling filming commitments with his new side hustle as a singer-songwriter.

On the Sunday, he’d serenaded the crowd at the British F1 Grand Prix at Silverstone with a jazzed-up rendition of God Save the King (“Great fun,” he says, “but I had to remember to sing ‘King’ because my daughter kept unhelpfully saying God Save the Queen“), followed two days later by a live show at London’s Union Chapel, performing songs from his debut album, Mission Creep.

The title is a wry nod to the record’s roots as a lockdown distraction that kind of got out of hand. “It’s something that evolved quote organically between me and [London jazz scenester] Giacomo Smith, the wonderful musician who produced the album with me,” explains Damian. “It was Giacomo who said, ‘Why don’t you write some of your own songs?’ I’d written songs before, but with no great confidence and no great success – I’m very glad no one’s heard those,” he smiles. “But when I started writing, it just felt very natural. And now we have a record.”

A rather fine record, too – a rootsy blend of folk, jazz, blues, country and rock and roll, Mission Creep has overcome critics’ inbuilt distrust of Hollywood actor vanity projects to win rave reviews. Would he take it the wrong way, Weekend asks Damian, if we said it was surprising how good it is? “No, that’s the best possible response I can hope for at the moment,” he says. “If people are happily surprised with my music, then that’s the first hurdle. It’s tough to convince people you are genuinely a musician – people are suspicious of whether something is authentic, and I’m exactly the same.”

He can see, he says, why it might look like ‘a mini-midlife crisis,’ but he’s not exactly a latecomer to music – a classical guitar scholar who formed his first band as a pupil at Eton, he later busked his way around France and Spain on a motorbike, before getting sidetracked into an acting career.

“I remember a school assembly where they played one of our songs over the Tannoy, he recalls of his first crack at being a rock star. “A good friend of mine cackled so loudly, so ceaselessly, throughout the song, that everyone else started laughing as well. And I just sat there, in the middle of the audience, caught in some horrible, dystopian nightmare. It rocked me, actually,” he admits. “I wasn’t confident enough in that area to just bat it away. Whereas with acting, I could take all the rejections people threw at me.”

Not that there have been too many of those. This is a man who played Hamlet at 23, and whose starmaking turn in Second World War epic Band of Brothers broke the seal on a screen career that’s seen him in constant demand on both sides of the Atlantic. As such, he’s that rare actor who’s as at home inhabiting all-American archetypes – from US Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody in Homeland (which earned him a Golden Globe and an Emmy) to Steve McQueen in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood – as he is playing Henry VIII in Wolf Hall or upper-crust MI6 types such as Nicholas Elliott in ITV’s A Spy Among Friends.

“I sit in a very privileged position as an actor, no question,” he says. “I’ve been lucky enough to work with brilliant people, and been involved with some projects that have really captured the public imagination. And there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do both [acting and singing], of course. But it’s back to that idea of legitimacy, in that we – and I include myself in this – don’t quite trust the people who do both. We don’t quite know what to make of them. And because I’m in the middle of this, I’m sort of muddling through this argument in my head.”

Is he, Weekend asks, suffering from a touch of imposter syndrome? Damian takes a full 18 seconds to consider the question before deciding he probably is. “With each passing gig, and each song, I feel that less and less,” he says. “But to start with, there were definitely one or two moments in the middle of the night. Of wondering whether I’d bitten off more than I could chew. But life is short, and for living, and I feel very happy and comfortable doing it, is the truth.”

It helps that, far from just throwing together a few well-worn standards, Damian Lewis the singer-songwriter actually has something to say. “The truth is that this came out of a time in my life when lots changed in our family, and lots changed in the world,” he reflects, of losing his wife Helen McCrory to breast cancer in April 2021, during the pandemic.

In the days following her death at 52, Damian penned a powerful tribute to Helen – an acclaimed stage and screen star, much loved for her roles in Harry Potter and Peaky Blinders – in The Sunday Times, describing her as ‘a meteor’ whose mission in life had been to ‘spread happiness.’ (During lockdown, the couple had raised £1 million for the FeedNHS charity). Today, for entirely understandable reasons, he doesn’t really want to talk about Helen, but hers is a presence that’s felt throughout Mission Creep.

You and me should be together to the end,’ he sings on the jazzy, soulful Hole in My Roof, while the choice of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon (I’m still in love with  you, I want to see you dance again) as one of the album’s three covers feels freighted with meaning. The record’s musical and emotional centerpiece, though, is She Comes, a gorgeous blend of folk and jazz in which Damian sings of a spirit inhabiting the living world – she comes as a blackbird, she comes as a fox, she sits at the window, she sings from a rock – over washes of rolling, Nick Drake-style piano. She rests in he and she rests in she, he adds in his slightly husky croon (the couple have a teenage son and daughter), while she’s a no, she’s a yes, she’s anybody’s guess recalls affectionate amusement at his wife’s more enigmatic moments.

Is he happy for people to listen to the album and join the dots themselves? “Yeah. A song or a record is a bit like a journal entry, isn’t it? And this one represents…a time,” he says cautiously.  “There are definitely some personal songs on here that reflect the time of life after my wife died. But not all of them. I don’t think it’s a depressing record.”

