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 just from 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: Yes, how much he loved you [laugh].
Tavis: How you sat at his table at the State Dinner.
Lewis: Amazing! I got to get this article.
Tavis: No, no [laugh]. But he says, “I love “Homeland.” He says he watches all the time.
Lewis: I think it was Maureen Dowd who broke it in a “New York Times” op-ed and, funny enough, when I went to the White House, yeah, Maureen broke that. She wasn’t supposed to and she slipped it into her article. Then from that moment on, 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 this 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.” [Laugh]
Tavis: Yeah [laugh].
Lewis: He said, you know, “Michelle, Saturday afternoon, 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.” He doesn’t watch it with the girls, he says.
Tavis: Well, presidents need entertainment too. They need down time.
Lewis: I know. I think it’s great. Saturday afternoon, that’s when he’s catching up.
Tavis: Was that your first State Dinner?
Lewis: Yeah. I think it was my last, as well.
Tavis: Well, you know, if you’re only gonna 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. You know, there were 390 people. Helen, my wife, and I looked at our table card and it said Table 20. I said, “Well, that’s okay. We’ll be by the toilets. That’s okay. Then the revolving door will hit us on the head repeatedly as, you know, people are coming in and out of the kitchen.”
We sat down and it was like a social occasion. It was very informal upon the fact that it was ostensibly formal. We were in black tie and, of course, there was a lot of hullabaloo. But once you were sat down, the tables were very mixed.
I had 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.
He went into his closet, gave him one of own ties and said, “There you go, Warren.” When you come to a meeting with the President of the United States, you need to have a proper tie on.
But it was all very jovial and relaxed and sort of anecdotal. I mean, clearly, nothing of any sort of national interest was gonna be discussed in front of me or anybody else. It’s set up that way. I mean, his charisma is unbelievable.
Tavis: So how’d you keep your head? You’re sitting between Buffett and Obama.
Lewis: It’s the first time in my life – you know, people say they pinched themselves. What do you mean, 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, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces.
I pinched my thighs. I have bruises on my thighs. I’m just like “Oh, my God!”
Tavis: Are you at all a political person?
Lewis: I mean, yes, as much as I live in a democracy and I take an interest and want the right people leading the country. You know, you reach a certain level in what you do. You get lobbied quite a lot by whichever party’s in power.
You get invited to little dinners and things like that and you have to careful. I’ve been careful, at least, not to, you know, 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, I was a needle in a haystack piece of casting, you know. They looked everywhere, Australia, London, New York and Los Angeles, and it just emerged that I was gonna be the guy to play this leader of men, this heroic national treasure.
A lot of people didn’t know about him, of course, at this point unless you were a history buff. It really brought to the 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 with an English accent.
So that was very gratifying and it was just – we have “Band of Brothers” reunions every year. You know, 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, you know, it didn’t have an auspicious start because the second episode came out in the week of 9/11.
Tavis: I remember this, yeah.
Lewis: It’s 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 back yard 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. I’m just very lucky and very proud to be part of it.
Tavis: If you were going to have a role where you’re playing an American, as your entree to American audiences – this is the first time you’ve done this – you obviously picked the right role or you were picked for the right role.
I assume there is, but what’s been the personal takeaway for you? The personal, not the professional, but the personal from having an opportunity to play that kind of heroic American even though you’re not?
Lewis: It’s a history program. It’s a social document. These things actually happened and I think people around me, friends of mine who were skeptical that I would go and tell an American story, an American piece of history, were worried about the potential for revisionism and that the subject of the story might have that part played up in a disproportionate way to actually what happened.
Tavis: It is Hollywood, though. Come on [laugh].
Lewis: Quite, quite. But also, you know, I think Dick Winters in particular was concerned that would happen and he didn’t want any sensational re-telling of it. It’s sensational enough and he just wanted to portray it as honestly and truthfully as possible.
It just so happened he was doing business with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg and Tom in particular who guided it through who really resisted any sort of temptation to make it Hollywood-stupid.
It isn’t that and it has a realistic quality to it and a documentary quality to it that I think people really respond to. In terms of my personal involvement, I was aware that I was a Brit being asked to play this role and there might be a little bit of resentment towards me from the other actors.
