From Accent to Physicality: The
“American” Damian Lewis

“This sounds absurdly pretentious, but the American Damian, I’m sort of oddly comfortable with him.” – Damian Lewis

A Guardian article from July 2015 talks about Brits versus Yanks in Hollywood:

The invasion of British and Irish leading men in Hollywood has now gone beyond a joke for many in the American entertainment industry. First noticed some time in 2011, the trend was initially dismissed as a novelty: an interesting phase that would pass, rather than as a threat. But this summer actors and directors are calling for action to mobilise American drama teachers and schools to counter it.”

So Hollywood has finally taken notice and is now somehow mobilizing to defend its territory against the British invasion 😀 Well, maybe it is too little too late at this point? I mean, it is not that the Brits are coming, but they have already arrived. Besides, Vanity Fair says “victory is assured” in the video clip below, with fabulous ginger alert at 0:29, about which I blogged about earlier here!

In the last decade, we have seen British talent landing some of the major roles in TV and winning big in Emmys and the Golden Globes. Well, here is a partial list just off the top of my head: Claire Foy (The Crown), Ricky Gervais (The Office), Matthew Rhys (The Americans), Mark Rylance (Wolf Hall),  Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce), Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey), Thandie Newton (Westworld), Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock),  Riz Ahmed (The Night Of). And our very own Damian Lewis (Homeland) is also a high rank member of the British squad invading Hollywood with his brilliant portrayal of Americans!

Damian received an Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series Emmy as well as an Best Actor – Television Series Drama Golden Globe for his fantastic portrayal of Nicholas Brody in Homeland in 2012, and when you think about it, not only Nicholas Brody but also most other characters Damian is widely known for are all Americans! And as we are looking  forward to seeing our favorite actor receive his very well-deserved Britannia Award for Excellence in TV soon, join us today in visiting the “American” Damian! 🙂

Now… The fun fact is that, until they found out about Damian Lewis being “one of those pesky Brits” at the 2012 Emmy Awards, many viewers had no clue he was British!

A Telegraph article reports about the surprise:

“When Damian Lewis was named best actor at the Emmy Awards for his role in Homeland, he wore an expression of surprised delight.

For American audiences watching at home, the surprise was even greater. It turns out that many viewers had no idea until they heard his acceptance speech that the man playing US Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody was British.

“Wait … the guy from Homeland is British?” was typical of hundreds of comments on Twitter, as the actor began giving his thanks.

source: homeland.wikia.com

“Who knew Brody from Homeland was British? I guess he really does deserve the Emmy,” said one, while another fan joked: “Hearing Damian Lewis speak with a British accent is like being told Santa Claus isn’t real.”

PRICELESS!

And yeah it seems Damian can fool a lot of people with his perfect American accent… well, even the top professionals! For one, it was a very pleasant surprise to hear Matt Weiner, creator of Mad Men, at a talk at 92nd Y, mention Damian in this respect. Weiner told us that, as they were casting for Don Draper, AMC pushed for a British actor to play Don Draper; and Weiner knew he would never cast a Brit to play this an American “unless they can fool me… The only person that has ever fooled me…” He paused and said: “Damian Lewis is pretty good.” I loved it and I am pretty sure, as a big Mad Men fan, Damian would love that, too!

Hear Weiner here, the relevant part is at 46:08.

And, of course, the people that worked with Damian Lewis, in particular the Homeland producers, are more than impressed with his American accent. Alex Gansa comments on Damian’s American accent:

“It doesn’t come from anywhere – it’s not mid-Atlantic, not southern. It’s actually unrecognizable as a real American accent – except that it’s perfect.” (source: Homeland Revealed by Matthew Hurwitz. 2014. Chronicle Books. Page 19)

So… how did this flawless American accent develop? Patricia Sheridan asks Damian  this in a 2008 interview while he was playing Charlie Crews in Life:

“God, I don’t really know. My cultural heritage, if you like, is so pervaded by American pop culture. I grew up on Kojak and Colombo and Starsky and Hutch, the Rockford Files and Magnum all those things. Also our family … had cousins in Connecticut, so we would go on holiday. We used to do summer holidays up in Portland, Maine, actually. So I’ve always kind of felt pretty attached to America. Now that I’m doing this show, I stay in an American accent all day long just because it would be harder to switch in and out. I find that I’ve developed an American persona now. I got involved in a huge argument with someone the other day and usually when you are angry or when you are drunk you go back to your own accent. I found myself having this great fight all in an American accent without thinking twice about it. I thought, ‘I wonder if this guy knows I’m English?’ He’s definitely going to hit me if he hears me.”

