We talked about how Damian Lewis became Dick Winters earlier here. Dick Winters is not only the first “American” that Damian brought to life on screen, but it is also the role that made him an internationally known actor. Accordingly, after his big success in Band of Brothers, Damian was offered roles in Hollywood, including a part in Black Hawk Down which he turned down to do… Well… The Forsyte Saga!
When asked in an interview with Now Magazine in 2001 about why he turned down Black Hawk Down, Damian Lewis jokingly says:
“I’d had enough of soldiering. Out of a cast of about 10,000, there was only one woman in Band of Brothers. So for my next job I wanted girls in it. I wanted the smell of sweet perfume wafting out from make up each morning.” 😀
Joke aside, it seems Damian was not interested in the other roles offered to him but was really interested in making The Forsyte Saga:
“They just weren’t right. There’s so much pressure to get on and be in films in this business. They’re great fun but you’ve still got to keep doing the best material that comes your way.
“I knew very little about the original Forsyte Saga. But it was a fantastic script and they told me the names of the rest of the people they were trying to get involved. I just jumped at the chance.
It’s a costume drama which looks sumptuous. It’s a feast to look at. But it’s not just a historical piece. It has all the elements of a modern day romantic comedy combined with soap opera.
The plot twists and turns. I think people will get swallowed up by all the loves, passions, joys, sorrows and obsessions of the characters. It just happens to be set in Victorian times.”
How did Damian prepare to play Soames Forsyte? It turns out he read all of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga novels plus read on Victorian mores and social customs as well as on husband – wife relations in that era. However, he did not watch the extremely popular 1967 TV version and went for his own Soames instead!
“That was a seminal piece of work, and a whole generation loved it. But I find that television dates very quickly. The language of the camera has moved on since then, audiences have become more sophisticated. We would find it very sedentary compared to what we expect now. Our cast is a lot younger than theirs, and I think the relationships are scripted in a slightly different way, more ambiguous perhaps. I’ll see it someday, but I don’t feel the need to go to it for guidance.”
Well, with such diligent preparation, you’d expect the shoot to go very smoothly, wouldn’t you? Not so fast! Our poor guy has a little problem at the very beginning: New York Times reports Damian “dazzled during casting, but his listless performance in the early days of the production puzzled the filmmakers. “Damian seemed terribly distracted and not really on his game,” said Christopher Menaul, the initial director of the series. “We thought: ‘Oh my God, what’s wrong with him? Is it the pressure already?’ ”
Well… Damian tells the story at the New Yorker Festival in 2015:
It turns out Damian has some bad stomach pain before he goes to Manchester for The Forsyte Saga shoot. He sees a doctor in London who says it is probably gas and gives him a suppository… which doesn’t really work… Awww… Poor guy. And then…
“I came to the first day’s filming and we had to stop at lunch time because I went green. And I went back to my hotel room in Manchester, which is the famous Midland Hotel, where Mr Rolls and Mr Royce met and made a deal to make a car… And by that evening I was in emergency in hospital because I had acute appendicitis.”
Damian is rushed to Manchester Royal Infirmary and to the operating room as his appendix is seconds away from rupturing which can be life-threatening.
The filming stops and the producer, “bless her”, Damian says, visits him in the hospital every day: “Are you all right? Have they said how long?”
When he comes back to the set two weeks later, Damian realizes they used another guy to make some wide shots of him on his back:
“They sprayed his head and had him knock a few doors.”
This guy apparently has this “oddest walk” (Damian, at this point, stands up and does it for the audience, on stage. Priceless!) that Damian is furious about at first. He says it is ridiculous they used this other guy and they have to have only Damian’s image on screen… But then he watches it again… and that “oddest walk” unlocks Soames Forsyte for Damian — “the incredible sort of tension that lived in him.” So Damian steals the whole thing and Soames Forsyte, as we know him, is born.
And once he is on his feet and on top his game, there is a moment on set where Damian does not know his strength… Yeah here comes a FUN one!
The Forsyte Saga was also partly filmed in Liverpool, a city that often doubles as London or New York in period dramas thanks to its well-preserved period architecture. The Liverpool Echo reports about the Spiegl house that appeared as Soames’ house in Forsyte Saga:
“At the time the Spiegls were having their three-storey home rewired so the wallpaper was peeled back and there were channels running up the walls. The production team took out all the furniture and redecorated.
They said ‘we’ll restore it to how it is’ – I said ‘no!’,” says Ingrid, whose house’s high ceilings and period features make it the perfect choice for location scouts.
She did eventually redecorate but traces of the mini-series remain. They left behind a couple of rolls of blue patterned wallpaper, which she used to paper a small corridor on the first floor.
There is also another reminder.
“Damian Lewis broke my door knob,” says Ingrid.
“He was rattling it. It was a china one and it broke. My late husband glued it back together again with a piece of paper saying ‘Damian Lewis broke this door knob’ because we think that’s a thing to be proud of.”
So, which scene do you think it is that makes Damian get into the character so much so that he breaks the door knob? Could it be the one where Soames forces Irene’s door after they come back from THAT party where Irene and Bossiney dance intimately in front of everyone?
Well… If it was me, it would not be just the door knob, but the door, too! 😀
Damian played all American Dick Winters and all British Soames Forsyte back to back. An interesting PBS interview points out that both these characters are interior guys.
What does Damian make out of this?
“I guess I’m just good at playing repressed individuals. I’m lucky because those are often the roles that catch people’s eyes. It’s the Steve McQueen element, all that bubbling energy bottled up inside. It’s a very compelling quality on the screen. I’ve been lucky that I seem to be able to pull it off. Of course, the two roles are polar opposites. Winters was a lion-hearted hero, a leader of men. Soames is anything but. Soames is a pathetic man in many ways.”
Oh my, my, my, my… This comparison is amazing just because of the common element Damian finds in these two characters that he played back to back: Steve McQueen who Damian will bring to life on big screen in Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. You can see our first look at the movie here. Cheers!