Damian Lewis: Cherwell salutes you

Damian Lewis is making me a cup of tea. Dressed in Ugg boots, a checked shirt and a stylish knit cardigan, he’s every inch the metrosexual, cool guy about town: down with the kids in more ways than one, he has to head off after the interview to read his children a bedtime story.

Famously flame-headed and Eton-educated, Lewis rose to prominence back in 2001 for his portrayal of Major Richard Winters in the hit TV series Band of Brothers, and since then has been most known for his TV and film work, including the series Life and The Forsyte Saga. But Hollywood was not always his dream.

‘At drama school, all my influences were in the theatre, not in film and TV. I remember standing on the prow of a ship one year heading over to Amsterdam with one of my best friends, and talking about how we were going to be the next generation of theatre actors.

‘It was all very romantic – all we wanted was to be at the National, the Donmar, The Royal Court. And romantically theatre still holds a place in my affections, but after Band of Brothers I got invited into this world I knew very little about, and that went on for the next ten years. And the roles I was being offered and the people I was being asked to work with were so exciting that I continued to take work in film and TV, and I look back and wish there’d been more time for theatre.’

Yet Lewis has only regret: ‘foolishly’ turning down a role in Love’s Labour’s Lost to do press for a film (‘not even to do a job!’). He fondly recalls fulfilling his dream of working at the National, ‘bicycling over Westminster Bridge in the dying light, St Paul’s one way, Big Ben the other. But Hollywood bedazzles you, and has its own extraordinary tradition. Some of my biggest heroes are Jack Lennon, Laurel and Hardy, Carey Grant… I’m equally proud of being part of that tradition, but it’s not in me in the same way.’

Having spent a great part of his working life in America, Lewis is well-placed to comment on the differences between the two cultures. ‘There’s been a healthy cross-pollination between US and UK TV, borrowing ideas, recasting and retelling stories with different cultural references.’ He has played an American so often that he has his own American persona. ‘I stay American all day when I’m playing one, I don’t feel comfortable switching accents. When I was living in LA, sometimes I’d wake up and find myself talking American to people subliminally.’ The persona goes beyond the accent too: ‘It affects the way you move, and your response to things.’ I wonder if this ability to sustain multiple personalities is somehow connected to living a life dedicated to acting, a notion the practical Lewis dispels with an infectious laugh: ‘Not in a deep psychological way – I still want to watch “soccer” and get the cricket scores!’

Lewis decided he wanted to be an actor aged 16, when he and friends started a theatre company at school. ‘I’d sort of stopped working by that point and decided I didn’t want to go to university, I was doing lots of sport and acting instead’.

After graduating from drama school he played an extraordinary variety of prestigious roles, including Hamlet in Regent’s Park aged just 23, a job which he claims he was given because he was the only one the director could hear properly.

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I’m not surprised – across the table Lewis’ voice booms out as if his kitchen were a theatre. For a man with numerous fansites dedicated to him, Lewis is remarkably relaxed and chatty, quizzing me about Cherwell as he heats up his own mug of tea in the microwave, a twinkle in his piercing eyes. Yet none of this might have happened, had his big break not come out of the blue.

‘I was just another pale Englishman doing lots of auditions in a damp basement in Soho, when I got called back (for Band of Brothers) four or five times, and then finally I got a call from the producer saying “I want to take you to LA to meet Stephen (Spielberg). Do you have your passport?” And I was like “no, I don’t carry my passport to auditions!” It was a very Hollywood moment.’ He was flown out first class and put up in a fancy hotel before being introduced to Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who he describes as ‘absolutely delightful’.

‘Stephen just wanted to talk about football, and we played around with the script and acted out a few things with me as Dick Winters and Tom Hanks playing everyone else, it was great fun.’ That night, thinking the dream had been fantastic while it lasted, Lewis went out and got blind drunk, getting back at 4am before receiving a call at 8am: ‘Stephen would like to see you.’

