The Homeland alum relied on two decades of invaluable Hollywood lessons to tackle lead roles in a pair of new television projects, BBC Two’s period drama Wolf Hall and Showtime’s high-finance pilot Billions.
When Damian Lewis faced the press on Jan. 19, for the first time since he was killed off Showtime’s Homeland in December 2013, the 43-year-old still bore an uncanny resemblance to Sgt. Nicholas Brody, thanks to his close-cropped hair, rigid posture, and clean-shaven face. But it quickly became clear that, on the inside, he couldn’t be more different than the man who signed on to the series in 2011.
Thanks to Homeland, Lewis — who calls himself an “autodidact” — was afforded some incredibly unique learning experiences. “I love doing projects where there’s something to be learned,” Lewis told BuzzFeed News, sitting at the far end of a long, empty dining room table of an ornate hotel conference room in Pasadena, California. To properly bring Brody to life, he studied the Qur’an and learned about the Islamic faith and the experiences of U.S. Marines deployed in Afghanistan. “The wonderful thing about acting is you can be on a 40-year university course.”
But Lewis has also grown through the wisdom gleaned from his own professional mistakes — again, most recently through his role on Homeland, for which he won an Emmy Award in 2012.
Lewis’ character, Nicholas Brody — an American prisoner of war who was rescued and returned home a changed man (not so spoiler alert: He was a sleeper agent for the enemy) — was not designed to remain on the series indefinitely. But when the show clicked with critics and fans took a shine to Brody’s burgeoning relationship with CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), the creators’ initial plan was scrapped. But by the third season, many viewers had grown weary of the duo’s increasingly operatic romantic entanglements and the character was, as initially planned, killed off in a brutal and shocking death scene.
“He had to go,” Lewis said, without hesitation. “When I took the show, I was really of the understanding I would only be there for two years. I stayed for a third season because TV rollover came into play: ‘This is our show and we can’t get rid of him.’ I think the one area of the story the writers weren’t clear would work was this relationship. So when it worked, they were ambushed by success of that central storyline and they had a problem because people were now tuning in to see this relationship.
“We set out to make a different drama: a show about the flawed characters at the center of a flawed central intelligence agency that is protecting the interests of a flawed country in the name of a flawed idea — which is called democracy — against a bunch of radical, violent people. This was our big central idea and [then we had] people tuning because they want to see if these people are going to get together or not.”
A Brody-less Season 4 of Homeland premiered in October 2014 to promising reviews, as hopeful critics noted the show looked to be returning to its roots. That promise paid off — in spades — as Homeland experienced a complete creative resurrection. “I think they did a brilliant job of just extricating themselves, tiptoeing away from the situation,” Lewis said of the fourth season, which went on to earn rave reviews. “What they’ve been able to do in Season 4 is get back to the nuts and bolts of the CIA and this great, brilliant, flawed character, the manic-depressive at the center of it all.”
Homeland’s presence is still felt in Lewis’ life. “It can be aggressive, that kind of adulation,” he said, crossing his arms and leaning back in his chair. “People can go a little bit crazy, so there’s quite a lot of manhandling in the streets. Now I know what it must have been like to be Brad Pitt for an entire lifetime, ever since he did that scene in Thelma and Louise where he took his top off — I’m straight and that scene did it for me as well. There’s a very small group of people who have lived at that elevation and at times it was overwhelming, but I’ve enjoyed slightly calmer waters subsequently.”