‘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. –Damian Lewis on Band of Brothers
Band of Brothers, absolutely one of the best, if not the best, WWII mini-series ever made for television is having its seventeenth anniversary this week. And our week-long celebration of this anniversary continues today with how Band of Brothers Boot Camp helps Damian Lewis, a 29-year old British actor at the time, transform into a WWII era American paratrooper, or in Damian’s words, turn “a rice pudding” into a “celery stalk” 🙂
Well… Once he gets the part, the two Hollywood giants Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks leave the room and Tony To, the executive producer, asks:
“Hey Damian, how’d you like to go to boot camp in March?”
Here’s Damian’s short version of Band of Brothers boot camp from an interview with Dish Magazine!
“I looked a little like a rice pudding before,” Lewis says, “and afterwards, like a stick of celery… the love handles went, the flabby arms went.” The actor, who says his knowledge of WWII before BAND OF BROTHERS was “the ten greatest hits,” soon got a taste of what these soldiers went through to prepare for battle. He remembers one day hanging in under the watchful eye of Captain Dale Dye, doing 70 pushups, and then felt his arms go to Jell-O. “I’m watching you, Winters,” Dye bellowed, “You better not give up on me, Winters.” Lewis says it took him as long to get to the requisite 80 pushups as it had taken him to do the first 70. “I felt like I was in ‘Full Metal Jacket,'” he adds ruefully.
And if you are interested, and I know you are, here is the long version of what Damian goes through to transform into Dick Winters: We have a diary kept by Damian himself during the boot camp and later published in Daily Mail in October 2001.
BOOT CAMP AT LONGMOOR, NEAR PETERSFIELD, HAMPSHIRE, MARCH 23:
DAY 1: ‘You better not give up on me Winters. I’m watching you Winters.’
I’m on my 70th sit-up. I’ve been given a personal trainer to get in shape and for the moment it seems to be working. But I’m on my way to 80 and my stomach has cramped. Captain Dale ‘no namby-pamby actor s**t’ Dye, a Vietnam veteran, is hulked over me and letting me know who’s in charge. It’s the first morning of a ten-day basic training. It’s 6am, we’ve been on a five-mile run and now we’re being watched doing 45 minutes of physical training. All before breakfast. Captain Dye addresses us only by our character names. We’re not allowed to have mobile phones or contemporary literature. We’re in 1942, whether we like it or not. Already he is instilling in us the feeling that we are special, or will be if we make it. This drive for authenticity is exhilarating. All I know is, the deeper I involve my imagination and give him the ‘heart’ he asks for, the more rewarding all this will be. Tom Hanks made it perfectly clear in a trademark tub-thumping speech to us all that we have a social responsibility to document this period of history as accurately as possible. I think he’s right. I’m the lead role in this show, which is going to be seen by millions of people worldwide and has a budget of £86 million. When I’m Damian Lewis, I’m nervous. When I’m Dick Winters, I can do anything. Now that’s drama therapy.
DAY 2: ‘Who’s Winters? Who’s playin’ him? Is he English?’ There are murmurs in the camp – a lot of the guys don’t know who I am yet. Is this where the trouble starts? I brace myself for a bit of Limey bashing, but incredibly, I seem to have the full respect of all the men resent. People are asking for my opinions and calling me ‘Sir’. Suddenly it’s clear I’m in a 24-hours-a-day, ten-day Method rehearsal. I think to myself, ‘If they want Method. I’ll give them Method,’ and start dishing out a lot more orders.
DAY 3: The training regime in the mornings is now established. We run in
formation and sing: ‘Mama, Mama, can’t you see, what the Airborne’s done to me?’ Singing together makes the five miles easier. I feel like I’m in a movie already, not preparing for one. Guard duty tonight. Each man is to patrol the perimeter for one hour, in temperatures below zero. It’s too cold to sleep, but I don’t think sleep is valued particularly highly around here.
DAY 6: Promotion today. I’m now Captain Dick Winters. Injuries have started to happen. David Schwimmer [Herbert Sobel] has twisted his knee performing field manoeuvres and has become ‘officer in charge of cigarettes’. Thankfully, Schwimmer is taking his responsibilities seriously. With no booze for ten days, people are smoking furiously. Neal McDonough [Buck Compton] has cut his lip open with the butt of an M1 rifle and has had stitches without anaesthetic. ‘Well Buck wouldn’t have had anaesthetic, ‘ he chimes, grinning widely.