I remember a conversation with Donnie Wahlberg in our first night at barracks ’cause we went into two weeks training in an old World War II barracks in England. He was in another barrack block and I was in this block and he shouted through the night in the darkness across the parade ground.
He just said, “Don’t worry about anything. You know, whatever you’re feeling, whatever nerves you have, don’t worry. We just respect you for the fact that you landed this role and, if you landed this role, we’re just gonna assume you’re not a dufus.”
Tavis: No pressure [laugh].
Lewis: Yeah. Time will tell. “You know, we figure you’ve got some smarts about you, so you have our respect. Go and do your thing.” I became friends with Donnie, but I was aware of a possible resentment.
Tavis: Let’s talk about “Homeland,” to your point now. For those who don’t know your acting backstory, your life’s backstory, 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.
Tavis: Sure, yeah.
Lewis: So I’m used to seeing graffiti go up on that wall outside the EMI Studios every year and then a guy come along and paint it and it looking beautiful for three months.
Tavis: But you weren’t doing the graffiti, though.
Lewis: No, the spray can.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah [laugh].
Lewis: You know, my tag’s somewhere else, under the railway bridges of West London, yeah. 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.
We have a lot of drama schools. They’re more like what you would call a conservatory here like Juilliard or something and 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 theaters. I played Hamlet myself and Romeo. I really did that for seven or eight years and then “Band of Brothers” happened when I was 28 or 29 years old.
As I say, they didn’t know from me from Adam and that sort of transformed things for me and then I was mixing TV and film roles with theater roles and it’s been like that ever since.
And I’ve worked with extraordinary people like Morgan Freeman twice and Robert Redford and Jennifer Lopez and Larry Kasdan and Lodge Kerrigan and Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks. I’ve been very, very lucky.
Tavis: I’m just laughing.
Lewis: I’m still here.
Tavis: I’m not casting aspersion on her, but you went from Morgan Freeman to Steven Spielberg and you threw J-Lo in the middle of that? Something don’t fit in that mix, but I’ll leave that alone.
Lewis: Well, there’s something about the J-Lo sweatpants she wore every morning.
Tavis: [Laugh] I love you, J-lo, I love you. That just didn’t quite fit for me, but I digress on that point.
Speaking of my phrase, your upper-crust upbringing, so what did your parents make of your decision to not go where you were expected to go?
Lewis: I kind of stopped working already at school and I looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights whenever an exam paper was put in front of me because I was a daydreamer and I was acting and playing lots of sport.
My mom actually just said, “You know what? Don’t go to university and get a crappy degree and then get a job you don’t really want to do. If you really want to go for this, we’ll support you.”
You’ve got to get in first. It’s hard to get into these conservatories and I didn’t get into three or four of them, and I did get into a couple of them.
So they supported me. I think my mom, because it was in London as well. She said, “Oh, darling, don’t go and pay rent in some horrible flat somewhere. You can stay home with Mommy.” So she had me at home for three more years, so I fell for that. I fell for that in a big way.
Tavis: Fair to say – you tell me – whether or not theater, given that’s where you started, is your first love or are you a movie guy now?
Lewis: You know, I knew nothing about movies. I was brought up being taken to the theater by my dad. My dad lived in Chicago for five years in the ’60s when he was a single man.
Tavis: Wow! Chicago in the ’60s.
Lewis: Yeah. He was in Chicago in the ’60s and he had a ball. He had an interesting time, I think. I don’t want to overstate it because, yes, I’m British, yes, I grew up in London.
I’m not an American, but I have this weird connection to America in different ways through my dad living here for five years, my godfather being an American who I’m very close to.
A whole bunch of family on my mom’s side moved to Connecticut in the ’70s and it was her brother, so we used to come and visit all the time and yada-yada-yada.
I grew up going to the theater and my role models were British theater actors, you know, the obvious ones, Gielgud, Olivier, etc., etc., then people just in the generation above me who I used to go and watch when I was a drama student with my friends.
I learned onset and I went out for a lot of camera interviews, film auditions and TV auditions before I got one and the camera was always an imposition.
