Billion dollar roles for Damien Lewis

Following acclaimed performances in Homeland and Wolf Hall, Damian Lewis is now tackling the world of finance, writes Gemma Dunn

Billion dollar roles for Damien Lewis

POWER couple Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory are in their prime. Lewis, the standout TV star best-known for his acclaimed performance as tortured US Marine Nicholas Brody in the Golden Globe-winning Homeland, and his wife of nine years McCrory, who is currently making waves as Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders, are a force to be reckoned with.

But for all their star power, they come across as a very modest duo.

“We’re a working couple, and they’re everywhere now,” 45-year-old Lewis reasons, shunning the logistical nightmare of taking care of two children amid conflicting filming schedules.

“We have it easier than a lawyer couple, for example, because they don’t usually get to choose when and if they work,” he adds.

“Helen and I try to dovetail; we take time off when the other person is working, but it doesn’t always work out. We muddle through, like everyone else.”

When we meet, Lewis is suited and booted in the executive lounge of the London Stock Exchange, where the in-demand actor has just opened the market in celebration of his latest show Billions, a fast-paced drama centred on the ego-driven world of high finance in New York.

Sitting upright, legs crossed casually at the knee, he commands the room with confidence. Much like his character in the series, Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod, he’s not a man who’s fazed by the testosterone-heavy environment of the trading floor.

“There’s a material difference in being a billionaire but, in terms of playing the role, the same process happens every time: one explores character and investigates the truth of the alternative reality that you’ve created,” he says pedantically.

Damian Lewis of new Sky series Billions, and his wife Helen McCrory, who stars as Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders.

Damian Lewis of new Sky series Billions, and his wife Helen McCrory, who stars as Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders.

“Playing a billionaire didn’t change my day-to-day work experience, except that occasionally I found myself on a yacht, helicopter or, strangely, on a $20,000 bicycle!”

Created and written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien [Ocean’s Thirteen], and Andrew Ross Sorkin [Too Big To Fail], Billions tells the story of two financial titans.

There’s Axelrod, a ruthless hedge fund king who rules an empire built on inside information and dirty back room deals, and US Attorney Chuck Rhoades (played by Paul Giamatti), who’s intent on making Axelrod pay for his crimes.

“We have a guy who works for the law — so let’s call him the sheriff, and then we have a guy who is a hedge fund manager, so let’s call him the cowboy, who the sheriff is going to put in jail at some point.

“But given the nature of this kind of show, we see that the sheriff is equally as ambitious and will be as compromised by his ambition as the cowboy is,” Lewis says of the intricate plot. “You have two kings in their kingdoms, if you like: Paul Giamatti and myself. What lengths are they prepared to go to, to win?”

With numerous scripts landing on Lewis’ desk, the draw to tackle the narrative went beyond male bravado.

“A lot has been said about the state of TV at the moment; that the most interesting work is being made there,” explains Lewis, who is currently starring as Hector in the big-screen adaptation of John le Carre’s Our Kind of Traitor.

“I thought Billions was a chance to explore something I think we’ve all learnt a bit about since the 2007/2008 subprime mortgage crisis. It was an opportunity to look at the hedge fund world and dovetail in and out of hard news, which is exactly what Homeland was able to do.

“It’s a piece of mass entertainment, while drawing from serious themes, and I think that’s a sweet spot for a show.” TV becoming more filmic also gives top directors, writers and actors the opportunity to “paint more morally ambiguous characters”, the former Band Of Brothers star contends.

Billions, a 12-part series which has already seen huge success across the pond, has been released in its entirety via Sky Box Sets — a move Lewis credits as “exciting”, in terms of the changing landscape of both the industry and our viewing habits.

“I don’t know about you, but once you’ve had a busy week, coming back to a show a week later, I can barely remember what I watched. I always rely on a recap, so it feels right to be able to sit down and watch four hours in one go. It’s just moving with the times.”

An advocate of choice, Eton- educated Lewis, who started his professional career as a stage actor for the Royal Shakespeare Company, applauds his Wolf Hall co-stars’ standout speeches at the recent Bafta Awards.

Discussing director Peter Kosminsky’s and actor Mark Rylance’s choice to defend the BBC over its threatened independence, he says: “Ideologically, the Conservative Party will always have a problem with an organisation like the BBC, because it’s state-funded and a lot of money goes into it. But we all want to pay our licence fee — it’s what creates the diversity and the responsibility at the BBC to provide variety of programming for all of us. And it’s unique in the world.

“They [Kosminsky and Rylance] said different things but they were both saying the same thing: allow it to flourish, and let’s not have too much governmental involvement.”

And having delved into the world of Wall Street, does he feel bankers should exercise the same freedom?

“The financial sector here in London is one of the big engines. It’s a powerhouse and it must be allowed to thrive, but it would seem that some people have gone back to business as though nothing has happened,” Lewis reasons, before adding with a glint...

“Let the straight players play, and weed out the crooks.”

  • Billions can be seen on Sky Atlantic on Thursdays, or all 12 episodes are available now on Sky Box Sets

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