We talked about “American” Damian earlier here. From Dick Winters to Charlie Crews to Nicholas Brody to Bobby Axelrod, Damian Lewis has given us a wide portfolio of American characters all of whom we have fallen in love with. And given that Damian is probably more well-known for the American characters he has brought to life, one just wonders about how this all started!
The story begins in 1999 and, in Damian’s own words at “auditions in damp Soho basements.”
Damian had steady work in 1990s both in theater and on TV. Just to cite a few highlights, he was in Rope on stage at Birmingham REP in 1993, then he was the lead in Regents Park’ Hamlet in 1994 and then he did his Broadway debut in 1995, also in Hamlet, as Laertes to Ralph Fiennes’ Hamlet. Damian also played Wolf/Cinderella’s prince in a revival of the beloved Sondheim musical Into the Woods in 1998. He also played leads in BBC dramas, Warriors — the first project he did with director Peter Kosminsky with whom Damian recently worked in BRILLIANT Wolf Hall — and Hearts and Bones. However, there is no doubt that it is playing Major Dick Winters in Band of Brothers that made Damian Lewis an internationally known actor and gave a head start to “American” Damian as we know it 🙂
Damian agrees that Band of Brothers is a starting point to his “American” career as he responds to a question that why this “tall, pale, redheaded English bloke gets asked to play all these American dudes?” in a Vulture interview in 2011:
“…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.”
Now… How did it all start? It’s for sure that, when Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks decided to film Band of Brothers in Britain, they knew they would cast some young British actors in the series… However, they probably didn’t think they would find their lead in Britain. So… How come this duo sort of took a risk and cast a young British actor to play an all-American hero?
In short: How did British Damian Lewis become all-American Dick Winters?
Damian Lewis tells in an interview with Cherwell:
“I was just another pale Englishman doing lots of auditions in a damp basement in Soho, when I got called back (for Band of Brothers) four or five times, and then finally I got a call from the producer saying “I want to take you to LA to meet Stephen (Spielberg). Do you have your passport?” And I was like “no, I don’t carry my passport to auditions!” It was a very Hollywood moment.’ He was flown out first class and put up in a fancy hotel before being introduced to Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who he describes as ‘absolutely delightful’.”
Damian tells the long version — he had four auditions in London — in a FUN diary titled “Acting Tough” for Daily Mail:
“LATE AUGUST 1999: Call from my agent. Hollywood’s coming to town. Hurrah. Another chance to record myself on tape for some big blockbuster which will gather dust on a shelf in LA. ‘But this is different,’ my agent, Stephanie Randall, stresses, ‘It’s Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. They’re seeing everybody, and they want you to play an American. This is gonna be huge.’
DAY OF AUDITION: I head off on my motorbike. It rains on me. I arrive, soaked, having found the only parking spot left in Soho to park my bike. I walk down some steps into a colourless basement.
‘Take a seat please, Damian.’
I glance at the audition sheet. Every actor in London under 30 who still has both his legs is being seen. This is huge. I do the audition and leave. I feel good, and it seems to have gone well. My accent held together – if you like Sylvester Stallone impersonations. I find I have a parking ticket. I ride home thinking violent thoughts. I’ve totally forgotten about the audition.
A MONTH LATER: ‘Damian, remember that audition you did for Spielberg and Hanks? Well, they want to see you again.’ It’s Stephanie on the phone. I return to the same colourless basement, and I’m greeted by the casting director, more enthusiastically this time.
‘You know they want to see you for the main part, Winters. He’s the hero.’
I’m packed off to have American accent training. For some reason, I sound like Jimmy Stewart.
A MONTH LATER: A third audition. Same part, different accent. I think I’m James Caan in The Godfather and have come over all ‘ba da bing ba da boom.’
Christ, someone help me.
LATE NOVEMBER: ‘Damian, I think you’re the only person they’re still seeing for the main role.’ Stephanie says down the phone. I walk into the same colourless basement for a fourth time. Same line of producers and casting directors – the examination board. I do my piece.