I don’t know if you had to – the camera is sort of a close-up and this thing is coming toward you and you’re going, “Gee, what is that!” You didn’t know where to look and I’d look down the lens and you have to learn.
I wasn’t at home or comfortable with it at all and now I love it and I became a student of film and I wanted to learn its language. It’s infinitely interesting. I still feel I’m learning.
Tavis: Speaking of loving it, I get the sense that you love “Homeland.”
Lewis: I do love “Homeland.”
Lewis: Because it’s very rare to read a script and then to have that script delivered to you 11 or 12 more times over the course of a season where this holy trinity of character, story and theme runs as densely through each hour’s TV as it does in “Homeland.” That’s a rarity. You guys have the resources here to do that and, when you do it, you do it better than anywhere else.
The wastage here in TV is on an industrial scale at the same time. You have so much money poured into developing things and there’s inevitably a lot of crap, but there’s a lot of crap in England too. But the cream that sits on the top here is not equal to anywhere else in the world and I feel just extremely lucky.
I’m biased, of course, but I feel that “Homeland” is a nice layer of cream sitting on the top at the moment and I’m just very lucky. I’m so happy to be a part of it. It’s a grownup show full of ambiguity, full of nuance, full of multiple truths. It doesn’t cross…
Tavis: Sounds like life [laugh].
Lewis: It’s very like life. It doesn’t prosethelytize, it’s not gonna dress it up for you and give you conclusions. That’s a sophisticated show and it just shows what an audience really will respond to if you’re brave enough to give it to them.
Tavis: For those who’ve 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 is 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 sort of a teacher-like figure to his son, and he becomes a Muslim.
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 2 will just continue the intrigue.
Tavis: I don’t know where this series is going to go, but I thought that the creators of the show were pretty brave, to your words, to have an American hero who’s also Muslim. That is so oxymoronic for so many Americans that an American hero could be a practitioner of the Muslim faith. That was pretty bold.
Lewis: I think it’s…
Tavis: It’s very bold.
Lewis: I agree. It’s unbelievably bold. It’s subversive.
But I had a conversation with them where I said, “I love your pilot. I will come and do this, but if I felt there were any lazy or easy parallels drawn between Islam and violence, I would find it very hard to commit myself to this project. I don’t want to play that character that would pander to a popular prejudice and I don’t think that’s helpful or healthy.”
So I suggested and we collaborated on this idea that what if his need for Allah, religious sustenance, was a good thing, a force for good in his life, a positive influence in his life, that wasn’t gonna lead him to violence, that wasn’t gonna radicalize him and turn him into a violent Jihadist, but would be something very personal and nurturing for him?
We all agreed that that would be even more subversive that a U.S. Marine who is as great a symbol as you can think of as a defender of our faiths and our freedoms and who goes to fight on our behalf, if a man who is so indoctrinated, if you like, in the system through his military training, would be turned and find the good in Islam and work that out for himself, that would be remarkable.
They then had the difficult task of, well, if we want this guy to act in some way – and I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t seen it – but if we want this guy to act in some devastating and possibly violent way at the end, what are his motives if actually we decide he hasn’t successfully been “turned” into a religious ideologue? Has he got other reasons for acting?
I think they try very hard to provide those reasons and I think, again, it’s another reason why the show is working on so many different levels and why people respond to it.
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 figured James Bond could be blonde with Mr. Craig. I guess he could also be a redhead with Mr. Lewis.
I keep reading these blogs and things that, if there’s gonna be another change in the Bond series, that you’re on the short list. At least, you’re on a lot of peoples’ short list. So I ask, if ever offered to play James Bond, would you accept?
Lewis: I can’t believe you’ve asked me that. It’s like that is the $60 million dollar question.
Tavis: [Laugh] Would you accept?
Lewis: Oh, if you knew how many times I’ve played James Bond in my mirror at home. If only you knew [laugh].
Tavis: [Laugh] 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 program.
Tavis: Good to have you on the program. The show is “Homeland,” if you didn’t know. Everybody is watching it. Starring one Damian Lewis.
That’s our show for tonight. You can download our new app in the iTunes App store. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, keep the faith.
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