MrPorter, May 2012
Meet the star of the hit show that’s had us all – including President Obama – on the edge of our seat.
Photograph by Kurt Iswarienko
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Damian Lewis needs no convincing that Homeland is a huge hit, perhaps even a career high. It’s not just the critical praise or the awards, or even his own Best Actor nomination at the Golden Globes last year. It’s because in March, he was invited to the White House state dinner, along with George Clooney and David Cameron.
“I thought we were going to be sitting by the kitchen or something,” he says. “Next to the revolving door that would repeatedly hit us on the back of the head, as waiters came in and out.” He slaps the back of his head to demonstrate. “But when we got to the marquee on the South Lawn we found that out of 396 people at this dinner, we had been put at the President’s table. I was opposite Obama. He said Homeland’s his favorite show.”
Mr Lewis plays the troubled marine Sergeant Brody, who returns home from Iraq a national hero, after years of torture. But was he indoctrinated there, is he a terrorist now? An equally troubled CIA agent (Claire Danes) wants to find out. It’s the kind of intricate, high-stakes drama that raises the bar on what’s possible on television – the first show to capture America’s conflicted feelings about the war on terror.
“I knew we were doing something a bit better than your average TV show or movie for that matter,” he says. “But there was no telling the way in which it touched a chord. People get a strange thrill out of being made to feel anxious and worried!”
We meet in Los Angeles, under a bridge downtown, like the Chili Peppers song. Only in this case, we’re on a cosy tour bus eating chips and salsa, with a couple of Newcastle Brown Ales on the go.
“Well, you’ve got to don’t you,” he says, looking at his wrist. “It’s beer o’clock!”
To be fair, the drink’s well earned. He’s spent the day getting his picture taken in various outfits all over town, and it’s the first day of the Occupy protests so traffic has been murder. But Mr Lewis is in good spirits. Life is sweet these days, as he tells me more than once. Besides, he likes a spot of fashion.
“I like that 1960s Mad Men thing that’s going on,” he says. “Equally I can get a bit Burt Reynolds if I wear the right shirt – a few too many buttons undone. It’s not a good look but I just can’t avoid it happening!”
He’s only in town for a week – a flying visit. Home is Islington, London, with his wife, the actress Helen McRory, and their two young children, Manon (4) and Gulliver (5). They live in Hugh Laurie’s old house, in fact, another Englishman who’s doing rather well on American television.
“Yes, that’s how it works. You’ve got to be English on a popular show and then you get to sell each other property,” he grins. “There’s an app.”
But he’s more than familiar with Los Angeles at this point. He was introduced to the city by Tom Hanks of all people. He was cast as the lead in Band of Brothers in 2000, a ten part miniseries that Hanks produced, about a real-life army division in World War II. It was the biggest break of his career by far. How did he get the part?
“That’s what President Obama asked me! He thought it was because I looked like the guy I was playing. So I made a joke – I said, ‘no Mr President it was because of my outstanding leadership qualities and moral probity’. And he wasn’t sure for a minute – he was like, ‘who the fuck is this guy?’”
In truth, it was classic good fortune – “a needle in the haystack piece of casting,” he says. “I’m very lucky.” And it established a theme in his career. Mr Lewis has always done well with military roles. He looks the part with his short red hair and chiseled features. He even speaks with a Sergeant Major’s forthright and declarative style.
“It’s not like I come from a military family or anything,” he says. “My dad did National Service in the 50s, but he wasn’t very good at it. He lost his platoon in the woods.”
He grew up on Abbey Road, just down from the famous zebra crossing. And his upbringing was traditional, in the upper-middle class sense. His parents sent him off to boarding schools from the age of 8, including Eton. “If you split everyone up into ‘posh’ and ‘not posh’, I’d end up in the ‘posh’ lot,” he says. “But in some ways I’ve rejected it by choosing to do what I do.”
Rather than go to university, he went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Ewan McGregor, Daniel Craig and Joseph Fiennes. He wanted to be “an important theater actor”, at first, and duly earned his chops with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theater. But that didn’t last. “It became clear that friends of mine were doing well in the world of high end TV and movies,” he says. “The curiosity just overwhelmed me.”
Certainly he has never looked back. After Band of Brothers, the offers poured in. And top of the list was this lead in a Stephen King movie with Morgan Freeman, an $80 million blockbuster. So he jumped at the chance. And it tanked horribly, not least because it involved aliens exploding out of people’s backsides.
“That was why I took the movie!” he laughs. “All you need for Dreamcatcher is a big spliff, a nice comfy sofa and a bag of popcorn.”
At the time, it was a bit of a blow. “I was a young 30, very much on my own and a long way from home. We shot in Vancouver for five months, and I mostly just sat in my hotel room on rainy days not knowing anyone. I think it scared me off a bit.”
Better movie experiences would follow – Keane in 2004, in which he plays a man who loses his daughter, and The Escapist, both did well. And he still takes the occasional movie role – this year, he plays supporting roles in Romeo and Juliet and The Sweeney.
But television is where Mr Lewis has shone, on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, there was the 2002 remake of The Forsyte Saga. And a few years later he was offered the lead in Life, a big NBC show back in Los Angeles. It was a period of flux all round. He’d just had a baby and bought his house in Islington, and he wasn’t sure what to do. So he called Hugh Laurie.
“I’d never met him, I just asked his advice because he was doing so well in LA with House. And he said, ‘it’s lovely working out here, you should take the job and good luck’.” He laughs. “He was lying through his teeth!”
Life turned out to be a hard slog. For two years, he worked 70 hour weeks, often finishing up at 4am. And it was harder for his wife, with first one baby and then a second in a foreign country, albeit a sunny, beachy one.
Homeland, however, is a different story – he’s off to shoot Season Two in a fortnight, but it’s in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the east coast, the city that doubles as a location for Washington DC.
“It’s great. I’m closer to home. And I don’t have to work so hard, because it’s more of an ensemble cast. So I just jump on a plane if I get a few days off. And the kids can come out and see me for the summer holidays, jumping in and out of the pool all day.”
He polishes off his beer. “It’s perfect, basically. All I have to do is get the acting right – make sure I’m not the tosser that lets it all down!”