Continuing with Top Moments of 2016, I’m going to take us back to the start of this year, to an article published in The New Yorker. It’s a portrait of Damian Lewis, titled “Blue Blood, Blue Collar“, by Lauren Collins, the same writer we had seen in conversation with Damian at the New Yorker Festival late in 2015. Now, in case you haven’t figured it out from the sometimes pretentiously highbrow way I try to write, I’ve been a fan of The New Yorker for a really long time. I actually started reading as a 16 year old, finding my first copies in the community college library, getting that picture of all the great things to do and see in New York and feeding my imagination of one day living the life of a New York intellectual. (ICYMI, that didn’t happen. For me, at least.:))
Lauren Collins is one of the more pensive and gentler writers The New Yorker has on board. Her pieces often have a dreamy quality to them and her treatment of her insights into Damian, peppered by so much of his own words, was no exception.
She met Damian in New York shooting Billions right before their Thanksgiving break and then during break when he retreated back home to London. The article gives us a bit of his history, some insight into his approach, and lots of lovely understanding into simply who he is as a perpetually curious and stubbornly intelligent human being.
We already know that Damian researches his roles by reading, talking to people, asking pointed questions. In his research for the role of Bobby Axelrod, Collins noted:
As a preproduction exercise, touring boardrooms wasn’t the sort of extravagantly crafty immersion program that prompts other actors… Rather, his approach was forensic. He wasn’t trying to be a hedge-fund manager but to identify and analyze what distinguished one. He was, in a sense, gathering evidence.
With Bobby, Damian apparently found something to add on his own, beyond the research he had done. He conjured a personal alchemy of Bobby as written on the page informed by the hedge fund managers both he and the writers had consulted combined with his own thoughts and feelings in the moment of every scene. Bobby started off as a meditating master of all, but when Damian was done with that energy, he took it upon himself to transform it into something else.
When production for “Billions” began, in July, Lewis intended to embody a “compelling stillness.” But as the season progressed the Zen-master approach no longer felt appropriate. He said, “I just found, for Bobby, once we made the choice that he was a jeans-and-trainers guy, and that he liked wearing knitwear”—he broke into a sort of garmento-inflected American accent—“that he was going to take the space. It was a way to find the expansiveness of the king.”
Billions has been known to play liberally with basketball metaphors, so I’ll add this one to the mix. If Damian was ever a follower of US basketball, it could be said that he fashioned Bobby, at first, after a sort of Phil Jackson-ish stillness, and finding the script (or his own sense of the script) not jiving with that picture, eventually let Bobby blossom into a Mark Cuban-esque creature, unabashedly man-spreading himself out all over Axe Capital and our screens.
This slow build that Damian managed for Bobby was never more apparent than in the session he has with Wendy in the Billions episode “Magical Thinking”. In that episode you can see Bobby flitting around like a hummingbird, not a smidge of Zen left to him. Since Collins’ article speaks specifically about the filming of that episode, I watched it again to see the juxtapositions between what she and Damian had to say about that day with what ultimately translated to screen.
Collins got a front row seat to the filming of the scene when Bobby has his revelatory To be a sociopath, or not to be a sociopath speech.
Outside, Lewis and Maggie Siff, who plays the U.S. Attorney’s wife—she is also Axe Capital’s in-house psychiatrist—were marking out the evening’s first scene. It required them to leave the building together, and continue down the sidewalk as they hashed over an office tragedy, to which Axelrod has responded coldly. The scene seemed fairly straightforward, but, after several tries, Lewis stopped under a tree, pulling over the director.
“I asked for some more specific psychology,” he said, “and I didn’t really get an answer.”
It was soon time for the first take. Axelrod was beginning to question the ruthless behavior that has enabled his success. As the psychiatrist asked him when he had last cried, something seemed to flicker behind Lewis’s pupils. The script called for him to launch into a speech about heroism. Lewis nailed the physical manifestations of American male sentimentality—the watering eyes, the bulbous clench of the jaw when talking about fathers playing catch with their kids and soldiers coming home from war. Yet his performance contained a note of irony. He seemed, in the movement of his eyes, to be leaving it open as to whether Axelrod came by his tears earnestly or was manufacturing them in order to pull one over on the shrink.
“Yeah, and then?” Axelrod says, in the scene’s last line. Lewis stared at Siff, letting the ambiguity linger.
You may be able to see, despite the low quality of these screencaps, what Collins’ is getting at. It’s Damian’s depiction of quintessential American masculinity, a guy happily telling a cool story, at first too cool to show any of the emotion behind his story (of watching soldiers return from war), yet showing just enough of it to convince whomever he’s talking to of his sincerity. Bobby looks off into the distance and remembers those videos and tears, but you don’t really know if he means anything he’s saying or showing. It’s like he has a memory of tears without ever really convincing you that he’s ever felt tears. How an actor can pull off such a thing, well…that’s why I’m here writing and you’re here reading, isn’t it. It’s just a lovely and captivating thing to witness, that’s all.
Leaving Billions, Collins discusses a bit of Damian’s career trajectory. On recalling his transition from stage to screen, Damian shares:
“Onstage, you have to in some small nuanced way give a demonstration of what you’re thinking so that the people at the back can see it, whereas on camera you just quite literally have to think it,” he said. “I realized that you could actually have a whole range of thoughts in a short space of time and the camera would see them all. You become a sort of mental gymnast.”
Collins’ goes on to describe how Damian sees himself as an advocate for his characters. He’s patiently collected the data on them, put it together so as to present the character to us in a compelling way, all in order for us to believe in that character completely. She notes:
The sense that a performance is a contest, a debate that can be won, appeals to Lewis’s competitive nature. The harder the fight, the greater the spoils.
To that end, Damian has been able to win arguments with directors about props he wants to use (a walking stick in Queen of the Desert) or not use (the suicide vest in “Marine One”). Even when he doesn’t win the argument, he still manages to win by playing the ambiguity of that decision on screen. And that’s the ambiguity that wins him awards like his first Emmy for that very episode of Homeland he was so conflicted about.
Some fun bits about Damian’s post-Eton, pre-Guildhall sartorial choices:
He cultivated a new look: paisley shirts, drainpipe jeans, black suède winklepickers.
FYI, to save you from looking them up, allow me to present an image of this ensemble:
While visiting him in London, Collins noted Damian doing domestic chores:
…things that a famous actor would be a chump to do in Los Angeles but a wanker not to in London.
You know how women in media or anywhere in power, really, are always asked how they manage to balance it all? Well Damian seems to want to answer that question even when he’s not asked. Collins noted his propensity to steer the conversation always back to home and family:
Unusually for a man—a man renowned for his portrayals of terse masculinity—the dilemma of how to “have it all” dominates his conversation.
And, look, how wonderful this bit is in Collins bio-interview, when Damian details in his own words the nascent responsibility of one coming from privilege to be “happy”, managing the often unspoken wrestle between success and happiness, and the challenges of ever attaining true enlightenment.
“Why does one go away?” he said. “What is it that drives you on? If you are instinctively, or have been brought up or educated in a way that you demand of yourself that you make the best of your life and the best of your opportunities, then there is a constant conversation going on between definitions of success versus definitions of happiness. The two don’t always go together, and at what point do you stop striving so hard to be successful in the conventional sense, because every fibre in your body has been educated to take your opportunities, versus arguably a more enlightened view, which is you don’t have to chase and go for these things?”
The last sentence of Collins article beautifully captured the momentum Damian embodies as a beautiful actor as a really splendid human being:
He turned a corner, continuing the argument.
His continuation of the argument is exactly the route he’s bound to take, and we’re privileged to be following along every step of the way.