I so love reading about Damian’s cultural heritage; it is probably because I am from his generation and I completely identify with what he is talking about: I loved Colombo, and I LOVED Magnum 🙂 I was probably 10 or so and just loved Tom Selleck in Hawaiian shirts driving his red Ferrari and I was determined to be a PI when I grew up! And, even though I didn’t have a cousin or anything in America, I felt attached to America somehow… it was the books, the music, the movies, the TV shows and, maybe somewhere deep inside, I always knew I was destined to come and live here 🙂

Anyhow, back to Damian talking about why this “tall, pale, redheaded English bloke gets asked to play all these American dudes?” in a Vulture interview in 2011:

winters11

“I don’t really know, except to say that it’s obviously to do with Band of Brothers, because that’s the first time I played an American, and it was an American hero that I think people felt great ownership of. I felt an overwhelming responsibility to get that right. I was so focused on it, you know, “Failure is not an option!” There’s definitely been a shift, because during Band of Brothers I was consciously keeping my American accent, I was mindful of it as I was playing the role. And now I find that I have created an American persona for myself — I’m exaggerating a little for effect, possibly [laughs] — but I feel I can be an American for a weekend. This sounds absurdly pretentious, but the American Damian, I’m sort of oddly comfortable with him. When I was living in L.A. for two years, and because in L.A. no one’s heard of a British accent — although God knows why, there are Brits all over the place there — I just got tired of repeating everything in an English accent when I went into a store. So I would wake up sometimes and just be an American with my American accent, and it felt like the most natural thing.”

And, what does Damian think about the British invasion of Hollywood and how does he place himself there? He tells Buzzfeed:

“Suddenly, the TV industry transformed itself and, arguably, I was in the vanguard of that with Band of Brothers,” he continued. “For the first time, someone was prepared to spend $120 million on a TV show, go and film it abroad, hire local crews and local talent to make use of the tax break — that’s starting to sound a bit like a film to me. Then, after that, Brits were allowed to do American TV, Australians were allowed to do American TV. It had always been a very American thing. I can only think of Pierce Brosnan on Remington Steele. Sure, there was the occasional Brit that showed up in things, but it just got opened up to us and it’s because TV became this more independent-feeling art form and people would go abroad to shoot. The whole thing is terrific for someone like me; I’m just very lucky that it happened in this time.”

And he demonstrates he’s a master of accents on the Conan Show a few years ago! You really need to hear his Queens cabbie accent!

And, of course, the accent is just a slice in one’s “American” persona 🙂

Cherwell reports from an interview in which Damian Lewis is saying how his “American” persona goes beyond the accent:

“It affects the way you move, and your response to things.” And, when asked if “this ability to sustain multiple personalities is somehow connected to living a life dedicated to acting, a notion” Damian responds with a laugh: ‘Not in a deep psychological way – I still want to watch “soccer” and get the cricket scores!’”

😀

And Lauren Collins captures it perfectly in her profile of Damian Lewis in The New Yorker:

“His Americans are original compositions, reflecting, in the manner of David Hockney’s Los Angeles paintings, a view of ourselves that we cannot see.”

Dick Winters. Charlie Crews. Nicholas Brody. Bobby Axelrod. All come from blue collar backgrounds; however, other than that, they have little in common except for the actor who is bringing them to life. And this certainly attests to Damian’s ability to avoid typecasting as well as to his incredible range as an actor.

Damian tells Emmy Magazine:

“I’ve always had variable casting. I’m very lucky that way. I suppose that might be because of an American career, which started with Band of Brothers. Had I not done that, perhaps I would always have played people only of my background. As you get older, that sort of naturally leads to playing people in authority, and I would’ve missed playing these more rebellious, individual characters, which I have been able to play in American TV.”

When asked at Times Talks about how he, an Eton-educated Brit, plays blue collar American men seamlessly, Damian’s immediate response is:

“Genetic fluke.”

😀

source: Times Talks

Then he says he is lucky to have a face that appears American. His red hair seems to speak to the Irish American tradition. He thinks he got lucky with his first American role, Dick Winters, because Winters was “from a different era and had an upright quality about him” that would better resonate with a young British actor who’s been through the sort of education Damian had than with a “hyper, naturalistic, hip, contemporary American actor.” And once he was convincing in his first American role, he was asked to play different kind of Americans but he never got to play a wasp-y American that would be more suited to his background.

Damian shares with Emmy Magazine David Nevins saying to him “…despite your privately educated, English background, you actually come across more blue collar” and adds: “Then you’ve just got to hold your hands up and say, ‘Well, I got lucky.’”

But then when you read about the creative process in which Damian builds up a character, from accent to body language, you know he is just being humble when he says he is lucky.

Here is Damian sharing how he found the right accent for Bobby at TCA 2015.

“You just tighten it up a bit and I’m trying to just concentrate on that. Having seen the pilot, I was struck by how little I thought I was doing and different my accent is in this show than Band Of Brothers or Homeland or anything else. So they’re small little shifts, but they read large.”

source: Getty Images
source: Getty Images

Damian shares with Lauren Collins that his greatest nemesis come in the form of phrases with two “r”s such as “there are” and he talks about rhythms at the SAG-AFTRA interview:

“You find rhythms that is New York… Sudden increase in pace through the sentence. They speak very quickly.”

