Making it big on the small screen

It’s been a slow and steady rise to stardom for Damian Lewis. But now he’s hit the jackpot with an Emmy win for his role in Homeland. He talks to Craig McLean about fame, fatherhood and fan clubs.

Making it big on the small screen

DAMIAN Lewis opens our conversation with a sheepish mention of his ardent admirers. “I’ve a set of fans who call themselves — you’re not allowed to laugh — Damian Bunnies.”

Their name seems to be a reference to those other coppertop characters, the Duracell Bunnies. They have been following him since his 2001 breakthrough in Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed Second World War series Band of Brothers and “they’re absolutely lovely. In the end, I realised they knew so much about me, I let two of them run a fan site”.

A decade on from Band of Brothers, Lewis, 41, had a busy, successful and cleverly below-the-radar career on both sides of the Atlantic — until his Emmy win for Homeland last month. Now, with a gold statuette under his arm, he is really set for the big time. But it was a long time coming.

“You want to do something that feeds you and that is stimulating and challenging to you. It makes your time more interesting.” But such an approach makes for a professional progression with “a slower burn. No question. No question,” he repeats. “Associations are the quickest way forward in this business. Not what role you played but who you worked with — what company you keep.”

It has to be said that Lewis has done all right by forswearing the showier roles. His head and heart lay with Britain’s theatre tradition. On graduating from London’s Guildhall in 1993, Lewis quickly enjoyed notable successes on stage, with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Hamlet on Broadway in 1995, and in a National Theatre production of Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community. But following Band of Brothers, television has been the platform for his greatest work.

He excelled in the 2002 remake of The Forsyte Saga and in the American drama Life (he played a wrongly imprisoned detective in the show, which ran for two seasons from 2007). And the past six months have seen his small-screen success scale new heights.

In Homeland, made by the American cable channel Showtime, Lewis plays Sergeant Nick Brodie, a Marine who disappeared while serving in Iraq eight years previously. Liberated by US forces and returned home to a country that had long thought him dead, Brodie is greeted as a hero — by his brothers in arms, by a government keen for a propaganda victory in the never-ending war on terrorism, and by his wife and two children.

But there are complications and suspicions. Brodie’s wife, believing she was actually a widow, has begun a not-so-covert relationship with one of her husband’s closest comrades. His military buddies wonder why he won’t wrap himself more tightly in the flag and play the patriotic let’s-kill-us-some-terrorists card. And CIA Middle East analyst, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), is convinced that, in his eight years in isolated captivity, Brodie has been ‘turned’ by his jailers.

Homeland’s intriguing central proposition is this: what if jihadists had allowed the PoW to be discovered and liberated so he could return to his homeland, and thereafter set in motion the greatest terrorist outrage committed on American soil since 9/11? “I thought it was ambitious and controversial to suggest that an American Marine — who is as great a symbol, a defender of their belief systems and freedom, as anything else — might possibly betray his country,” Lewis says.

Amplifying the intrigue are the fractured psychological states of Brodie and Mathison. The CIA agent is as damaged as she is brilliant, suffering from a career-blotting incident in Baghdad and a bipolar disorder she keeps hidden from her superiors. This dovetailing of the lead characters’ emotional states increased his enthusiasm for the part. “They both suffer from extreme trauma and this recklessness is what brings them together.”

The American producers of Homeland, Howard Gordon (24) and Alex Gansa (Entourage), offered Lewis the role, without an audition, over the phone while he was in Manchester filming the child-trafficking TV drama Stolen. They had seen him in the title role of Keane (2004), a brilliant and cruelly neglected independent film about a man searching for his missing daughter.

“In Keane, Damian holds the frame for the first 45 minutes of the movie all on his own,” Gansa says. “It was just such a bravura performance. It also was about a very disturbed and troubled person, which obviously Brodie is, so we thought he’d be perfect for the role.”

Throughout his 20s Lewis worked steadily. But he was 30 before Band of Brothers brought him headline success. His vivid portrayal of the real-life hero Major Dick Winters in the Spielberg and Tom Hanksproduced HBO series still reverberates to this day, not only for the Damian Bunnies, but for the military families he regularly meets while filming in the US.

