The British actor reflects on portraying American history in Band of Brothers and weighs in on President Obama’s comment on Lewis’ latest star vehicle, Showtime’s Peabody Award-winning drama series Homeland.
Actor Damian Lewis
Tavis: Damian Lewis is a talented actor who first gained notoriety with American audiences in his role on the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers.” He now stars in one of TV’s most critically acclaimed projects, “Homeland.”
The Peabody-winning series is back in September on Showtime for its much-anticipated second season. Here now, a scene from “Homeland.”
Tavis: So last night I’m on the plane flying back to Los Angeles and I’m reading the new issue of “Rolling Stone,” and Jann Wenner, the publisher, has an interview with President Obama.
I like Jann Wenner, but I think his interview kind of missed the mark. There’s some questions he should have asked that he didn’t of the president in his interview. But I gleaned from that article, the president tells Jann Wenner that his favorite TV show is “Homeland.”
Damian Lewis: That’s true. Then he spoke extensively about me in it?
Tavis: How much he loves you.
Lewis: No. (Laughter)
Tavis: How you sat at his table at the state dinner.
Lewis: I’ve got to get this on –
Tavis: No, no, no, but he says in interviews, he says, “I love ‘Homeland.'” He says he watches it all the time.
Lewis: I think it was Maureen Dowd who broke it in a “New York Times” op-ed and funnily enough, when I went to the White House they went, “Yeah, Maureen broke that. She wasn’t supposed to.” She slipped it into her article. Then from that moment on, now I’m – yeah, it became quite the chat, that the president was watching our show.
I asked him about it, actually, because I extraordinarily was sitting at the same table as him at his White House dinner. It was the state dinner for David Cameron. I said, “When do you guys get time to watch TV? You’re supposed to be running the free world.” (Laughter)
He said, “Michelle, Saturday afternoons, she takes the kids out, they go play tennis. I do a little bit of work at home and sometimes I don’t do so much work and I switch on the TV and I watch ‘Homeland.'” Because he doesn’t watch it with the girls, he says. He says that’s not –
Tavis: Well, presidents need entertainment, too. They need down time.
Lewis: Oh, yeah, it’s great. Saturday afternoon, that’s when he’s catching up.
Tavis: Was that your first state dinner?
Lewis: It was my – yeah. (Laughter) I think it was my last as well. (Laughter)
Tavis: Well, if you’re only going to go one time, sitting at the president’s table is a big deal. So what did you think of the way we do state dinners here?
Lewis: Oh my God, it was unbelievable. There were 390 people. Helen, my wife and I, we looked at our table card, it said, “table 20.” I said, well, that’s okay, we’ll be by the toilets. That’s okay, and the revolving door will hit us on the head repeatedly as people come in and out the kitchen.
But we sat down and it was weirdly, it was like a social occasion. It was very informal, apart from the fact that it was ostensibly formal. We were in black tie, and of course it was a lot of hullaballoo.
But once you were sat down, the tables were very mixed and Mr. Warren Buffett on my left, and the president told a very entertaining story about giving him one of his ties when Mr. Buffett went to have a meeting with him, because the tie was a bit tattered and torn. (Laughter)
He went into his closet, gave him one of his own ties, and said, “There you go, Warren.” When you come and have dinner, come to a meeting with the president of the United States, you need to have a proper tie on.
So it was all very jovial and relaxed and sort of anecdotal. Clearly, nothing of any sort of national interest was going to be discussed in front of me or anybody else, so it’s set up that way. But his charisma is unbelievable. He’s –
Tavis: So how’d you keep your head? You’re sitting between Buffett and Obama.
Lewis: It’s the first time in my life I – people say they pinch themselves. When was the last time you pinched yourself? No one pinches themselves. But I pinched myself under the table, literally, just as the president came to sit down at the table.
I was already sitting next to Mr. Buffett. He was giving his little speech. My wife was just opposite me on the other side, next to the vice chief of the armed forces, and the chief of staff of the armed forces.
I pinched my thighs. I had bruises on my thighs. (Laughter) Just going, “Oh my God.”
Tavis: Are you at all a political person?
Lewis: Yeah. Yes, as much as I live in a democracy and I take an interest and want the right people leading the country. But you reach a certain level in what you do. You get lobbied quite a lot by whichever party is in power. You get invited to little dinner and things like that, and you have to be careful. I’ve been careful, at least, not to nail my colors to the mast too much.
Tavis: I’ll come back to “Homeland” in a second, but it’s impossible to talk about your career, as I said a moment ago, without talking about “Band of Brothers” and how that exposed you to this audience Stateside.
When you look back on that work now, with some years in the rearview mirror, what do you make of that particular series? The work itself, number one, and number two, what it did for your career?
Lewis: Well, it was – I was a needle in a haystack piece of casting. They looked everywhere, Australia, London, New York and L.A., and it just emerged that I was going to be the guy to play this leader of men, this heroic sort of national treasure.
A lot of people didn’t know about him, of course, at this point, unless you’re a history buff, and it really brought to public attention the achievements of Easy Company, and in particular Major Richard Winters, who led these men and was respected and loved by them.
