So desirous are we to learn about the elusive nature of creativity that we’ll watch and listen with bated breath when someone who has been successful at living life as a creative person has something to say about the process and the choices he’s made to get to where he is today. One of Top Moments of this year was Damian Lewis chatting at the SAG-AFTRA Foundation with New York Magazine’s Hollywood editor, Stacey Wilson Hunt, about his career as an actor.
We learn that in his years at boarding school, between the ages of 8 and 13, Damian had completed 5 Gilbert & Sullivan musicals. He was given the main role in Princess Ida, at 11, and he realized after the performance that he had completely missed the third act. Later that day, the headmaster remarked in front of the entire school that it was the worst dress rehearsal he had ever witnessed. Hunt expressed her concern of the effect something like that would have on a child of 11, to which Damian promptly answered:
Ah, it’s made me the man I am, don’t worry.
The acting bug took hold for good when Damian was 16. With a group of friends he started a “theater company” and put on a play set in WWII, The Long, the Tall and the Short. Imagine, if you will, a group of young actors as British army patrol protecting British Burma against the Japanese. Pictured here is the cast of the film version of the play. So interesting that the one role that sealed the deal for Damian was a role as a soldier. It was then that he knew he wouldn’t be working too hard on his SATs.
Isn’t it interesting that Damian seems to think of acting as a vocation, much like welding or furnace repair? That is, acting was something he could do that didn’t involve going to university and getting a higher education. How bizarre it seems to consider such an articulate and well-read person as being somehow unlearned. Either Damian is vastly underplaying his education or there is indeed a gaping difference in what is considered basic education around the world.
Damian goes on to tell us that his parents were generally supportive of him giving up university and that his father was a bit of an actor manque, an insurance broker who perhaps had aspirations to do something more creative. His parents took them to the theater often and watched him perform on stage. Damian played another character of note, brutal school master Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby. Here’s a clip of Jim Broadbent in the movie version of this role. Let’s imagine Damian playing such evil as a boy.
Suffice it to say, even as most of Hollywood remains eons behind, Damian has surmounted the superficiality of most of the industry. When given the role of the bad guy or foil or someone-we’re-not-supposed-to-like, he’s able to turn it all around. Sure, Tony Soprano may have been the first character to shine a light on the anti-hero, but Damian Lewis is the first actor to perfect the very idea of the anti-hero, a character that we end up loving despite everything. It’s hard to now imagine an anti-hero with Damian NOT playing the role.
Next, Damian tells us of the faces and personalities that he sought for inspiration. He mentions Michael Gambon had a large presence in theater in those days (mid-80’s) and Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson in Me and My Girl. (ETA: A reader shared this wonderful recording of Damian singing “Leaning on a Lamp Post” from Me and My Girl! Thank you :D)
When Hunt asked Damian which of the actors he met were willing to offer him help and advice, Damian was at a loss and finally asserted something true the world over, I suppose:
No actor would help another actor.
At Guildhall he said he was lucky to get lead roles as Banquo in Macbeth and a lead part in one of the lesser known Ibsen plays. (He said Karsten Bernick in League of Youth, but that was a character from Ibsen’s Pillars of Society, which we know Damian did in 2005, so he must have meant some other lead role of Ibsen’s). From there he moved on to Birmingham Repertory, where Damian was cast in Rope (which was put to film by Hitchcock with James Stewart in the lead role) and Romeo and Juliet, where Damian says he was cast in a feminist production with the role of Juliet portrayed as more muscular than Romeo.
She was beautiful and I was callow and innocent and useless.
He went on to tell a story of a production of Moliere’s L’ecole des Femmes at the Almeida theater in London with Ian McDiarmid (Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars), when, in a rush to get to a beer with friends, Damian left his costume in a heap on the floor. A “triumvirate” of elders in the house surrounded him the next day and admonished him:
We don’t do that in the theatre.
This was the one bit of “avuncular” advice he got from her seniors in acting and he’s never left his costume on the floor since. At the Almeida, Damian shared a dressing room with Bernard Gallagher, most recently seen as Molesly’s father in Downton Abbey. All this name-dropping served to demonstrate that Damian was constantly surrounded by more experienced actors, and even if they didn’t directly show him the ropes, he did get to hear story after story of the old days at the Old Vic and the National Theater, from actors who had worked directly with Laurence Olivier et al. He heard great stories, and that was the extent of older actors helping him as a young up-and-comer.
The conversation then turns to what we already have heard Damian talk about before: getting the call back for Band of Brothers. (my post on Dick Winters: here) At the success of that series, Damian reached a sort of impasse. He got offers for movies. He turned down the role of “shape shifter” villian Gustav Grave, a part that eventually went to Toby Stephens, in the Bond film of the year, Die Another Day. And one role he “unfortunately” accepted: Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher. He said that watching the film was:
Nothing that a nice hand-rolled spliff can’t help you with.
