Acting: A Leap of Faith
by Bryan Appleyard | The Sunday Times | April 11, 2015
It’s not carroty red, but it is indisputably red. I’m no reddist, but I still feel we need to get this out of the way — after all, he has bravely tackled this fraught subject in the past.
“People find it very difficult to be indifferent to red hair,” he once said. Emboldened, I plunge in.
“So, Damian Lewis, what is it about red hair?”
“Well, I was never bullied at school because of it. I was lucky because I was sporty, and I had status and profile within the school [Eton]. Now I get letters from children who get teased about their red hair and they ask how I managed.”
Having survived childhood unscathed, it wasn’t until he found himself working with the Royal Green Jackets on the television drama Warriors that he first endured the full force of institutional reddism in the military — “I experienced witty and scatological abuse all around, being a redhead.”
Times have changed, however; red rights are widely accepted. Maybe he is destined to be the redheads’ Martin Luther King. “The redhead stock is very high at the moment. This might be a unique moment in recent history: redheads everywhere are doing well — Prince Harry, Ed Sheeran, Julianne Moore, me, Lily Cole…”
Damian Lewis gets the royal treatment in ‘Wolf Hall’
Homeland veteran Damian Lewis transforms into King Henry VIII in PBS Masterpiece’s six-part Wolf Hall—it premiered April 5
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you think British people know the story of Henry VIII better than Americans?
Damian Lewis: In terms of brand recognition, Henry is right up there with Coca-Cola. But people think they know all about him—that he had six wives, that he was inclined to cut their heads off when he didn’t get what he wanted. What we see in Wolf Hall is much like the books: very quiet, very still. Very political. It’s much more House of Cards than Game of Thrones.
Had you read Wolf Hall before signing on to the series?
Yes, and I loved it. I just love this intimate peek behind closed doors, at a part of Tudor history we think we know. Hilary’s inventiveness and her imagination and the psychological tickings of these characters are great. And it’s been so much fun to act—it’s fun to alter some perceptions.
When Damian Lewis was summoned to Buckingham Palace to receive his OBE — awarded for services to acting — he decided to treat himself to a new morning suit.
He hadn’t worn one since his school days at Eton, where it is the uniform, but as he would be receiving his honour from Prince William, himself an Old Etonian, he thought it would be an appropriate reminder. ‘I had it made by a Jermyn Street tailor called Favourbrook, but as I’d spent five years at Eton wearing a black morning suit, I had my new one made up in blue material,’ he says.
‘And when I met the Duke of Cambridge at the Palace, I told him: ‘I hope you don’t mind that this is navy blue, Your Royal Highness — I didn’t want you to think I was just showing up in my old school uniform.’ And, quick as a flash, he said (ever the actor, Damian tightens his jaw and drops into a perfect imitation of the clipped royal tones): ‘Well, I should think that would be a bit tight for you by now, wouldn’t it!’
‘And then he stuck the medal on my chest and said, ‘Nice to see you, Damian, we’re great fans, Catherine and I.’ And off I trotted home.
‘Now I’ve been given a gong, I feel like I have been made a school prefect, so I can’t misbehave.’
Not that the impeccably mannered and well-brought-up Lewis is likely to stray off the straight and narrow. If he has a problem, he says, it is his children realising that their father and mother, actress Helen McCrory, are, well, a bit different to other parents due to their day jobs. ‘The street posters don’t make things easy. There was one huge hoarding of me to advertise my TV thriller series Homeland near our home in London.
‘We drive the children to school and it’s only a ten-minute journey, but there’s always a jam at the same traffic light every morning — you know, that achingly frustrating 15 minutes when you’re stuck in traffic trying to travel 100 yards to get your kids to school.
‘Of course, the jam would have to be opposite this 40ft-wide poster of me that was there for about six months.
‘I kept distracting the children from it by changing the radio and talking about anything I could think of, and for three months it worked. Then one morning, my son Gulliver looked up and said: ‘Dad! There’s a huge picture of you on the wall!’ ‘
It was, he admits, the conversation he and Helen had been trying with all their might to avoid.
He says: ‘The children know what Helen and I do for a living, because they come on film sets and meet the crew. They don’t really understand what acting is, because what on earth does acting mean to a child — or to anyone, quite frankly?
‘We tell them we are storytellers because that’s something they understand, that we get paid to tell stories and that makes us very lucky. But very occasionally, one of them will look at me and say, ‘You’re famous, aren’t you Dad?’ And that’s a conversation we try to move on from, it isn’t healthy for anyone.’
It is a subject that will only become more difficult to avoid as far as Damian’s children, Manon, nine, and Gulliver, eight, are concerned.
In the past decade and a half, between being cast as the upright Richard Winters in Band Of Brothers, the grasping Soames in The Forsyte Saga, the conflicted Nicholas Brody in Homeland and, most recently, Henry VIII in Wolf Hall — ‘looking like a beautiful big bumble bee,’ he notes, affectionately — Damian has been a part of some of television’s most visible and successful series.
Now he’s about to hit the small screen again in Billions, a drama series set in the world of New York high finance, in which he will play ruthless hedge fund dealer Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod, who clashes with U.S. attorney Chuck Rhoades (played by Paul Giamatti) in a 12-episode battle of wits that reputedly will make Homeland look like a vicar’s tea party.
It is likely to be screened in the UK early next year.