Damian Lewis is making a wonderful comeback to West End stage in Edward Albee’s late masterpiece The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? at Theatre Royal Haymarket in March 2017! And this gives us a unique opportunity to walk through the memory lane and visit Damian’s stage work in its entirety. It is our pleasure to kick off the festivities today with Damian’s theater education at Guildhall School of Music and Drama! We hope you share and enjoy this journey with us!
Damian discovers theater in his early school days at Ashdown House: His first ever role is a policeman in The Pirates of Penzance, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. And by age 12, he has good stage experience under his belt with a few low and high moments 😀
Damian tells the sweetest story on Desert Island Discs about how a school incident might have finished his career… At age 11, he has the lead role Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida and forgets the whole third act!
“It’s like an actor’s nightmare that actors have before they’re getting ready for press night but it happened to me in real life. I stood on a stage in front of the entire school with Mrs Woodgates playing the piano from the side and singing at least one song for me and saying quite a lot of my dialogue as well.
I was stood there mouthing it on the stage like I might just fool them if I just keep moving my lips. The headmaster said it was the worst dress rehearsal in his history of being at the school.”
When Damian shares the same story at his SAG-AFTRA interview the interviewer Stacey Hunt expresses concern that something like that could affect a 11 year old child badly. Damian’s answer:
“Ah, it’s made me the man I am, don’t worry.”
I completely understand you, Damian. I am also coming from a school system where the teachers’ criticism of kids were quite harsh. I also agree that such experiences have made us the adults that we are.
And I applaud this boy for not giving up on acting right there after such a trauma! And he, in fact, goes ahead to receive a school prize for his “Bottom” — a character who provides comic relief in A Midsummer Night’s Dream! Hear Damian talk about it on Times Talks London:
But when does he seriously consider getting into the craft? Is his family supportive in his pursuit of becoming an actor? And how is his drama school experience like?
Damian tells on Popcorn with Peter Travers:
“I was a terrible day dreamer at school. So when I should have really been knuckling down and doing my SATS and going to some fancy university, I was looking out of the window and dreaming about the things. So it was then really, I put on a little play, had a small theater production company — I say that rather grandly, basically I got together with six guys and we put a play on, and we loved it. It was then that I thought well I want to be a professional actor, I would like to do this, and try this.”
Damian shares the name of his first theater company in his New Yorker profile: The Chameleons. I cannot think of a better name since I have, time and again, called Damian a TRUE chameleon!
Now, deciding to go to drama school is one thing while getting your parents’ support is another. Damian talks about his dad — who Damian thinks wanted to be an actor but became an insurance broker instead — instilling the love of theatre in his kids by taking them to theater all the time. Damian’s mom and dad come and see him as Wackford Squeers who is the headmaster of the Dotheboys School in Nicholas Nickleby. Damian shares at Times Talks:
“My parents did support me. They came and saw me at school. They were satisfied. My slightly strange Yorkshire accent when I was playing in Nicholas Nickelby was good enough to support me trying to go to a theatre school.”
It turns out his mom says: “If this is what you want to do, you should go. We think you have talent—and if we didn’t, we’d tell you.” So Damian auditions and wins a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, in his words, “what would be the equivalent of your Julliard, a conservatory type of place.” And, after a gap year of “taking guitars up to ancient rocks” in Africa, Damian enrolls at Guildhall becoming part of a very productive period with Daniel Craig, Ewan MacGregor, Joseph Fiennes (classmate) and Dominic West being within a few years of each other.
Damian talks about his first day at Guildhall at his SAG-AFTRA interview:
“My first day at drama school, at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, they said, they made it very clear, ‘this was your first day as a professional actor. And you’re gonna train for three years but this was your first day as a professional actor and at the end of these three years you would emerge fully grown and matured as an actor…’
They lied to us…
But they were very encouraging of the fact that this was a vocational training you were in. You were not going to train here at Guildhall for three years and then gonna be an architect, but you’re gonna be an actor. This was instilled.”
And he shares in his New Yorker profile about how his social environment changes drastically in drama school:
“I was sitting in class with lesbians and gay men and people of different ages, people who were two or three years younger than me, from Italy and China, people who had run businesses—and I liked it, whilst at the same time being totally unprepared and ill-equipped to be comfortable within it. I remember thinking, God, I must keep my head down a little bit.”