On the contrary, much of it is positively playful – including the jaunty, boogie-woogie barroom blues of Such a Night and Never Judge a Man by His Umbrella, the latter inspired by the espionage shenanigans of A Spy Among Friends. “I wanted it to be an honest representation of me,” he says. “And I’m not saying I’m the funniest man in the world – but I would struggle to write an album that was entirely devoid of the occasional sideways wink.”

Born in St John’s Wood, London, in 1971, Damian’s family tree on his mother’s side is stuffed with viscounts, baronets and at least one Lord Mayor of London, while his dad, a City Insurance Broker, was from Welsh stock. His parents sent him to prep school in Sussex, then Eton. Weekend asks if the popular perception of Britain’s most famous public school instilling its pupils with a certain entitled confidence has any merit (Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and Dominic West are fellow Old Etonians, to say nothing of wannabe ‘world kings’ like Boris Johnson). “I don’t know,” he says, tersely. “Eton doesn’t interest me much.”

At Guildhall School of Music and Drama, his classmates included Ewan McGregor. “We were all into theatre, and Ewan was just like, ‘I want to be a movie actor!'” he recalls, with a smile. “Then seconds later, he was in Trainspotting.”

Damian’s own screen break came in his late twenties, when Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks cast him as the lead in their $120 million HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. Was he daunted? “Very,” he says. “I was playing an existing all-American hero [Major Dick Winters, who led men of Easy Company – part of the 101st Airborne Division – through Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge], and I’m not American, or particularly heroic. That weighed heavily on me – the responsibility of honouring men who, at the time, were very much alive. I met Major Winters – I went and stayed with him and his wife on their farm in Pennsylvania.”

“I was also waiting for a few digs from my fellow actors when I arrived – ‘who’s the friggin’ Limey they’ve got playing the main role in this thing?’ But they were extremely generous. It was a wonderful life moment and, to avid a cliché, we are a close-knit group.” Is the cliché you’re trying to avoid that you’ve become a real-life band of brothers? “Yeah,” he laughs. “But you write it if you want.”

The show made him a star, and he’s spent the two decades since shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic – most recently to reprise the role, after a two-year-break, of Wall Street shark Bobby Axelrod in the final season of high finance drama Billions. Home in the UK, meanwhile, is a Victorian terrace in London’s Tufnell Park that he and Helen bought off another Old Etonian actor-turned-singer, Hugh laurie.

Your air miles tally must be phenomenal, Weekend suggests. “Are you trying to trap me into disclosing my carbon offsetting?” he asks, mock-offended. “I ride my bicycle a lot, OK? I feel very comfortable in the States. I’ve worked there a lot, and I love going back. But I feel very British. I’m half-Welsh, so I feel like a Briton – I feel Celtic, as well as Saxon. You’re going to be hardpressed to find a Welshman or a Scot who says they’re half-English. But I’m proud to be a mixture of it all. I’m truly a child of these islands.”

After the summer, Damian will be crisscrossing these islands on his first full UK tour, starting in Nottingham on 9 September. He’s not expecting crowds of “screaming 21-year-olds,” he says, just “music lovers and people who are curious.” And if enough people are curious, he hopes – with some justification – that the songs will be enough to win over any doubters.

“It has to be about the music, doesn’t it?” he says. “If the music is good, then hopefully people will listen.”


Weekend: What’s your cooking style?
Damian: I’m not that deft, but I enjoy cooking. Recently I’ve been making a lot of stuff with the kids.

Weekend: What are your go-to dishes?
Damian: We like to do a stir fry, where everyone gets to throw in five ingredients each. It doesn’t always taste like stir fry, but that doesn’t matter. I also make a descent stroganoff and coq au vin. And I love a mackerel Pâté.

Weekend: Tipple of choice?
Damian: A Michter’s bourbon, on the rocks, or a negroni.

Weekend: They’re drinks that suite your music…
Damian: That’s good to hear. I’m glad I didn’t say lager.

Weekend: Which is best – British or American food?
Damian: British. American food is tasteless, mostly. There are some incredible restaurants, of course – like Don Angie and Babbo in New York, or Lilia in Williamsburg. But that sort of mid-range, deli sandwich, counter food is almost entirely tasteless now – it’s like eating cardboard.

Weekend: Italian fare.
Damian: Lilia’s grilled asparagus.

Damian’s debut album Mission Creep was released June 16, 2023 and can be ordered from several outlets here. Damian has announced September/October UK Tour dates here. Don’t miss out, get your tickets now!

‘Mission Creep’ Album – Damian Lewis Music Store (UK) here
‘Mission Creep’ Album – Damian Lewis Music Store (US) here
‘Mission Creep’ Album – Several music services here or Target
‘Down on the Bowery’ – Apple Music, iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, Amazon and more here
‘Zaragoza’ – Pandora, Tidal, Spotify, YouTube, Amazon and more here
‘Makin’ Plans’ – Napster, Pandora, Tidal, Spotify, iTunes, Amazon and more here
‘She Comes’ – Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music and iTunes here

Down on the Bowery


Makin’ Plans

She Comes

Read the rest of the original article at Weekend Magazine