DAY 7: We have a massive simultaneous attack today on a train. With a six-man training team sniping (with blanks) at our 50-man company. I lead the assault. It’s a total disaster. I’m shot so many times I feel like a sieve. I fail to control the men. I get torn apart by Captain Dye, who tells me I’d better get them in order. I’m so immersed by now, believing that I’m in 1942 and that I’m Dick Winters, that I go and hand out the biggest roasting in military history to my men. And what’s more, I expect to be listened to.
DAY 8: We move into our week of jump training today. There’s one major
problem. I’m scared of heights. Thankfully, today is spent jumping off chairs on to mattresses, practicing our falls and rolls.
DAY 9: We visit RAF Brize Norton for a day in jumping school. Today I’m going to jump off a 60ft tower screaming from the top of my lungs ‘One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand. . .’ After this, you’re supposed to open you chute. Looking up, the platform doesn’t seem so high. Looking down, I want to cry. I can’t hold on to anything because I can’t get any grip. My palms are sweating too heavily. A jump trainer edges me out. I look straight ahead at the horizon and leap into the void. I land about five seconds later. I’ve done it. Parachuting becomes addictive. Apparently.
DAY 10: The day of the ‘propblast’, airborne slang for big drink. Boy, do we need alcohol. It’s been ten days of authentic military training and everyone is incredibly proud to have got through it. So we all get drunk and hug each other a lot.”
Damian Lewis also gets to spend time with real Dick Winters, who basically led his men all the way from the beaches of Normandy to Hitler’s Bavarian headquarters. Damian describes 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.”
Damian tells about how he was able to meet and get to know Dick Winters in a preface he wrote in September 2004 for the book Biggest Brother: The Life of Major Dick Winters, The Man Who Led the Band of Brothers by Larry Alexander.
“Dick kept a diary at the war. He wrote letters home. He had several folders of memories. And I had them all for research. But I had never met him. At boot camp I called him for the first time, and through a series of phone calls I set about slowly trying to earn his trust. What emerged as I got to know him was a man not given to late night in bars, reminiscing, not given to romanticizing his past glories. He was a man whose recollections were analytical, pragmatically ordered, not emotional, a man who was much happier answering questions on technical maneuvers or what boot he wore his knife on (the left by the way), than what he felt, as he found himself isolated from his men, staring at a whole company of Germans, on top of that dyke in Holland, for example. “I was always just concentrating on getting the job done, ” would be his typical reply. It dawned on me what a happy coincidence it was that I had felt slightly removed from the “hype” at the beginning of the job, a little detached. For it was precisely his ability to distance himself from any hysteria and to remain calm and lucid in moments of danger that made Dick Winters a natural leader of men. But not only that. Once I had his trust, I found a warmth, a wickedly dry sense of humor and a willingness to listen that is not often found in men of power.”
And, in an interview with The Guardian Damian says he “had exhaustive conversations with the producers about the fact that Richard Winters is still alive… We were adamant that we had to be as true to him as possible, true to the essence of the man.’ But that didn’t mean doing a vocal imitation. ‘He’s Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonite… He would sound Canadian to us. He had a very puritanical upbringing, no drinking, no swearing. Incredible moral rectitude and a sense of what’s right and wrong. And, of course, he has a natural economy with words and emotions.”
And this is exactly how Damian Lewis portrays Dick Winters in Band of Brothers. He shares in a 2002 interview with The Guardian that, in bringing Dick Winters to life in Band of Brothers, he goes for Steve McQueen and Gary Cooper, actors who achieved a lot by doing a little: “If you set up an intensity and a stillness to someone you only have to show a flicker of a smile and it will show volumes.” He says it is also about listening and cites his screen hero Robert De Niro: “He’s brilliant at it. It’s his listening which gives him his mercurial quality. It shows a certain humility.” The Guardian rightly points out, the most striking in Damian’s performance as Dick Winters is “how much he managed to put across by doing so very little. What stuck in the memory from Band of Brothers was not sudden moments of great heroism, but Lewis’s immense stillness in the face of the clatter and incident of war.”
Well done, sir!