But does he keep his head down? An interview with Telegraph reveals he does not:
“If you were to ask anyone who was there with me they’d probably say I was boorishly confident. Certainly I always spoke too much when in retrospect I should just have shut up and listened. But in a lot of respects being there did me a lot of good. It wasn’t cool to be posh – quite the reverse – and for the first time in my life, I was in a minority.”
What about acting heroes? Who does he look up to and aspire to be like as a teenager and later as a young drama school student?
Damian tells in SAG-AFTRA interview: “I totally fell in love with Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson doing Me and My Girl in the West End which he then took to Broadway and won a Tony for… A lovely 1930s Vaudevillian musical.” A little research shows this production being staged in 1984! Damian is 13 and falling in love with it!
And we learn on Popcorn with Peter Travers that Damian’s favorite actor was Michael Gambon whom he would work with years later in The Baker: “I still remember his Eddie Carbone in A View from the Bridge… just stunning, frothing, just sort of prowling, bear-like performance. He always excited me.”
Who else inspired him?
“Michael Maloney, a Royal Shakespearean actor that people probably won’t know him here, who played William Blake. I remember him sitting naked in a tree as the curtain went up.” Research reveals the play is In Lambeth focusing on a meeting between William Blake and Thomas Paine a few years after the French Revolution.
Damian shares on THR Drama Actors Uncensored Roundtable he really responded to Jack Lemmon and one certain British actor that we all know well: Yeah, Damian was a FAN of Mark Rylance way before they stormed Wolf Hall together: “He was a generation ahead of me and I used to see him as a student at the school and be just cowed by his brilliance. His imagination.”
As a drama student, Damian often goes to the Barbican, next door to his school and Royal Shakespeare Company’s London home at the time. He sees Simon Russell Beale and Ralph Fiennes and dreams a little:
“They were just ahead of us doing the stuff. So we would look up to them and ‘oh one day I’ll be working at the RSC and wearing tights, too… something to look forward to.”
And he cites a trip to Amsterdam in an interview with The Guardian:
“When I was at drama school, I remember going to Amsterdam for new year and sitting with friends on the front of a P&O ferry in the wind, having some sort of Titanic moment, declaring ourselves to be the new kings of theatre. But that’s the image.”
“You’re passionate and earnest and young, and you want to talk about the theatre and acting all night long; the romance of being on stage and the shared experience of fellow actors and rehearsal rooms.”
Matt Wolf, in his conversation with Damian at Times Talks London in 2014, asks about whether they were encouraged to study accents and play different nationalities, in particular Americans, at Guildhall.
Damian points out the cross-fertilization we have had for some time now between TV, film and theatre, and between America and Europe, did not really exist in mid-1990s. The only British actor doing American TV back then was Pierce Brosnan in Remington Steele and so, he says, as much as they were encouraged to do dialects and accents at drama school, it was more about a Geordie accent or a Cornish accent than an American accent.
“You were not expected to go play play Americans. There were a lot of brilliant American actors and there were enough of them over there… probably some of them are quite resentful now.”
I bet they are! 😀
Damian shares on SAG-AFTRA interview about the “painful weeks and months” of agent showings in his third year, the graduation year:
“You do your showings, your agent showings, your monologue, your classical monologue, your dialogue with a friend, the agents come in and see you and you try and secure a big agent in the space of two and a half minutes… I mean anyone who’s been through that knows what that’s like…”
He gets good roles in his graduation year. He plays Banquo in Macbeth and Stensgaard (the lead) in Ibsen’s League of Youth. Michael Billington, The Guardian’s very own veteran drama critic, spots him in League of Youth. I have not been able to find a review Billington did back then but I found a review he did for a recent revival where he talks about seeing the play 18 years ago: “I did see it revived by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama 18 years ago with a young Damian Lewis in the lead. Then as now, I am struck both by the play’s structural creakiness and its exuberant exploration of what were to become standard Ibsen themes.”
Well, Billington would not mention a production 18 years later should he not really have enjoyed it, huh? 🙂 And no wonder Damian is quickly snapped up by an agent and starts off at Birmingham Rep, where Laurence Olivier started, which we will talk about next week!
Next week: The Early Plays, 1993 – 94