‘I went in there shaking with sweaty palms, desperately trying to sober up with three showers and umpteen coffees – but he gave me the job.’ And the rest? ‘Is history’. He laughs. Lewis is confident and self-assured, but there’s not a drop of arrogance in him; he speaks of his successes with an earnest sense of wonder which is very endearing.

Band of Brothers had, as Lewis points out, an inauspicious start, as it was only in its second week of airing when 9/11 struck. ‘That really dented viewing figures: people just didn’t want to see that sort of thing happening on TV when it had just happened in real life.’ Yet they persevered, and the most expensive TV series ever made, with a budget of $125 million, went on to win six Emmys and a Golden Globe. Lewis ascribes its continual success to its immediacy and relevance to people’s lives. ‘It’s very authentic, dripping in sincerity, there’s nothing sensational about it. It had a docu-drama feel to it which people responded to. And they were able to tell intimate stories in an epic arena.’

Before filming Lewis went to meet Dick Winters, the soldier who died earlier this year, on his farm in Hershey, Pennsylvania. He describes the real Winters as ‘quite a difficult man to get to know, withdrawn, not given to long exuberant anecdotes about the war. A brilliant soldier with an extraordinary gift of leadership, and his men loved him’.

After Band of Brothers Lewis received critical acclaim for his performance as Soames Forsyte in The Forsyte Saga series, a role already made famous by Eric Porter.

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‘I didn’t spend too much time looking at the original. I knew it was ground breaking, but I thought we had something so good and so different that it never felt like a remake, but just another pass at a classic. I was quite ready for people to say “he wasn’t as good as Eric Porter”, but I hoped I’d find a way of winning people over’. In 2007 he did another mini-series, Life: ‘I like long-form drama, you can risk being a bit more subversive and intellectually provocative, telling a story over 12 hours instead of two. You get the script about a week in advance, so it’s a bit like reading a novel, which you’re inside’.

I wonder how he chooses his parts, given that after his Band of Brothers success he found himself Hollywood’s flavour of the month and the offers must have come rolling in. ‘It’s just an instinctive feeling about how I think the film will end up looking. There have been films where I’ve known there’s very little hope of its having a longer commercial life, but… art for art’s sake.’

A case in point is his little-known 2004 arthouse film Keane, in which he played a mentally disturbed man trying to come to terms with the abduction of his daughter. ‘Small films are more intimate experiences, you get involved earlier and they’re much more collaborative. I’m frustrated by how difficult it is to get intelligent material made, but success in Hollywood is measured by the dollar, and so many films are aimed at the 15-24 demographic who’ll go and see them multiple times. We put ourselves in a position where we don’t believe there’s an intelligent film-going public.’

Lewis has produced some films of his own, and there’s a sense that the film industry would do well with him in charge: the vestiges of his education shine through as he speaks with measured intelligence, screwing up one side of his face in careful thought.

‘It’s a problem about not having students of film in positions of power – instead there are businessmen who haven’t had a lifelong passion for their industry. Execs in LA come out of business school and say (American accent) “I’d like to be in the movie industry, that’ll be groovy” – and there’s not much more thought gone into it than that.’

Speaking of badly written films, it seems almost too smooth a lead to bring up his latest film, Your Highness, which critic Andrew O’Hehir called ‘the worst film ever made’. I try to disguise it but Lewis acknowledges the natural connection with a pained grimace. ‘Your Highness is a film that on the page was engaging and funny, but they adopted an improvisational approach on set which I think lessened the script. It was a lot of fun to make and there were interesting people involved – but there’s a disparity between what’s fun to do and what’s a worthwhile project when it’s finished. I think it will find its audience.’

The tea has been drunk and the children want their stories. The Ugg boots lead me up the stairs and show me out, and Lewis heads off, leaving the kitchen-stage for the new theatre of the children’s bedroom, where another rapturous audience awaits him. They won’t be disappointed.