He says he is not very good at slipping in and out of accents during the day so he wakes up as an American, goes to work and and stays as an American until he takes his make-up off at the end of the day. He shares in an interview with Cigar Aficianado that there are people on Billions who have never heard his British accent 😀 We learn the Brit in Damian comes out during the day only when…

Make your guess and find the answer here 🙂

Damian points out at New Yorker Festival that accent is as much about musicality and physicality as it is about how you pronounce words. And he seems to find THAT in his characters’ class, their upbringing and their outlook on life.

“The one compliment, that I hold on to most and cherish most, and someone will disagree with me now, that I appear American when I’m playing Americans and that has to do with physicality. And it’s also to do with, even if in my belief that the accent can be absolutely accurate and I believe that it should be, there are rhythms in language that are more important and that reveal more actually, cadence and rhythms as you say… but the physicality of some of these characters… Brody, a blue collar guy, a sergeant, not officer class in the army and the guy I am playing now, even though he is a billionaire, has blue collar Yonkers roots… The truth is that I try to latch on to an American-ness, for these particular guys…

source: Showtime

“I still believe… gym culture here, even though of course gyms are all over the world now, there is still this sort of gym culture, gym body, that a particular type of American guy has… I don’t have it, so I have to go and I get myself… and that informs the physicality as well.”

Damian tells at Times Talks he believes masculinity has more to do with geography and the circumstances one is born into and that he has found a particular kind of American masculinity in the last 15 years:

“…which is still very can do, it’s very black and white, it’s very direct, and it’s found in these blue collar men often who, you know, have pick up trucks, live out in the back and beyond and can build houses for Christ’s sake. I work with people on crews who just… I go ‘Hey Georgie, how are you?’ And he goes: ‘Oh I’ve finished my house’ and I say: ‘Great. Contractors always stay around too long, don’t they?’ ‘No, I built it.’ I am just meeting people like that all the time and that is kind of incredible. And I think that frontier spirit is still much more alive here, and there is much more space here than in the UK and people are still doing that. And I find an uncomplaining commitment to work.”

bobbyaxelrod62

THIS GUY is whom Damian tries to identify with in Brody, Winters, Crews and equally in Bobby Axelrod. Even though, he stresses, Bobby is operating in a whole different way and has not built anything in his life, he has that “can do, direct” attitude.

One American we have been rooting for Damian to play since 2015 is Steve McQueen. Well, some dreams come true, and Damian is now taking over the role in Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie Once Upon A Time in Hollywood featuring a stellar cast led by Leonardo Caprio and Brad Pitt.

I vividly remember, at Times Talks back in 2016, Cara Buckley asks Damian, in addition to her own questions, a few others that she collected earlier from fans on Twitter and this one comes from JaniaJania!

smqtweet

“I’ve considered it a lot. I am not sure if anybody else has.”

Hehe. Damian thinks McQueen had his reputation revised over time and he gets cooler with age.

“But yes Steve McQueen… American icon… If not for any other reason, just to drive nice cars quite quickly and to ride motorbikes.”

I am not uncertain Damian will feel oddly comfortable playing McQueen and I seriously hope he will have a chance to ride a motorbike in the movie 😀

Author: Damianista

Academic, Traveler, Blogger, Runner, Theatre Lover, Wine Snob, Part-time New Yorker, and Walking Damian Lewis Encyclopedia :D Procrastinated about a fan's diary on Damian Lewis for a while and the rest is history!

11 thoughts on “From Accent to Physicality: The
“American” Damian Lewis”

  1. Do you know if Damian ever worked with Hugh Laurie? He was the first British actor I noticed who played an American so convincingly as the lead character in ‘House’.

    1. He did not work with him but he bought his house – how about that? The house Damian is living with his family right now in London belonged to Hugh Laurie earlier. And as he was buying the house, it turns out Damian had a phone call with Laurie and asked him for advise about living/working in America. Laurie was already doing House at the time, and Damian was considering to move to LA for the NBC show Life (2007-2009).

      And, hey, I loved your pics with Dan Soder! 🙂

      1. Thanks. If you ever get a chance to see his act do it – he was very funny – so opposite his Mafee character.

        And that connection between Damian and Hugh is so cool!!

  2. Thank you for a very interesting post, Damianista. I must admit I get annoyed occasionally when I find ANOTHER Brit playing an American. It’s a phenomena. As long as the work is good – what’re ya gonna do! If you’d like to hear some *bad* American accents watch MI5. Whew makes me appreciate Damian’s talent even more. 🙂

    1. My pleasure – thanks so much for reading! True, it’s certainly a phenomenon but the Brits are very impressive. Damian is something else, but, say, I would never know Matthew Rhys was Welsh. He was fantastic in The Americans!

    1. The release date for the US is currently July 26, 2019. We will keep an eye on international release dates. The thing is it will be a small role, probably only a couple of scenes. My hope is for some other producer to see him as McQueen and give him the lead role in a biopic. Fingers crossed <3

    1. Yes! I am talking about it in the post – we’ve been rooting for it to happen (not necessarily in this particular film) for years.

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