But it was my first time playing an American, and I played it, I guess, convincingly enough for people many years later to still be shocked when they would meet me and I would be speaking in an English accent. So that was very gratifying, and it was just a – we have “Band of Brothers” reunions every year. We feel like we went to war in some way ourselves, in the trenches for nine months, filming this thing and recreating the story.
We became friendly with the veterans that were still alive, and there’s been an unusually close bond between them and us, and then in turn between us, the actors that portrayed their story. I don’t want to give the impression it was anything like war; it wasn’t. But it was a tough shoot, and it was an enjoyable shoot, and really, and didn’t have an auspicious start, because the second episode came out in the week of 9/11.
Tavis: I remember this, yeah.
Lewis: This is a very gritty, real depiction of war, “Band of Brothers,” and people didn’t want to see that when it was happening for real in their backyard, in this country in particular. They had to work hard to sort of generate a momentum and an enthusiasm for it after that, which they did, and I’m just very lucky and very proud to be part of it.
Tavis: For those who don’t know your acting back story, your life’s back story, give me the thumbnail sketch of who Damian Lewis is before we get to know him in “Band of Brothers.”
Lewis: Before you choose. Yeah, well, I grew up in London, Abbey Road, a few hundred meters down from the Abbey Road crossing. So I’m used to seeing graffiti go up on that wall outside EMI Studios every year, and then a guy come along and paint it, and it looking beautiful for three months, and then –
Tavis: But you weren’t doing the graffiti, though?
Lewis: No, it’s spray can. (Laughter) My tag’s somewhere else. Under the railway bridges of West London. I had a private education, private schooling education, a boarding school education.
Then I did not go to university, where it would have been expected of me to go, because I was at one of those kinds of schools, but I went straight to drama school, to where – and we have a lot of, our drama schools are more like what you would call a conservatory here, so like Julliard or something.
They’re rare here. At home there are more of them. So you go and get a formal three-year training, and I came out and I did the Royal Shakespeare Company and I performed on Broadway in Ray Fiennes’ “Hamlet.” I’ve done classical theater, so I’ve played Hamlet myself, and Romeo.
I really did that for seven or eight years, and then “Band of Brothers” happened when I was 28, 29 years old, and as I say, they didn’t know me from Adam, and that sort of transformed things for me. Then I was mixing TV and film roles with theater roles, and it’s been like that ever since.
I’ve worked with extraordinary people, like Morgan Freeman twice, and Robert Redford and Jennifer Lopez and Larry Kazdan and Lodge Kerrigan and Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. I’ve been very, very lucky.
Tavis: I’m just laughing. I’m not – I’m laughing, I’m not trying to –
Lewis: I’ll (unintelligible) here.
Tavis: – I’m not casting aspersion on her, but you went from Morgan Freeman to Steven Spielberg, you threw JLo in the middle of that? (Laughter) Something don’t fix, something just don’t fit in that mix, but I’ll leave that alone.
Lewis: Oh, it was something about the JLo sweatpants she wore every morning.
Tavis: I love you, JLo, I love you. I just – that just didn’t quite fit for me, but I digress on that point.
For those who have not seen the show, tell me about your character.
Lewis: Nicholas Brody is a U.S. Marine sergeant who is not already in the Army when 9/11 occurs. He signs up out of a sense of duty, and within six months of being abroad is taken hostage. He’s in Iraq, and spends the next eight years of his life in captivity.
I think the assumption is that for the first two or three years of that time he is systematically tortured, physically and mentally, and then there’s some kind of strange transition happens where he becomes a prisoner under house arrest and he becomes involved in this terrorist warlord’s family, and he becomes a sort of tutor-like figure to his son. He becomes a Muslim.
He returns, he’s found and returned to the U.S. as a hero, and everyone believes this to be true, apart from this maverick, brilliant, but also damaged herself CIA agent, played by Claire Danes, who thinks she has word that he might be something else and that he might be a clear and present danger to homeland security.
That’s the premise for the show, and we discover over the next 12 hours who’s right – in some measure, we discover that. Season two, will just continue the intrigue.
Tavis: Well, it’s working on a lot of different levels, and to your point, people are responding. My time is up, but I’m a huge James Bond fan and I keep up with all things Bond, so I figure James Bond could be blonde with Mr. Craig; I guess he could also be a redhead with Mr. Lewis. (Laughter)
I keep reading these blogs and things that if there’s going to be another change in the “Bond” series that you’re on the short list; at least you’re on a lot of people’s short list. So I ask, if ever offered to play James Bond, would you accept?
Lewis: I don’t believe you’ve asked me that. That’s the $60 million question. (Laughter)
Tavis: Would you accept?
Lewis: Oh, if you knew how many times I’ve played James Bond in my mirror, and how – if only you knew. (Laughter)
Tavis: Well, I think you could pull it off, man. I think you could pull it off. It’s an honor to meet you.
Lewis: It’s really nice to meet you. Thanks for having me on the show.
Tavis: Good to have you on the program.
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