‘So Damian, how would you like to fly to LA on Thursday and meet Steven and Tom?’ says Tony To, who’s running the audition. My heart misses a beat. My pulse quickened. This is definitely a Hollywood moment. In Soho.
‘I’ll have to call my Granny to rearrange lunch.’
They all laugh. It doesn’t occur to them I might actually have to do this. Or, more probably, they don’t care, and the Hollywood machine whirrs into action around me. Flights, hotels and limos are booked, right there in the room. I sit down. I still have to get on my motorbike and I’m breathing way too fast to ride it in a straight line.”
When he finally arrives in Spielberg’s office in Hollywood for THE audition, Damian doesn’t think he’d get the role… Because, he tells Independent, “When I got there, they had photos of Dick Winters as a young man all over the wall of the office, and I sat down next to a guy who was the spitting image of him. He said: ‘I’m here for Dick Winters,’ and my heart sank.
So… What happened in that room? 🙂 Lucky us that what happened in that room did not stay in that room thanks to Damian’s diary:
“FRIDAY: When I get out of this limo, I’m going to walk into a room and meet Tom Hanks. I must remember to tell him how much I like Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan, Apollo 13, his ‘serious’ work. But all I really want to talk about is Splash, Big, and Bachelor Party, the ones I grew up on.
‘Hey, Damian, thanks for coming. You must be tired after flying all the way from London.’
Tom is speaking to me. Before I can stop myself, I’ve launched into one of the unfunniest jokes I’ve ever made. I rub my arms, and blurt out: ‘Yeah, my arms are pretty stiff,’ (implying I’d actually flown). Geddit? Genius. Traffic comes to a screeching halt. Tumbleweed blows through the room. Silence. ‘Did this guy just say what I think he said?’ At least, this is the look on Tom’s face. His jaw slightly open, a look of utter disbelief in his eyes. The silence lasts a few seconds before Tom, realizing that he simply has to help me out of this horrible moment, yells out: ‘Aw, okay, funny guy. Very good. Sit down over here.’
He can’t possibly give me a job after that, I’m thinking, but undeterred, Tom cracks on. We act together. I play Winters. Tom does all the other characters. My accent is now rock solid. Nothing can shake it. Not even Tom’s beard, now so big for the film Castaway that I can’t be sure it’s even him talking.
‘Okay, you’re too good. Get outta here,’ he yells, oozing bonhomie.”
So, what does a 28 year old do after such a nerve-racking afternoon to relax? He naturally goes out to PARTY like crazy… until the wee hours…
“8AM NEXT MORNING: ‘Damian, are you awake? Steven would like to see you at midday.” It’s Meg, the casting director. I cry into my pillow. Little simpering sobs at first, then naked hysterical screaming. The biggest meeting of my life and I’ve blown it. I’ve had three hours’ sleep and I’m still drunk. By midday I’ve had three cold showers, five coffees and stubbed my toe a lot. I walk into the office sweating heavily and shaking. We’re introduced. ‘I used to live in Hampstead,’ Steven tells me. ‘Maybe we know the same people?’ Not unless you’ve been around Kensal Green lately mate, I thought to myself.
‘Do you know Ralph Fiennes?’ he asks.
‘Yes, yes, I do,’ I nearly fall off my chair with excitement that I can actually continue this conversation with Steven Spielberg. ‘We did Hamlet together on Broadway. I played Laertes,’ I say.
Steven remembers the show and even me in it. He saw it twice. He liked it. This is good. [Damianista’s note: If you want to see Damian in Hamlet, see our post here]. We chat some more. Steven’s off to watch his kid play soccer. I want to tell him it’s called football. Probably not the best time, though. Tom has to go and buy a Christmas tree with his daughter. They leave. Tony looks at me and says: ‘So, ready for boot camp in March?” I leap up and kiss everyone in the room. I’ve got the part! I’m Dick Winters. I’m in Band of Brothers.”
Can you imagine the thrill a 28 year old young actor feels when he lives this very Hollywood moment? And I cannot help wonder who he called first to give the big news!
Well done, mate! 😀