He could have stayed in LA and hoped for more parts, wait around as so many actors do. Just walk into a Red Lobster in Burbank and see how focused the beautiful and fit wait staff is on whatever entertainment news program happens to be on the TV behind the bar, and you get an immediate window into the lives of all the actors waiting for their big break in Los Angeles. That was the kind of thing Damian saw for himself had he stayed in Los Angeles and waited for the next call. He’d gotten a taste of Hollywood with Dreamcatcher and it wasn’t a particularly savory taste so he decided to follow his gut, his heart, which told him to be true to his “response to the script.” He resolved “that the script would be paramount” in guiding him to which projects to seek out and to accept. So he made the wise (and, let’s face it, fortunate) decision to go back home, where he promptly got another stellar part: Soames Forsyte in the Forsyte Saga.
Damian did come back to playing Americans in An Unfinished Life and Keane, the film he’s said often that he’s the most proud of and rightfully so. (I wrote about Keane here)
Then we get to what makes Los Angeles different from every other center for the arts: the distinction between actors and film stars. Damian says that there certainly are film stars who can be brilliant actors. There are also film stars whose “bandwidth is less broad” and “what they’ve perfected is a persona.” Damian says that there have been producers who encouraged him to develop a persona, to identify the Damian Lewis brand and to project it to everything he does so as to render him a film star. He scoffs at the idea being
Way too complicated for my small head.
Really, though, he’s resisted this LA brand of branding purposefully and quite wisely. He goes on to say that he’s still vain, he wants to be adored and loved just like any other actor, but that his “particular vanity is a more snobbish one.” He wants to be respected by the people who know the craft. He doesn’t care if the multitudes love him, as long as the eyes that matter do. Then he does his self-effacing thing again:
Maybe that’s simplistic, maybe I’m kidding myself.
So interesting that those who strive to be the best, to aim for the highest of goals, have to somehow apologize for it. I guess aiming high is a sign of arrogance and hubris? But, fear of being perceived as arrogant should not, by any means, keep an artist complacently hitting the low bar. The interviewer remarks that Damian is very self-aware for making such an observation about what drives him. Given that this is Los Angeles, it’s quite believeable when she says:
That’s probably the most self-aware thing I’ve ever heard anyone say on this stage.
The topic shifts to Homeland. Damian tells us that when he got to talk to Alex Gansa, on a rare occasion when he got to talk about himself, he asked whether the decision to cast him as Brody was influenced by his work on Life. Gansa was incredulous, and, in no uncertain terms, said that Life was a failure, why would Damian think that it had helped him? Damian laughs it off now, of course. But sheesh. We know now, of course, that Damian got the part of Brody thanks to the critical eye of indie-filmaker Michael Cuesta, who had seen Keane, was a fan of Lodge Kerrigan already, and convinced the show runners to watch it too. So thanks to Cuesta and the ease of Netflix streaming, Brody was cast.
Damian launches into a spoof of studio execs the very morning of this interview arguing over him in the Warner Brothers lot: one loved Brody, the other hated him. Then he makes an interesting observation about the polarized politics of the show. Conservatives viewers saw Brody as a simple threat that had to be done away with and liberal viewers delved more deeply into his story, empathized with his victimization, and came to the realization that the minute he chose to fight in an “unjust war”, his fate was sealed.
From that moment on, he was tumbleweed, blowing in the wind.
Now, what were his thoughts after Homeland, about doing another series on cable? The principal thought in his head at the time was this:
Don’t do another long-running American TV show…don’t go away from home for long periods of time leaving your kids in one country while you work in another country.
But, ultimately, the writing brought him back: The fact that this upwards surge in “novelistic” writing that started with the Sopranos and Band of Brothers was still running strong, and that the best writing is now 15 years later still happening on television. Damian concedes that he was really REALLY lucky to come of age as an actor during this time when writing for television became superior to writing for film.
Next, we got to his method, especially in heightened emotional scenes like the one of Brody in the suicide vest. Damian says off the bat, that it’s all imaginative work, he doesn’t do Stanislavski, he doesn’t go to emotional memory. He doesn’t dredge up tears by thinking about the hamster he lost when he was a boy. Instead, it all comes from pure imagination. A purely generous empathy towards the character, leaving himself at the stage door, and walking into the skin of the character, feeling and being what the character demands. He develops a strong knowledge beforehand of where the character is, where in his life, where in the scene, the circumstances that have put him where he is, and with that strong backbone of research and understanding and empathy, he lets his imagination do the rest.
I action everything rigorously, so that everything I do is transitive, so that I never just play a state…it’s never static…you play a verb, you play an action.
Then we have answers to a question near and dear to our own hearts: what future projects are in the works? Damian is producing his brother Gareth’s next film, he’s writing a short film with a friend, and there is another project that he’s wanting to direct and is financing slowly. He confesses to racing around LA going in and out of “colorless rooms” meeting people and that everyone is talking about franchises. What he’s heard of these franchises hasn’t been that exciting to him and he’s concluded that with another successful series on Showtime, he effectively already has a franchise.
Best advice he’s ever been given? Something he heard from a big name director whose big name Shakespeare project at the National Theater Damian had to forego in order to do a press junket in Paris:
Never choose to go and sell something rather than create something.
Final question was the very same question I had the honor and privilege of sort of, kind of, asking him. What would you do if you stopped acting? This time Damian didn’t take the question quite so seriously and said:
Be a hedge fund manager. Because I know how to do it now. Because I’ve played one on the TV.
Watch the entire interview here.