Lewis tells a story of shooting an episode of Homeland in a Presbyterian church. The minister’s son was in the US Army, and had just returned to Afghanistan for a second tour, “and he was struggling mentally with his time there”. He asked if Lewis might film a video message to send to his soldier son. “He wrapped his arms around me, squeezed me tight, and we both looked at the camera and I just said, ‘Hello, what you’re doing out there is extraordinary, thank you so much. And I hope you get home soon’. And this father, his eyes were filled with tears. Band of Brothers brings a sort of a terrifying responsibility, and it’s also been very moving.”

It must be freighted with deep personal memories for Lewis, too. His mother was killed in a car crash in India in 2001. In the year of his breakout success, when he was suddenly thrust into the spotlight, he was also coping with crushing private anguish.

“Well, it was a lot to take in,” he says slowly. “It was a transforming year or two, definitely.” Another pause. “And it is a shame that my mum isn’t around to see more of it. That’s all. Because she was the proudest hen in the coop.”

Lewis met his wife Helen McCrory a couple of years later, around the time the actors appeared in Five Gold Rings (2003) at London’s Almeida Theatre. Michael Attenborough, who directed the play, remembers Lewis as a brilliant stage actor.

‘When he walks on stage he has a kind of energy inside him. People give it fancy names like presence and charisma, but they’re posh names for energy. Damian walks on and you know something is going to happen. There’s something inside him that’s combustible and energised.”

Attenborough also recalls the emotional intensity between his two leads. “I could have warmed my hands on it,” he laughs. “It was like directing a fire.

They were playing two characters who shouldn’t be falling in love with each other — he was falling in love with his brother’s wife. And Damian and Helen were incredibly sexy together. I wouldn’t want to suggest that the only time you get sexy performances from people is when they fancy each other, but I’m absolutely sure it did us no harm.”

I ask Lewis if he and his wife would like to act together again. “Yeah, definitely. I have a pipe dream of maybe running one of the smaller theatres in town. So, yeah, there are lots of notions running around.”

Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) understands where such ‘notions’ come from. He directed Lewis in The Escapist (2008), and they have a production company, Picture Farm, which produced The Baker (2007), directed by Lewis’s brother, Gareth. “Damian approaches a role from all sorts of different angles,” Wyatt says.

‘He’s like a sponge, he takes everything in. He has a very good insight into both his character and his place within the story. And nine times out of 10 an actor like that normally turns out to be a very good director.”

Today at least, though, Lewis deflates such ambitions. ‘You know what I’ll end up doing probably? Just bringing up my kids. Which will get in the way of all that. I’m being glib but I’m not really — it takes a lot to get you out of the house I find now, once you have children. You’ve got to be committed to a project.”

For Lewis, that means more Homeland, and a new film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet written by the Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. More importantly, it also means giving McCrory a chance to follow her career.

“There’s an unwritten if not unspoken — bloody hell,” he smiles, “much spoken about deal that if I was going to go and do Homeland for five months, then for the next seven months of the year, I’d be at home. And I will try to honour that.” Another grin. “I’ll fail of course.”

Talk of his domestic arrangements sparks another anecdote. “We bought Hugh Laurie’s house, totally coincidentally — I’ve never met him,” he adds with laugh. “It wasn’t directly from him; he’d been there two owners previously.”

At the time, Lewis was about to re-locate to LA to film Life. Laurie was there filming the medical drama House, and well on his way to becoming the highest-paid actor on television. Lewis thought the ‘serendipity’ was too powerful to ignore.

He would value the advice of a British actor who had blazed a trail in US TV so successfully. He asked his agent to investigate whether Laurie might be available to speak to him on the phone.

“Hugh was really lovely. I asked him what it was like doing a [US TV series] and he was realistic about how hard it was, but how fantastic the quality of the work is if you end up on something good. So, really, based on my conversation with Hugh, I took Life, and went to LA. I’ve still never met him in the flesh.”

And now, five years on, Lewis finds himself once again doing the transatlantic commute, in a hit American cable show that combines the political intrigue of The West Wing with the pulse-quickening drama of 24.

“It’s hard being away. Anything over three weeks is hard when your kids are that small.”

But if he’s forced to endure familial separation for months on end, at least he’s doing it for an award-winning, ratingstrumping quality drama. The money’s nice, too

. “Yeah, as the Americans would say,” Lewis says, smiling and sliding into his impeccable Stateside accent, “it’s a high-class problem.”

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