Time flies! Damian Lewis was the guest of celebrated Times Talks at Directors Guild Theater five years ago. And I would love to take this opportunity to travel back to that day to re-live the wonderful conversation Damian had with Cara Buckley, a New York Times culture reporter and celebrate the first anniversary of a beautiful friendship with Paige and Joyce with whom I clicked as soon as I met them in the line!
I would also love to give special thanks to Times Talks for spotting the most captivated trio in the audience and immortalize us on the event website! 😀
Well, on the day the UK votes to stay in or leave the European Union, a conversation with a British actor calls for a question about Brexit. That is is Buckley’s opening question. The entire conversation, in fact, turns out to be more political than I expect, and guess what, I enjoy it immensely. I applaud Cara Buckley for her hard-hitting questions and Damian for speaking his mind thoughtfully, knowledgeably and graciously along with his brilliant humor cracking up the room one too many times!
It’s time. Here comes Damian…
“Well, I think we should stay.”
Cara Buckley starts with Brexit: Where does Damian stand?
Damian talks about the general notion that the European Union (EU) is an imperfect project. As imperfect as it may be, he finds it worth pursuing. He sees a moral obligation for the UK to commit to Europe and contribute in the best way it can. He points out the EU is a peace project, conceived with the hope European countries stop fighting each other, and the coherence it tries to bring with “the openness, the moving of the peoples, the freedom of trade, the exchange of ideas and a common value system” has granted a peaceful Europe in the last 50 years.
“It’s not Wyatt Earp. He doesn’t have a big mustache, and a hat and a long black coat. Or a gun. Which I would like to say, is a good thing.”
Cara Buckley asks what Damian’s ancestors would think about Brexit. We find out Damian’s grandfather was the Lord Mayor of London. He explains the difference between the Mayor of London, a political position, and Lord Mayor, a position borne out of an old tradition of merchants. The guilds of London were established as early as in the 13th century to ensure the goods traded in the city meet some particular quality. The merchants whose goods met that quality became freeman of the city: They could pass the Thames into the city toll free and trade freely. Damian’s family had a connection to the merchant guild of Haberdashers — his grandfather was a Haberdasher. Based on the information he gives, his grandfather should be Lieutenant Colonel Sir Ian Frank Bowater. And Damian’s brother William, another haberdasher, is now becoming the Sheriff of London. Damian feels the urge to explain his brother is no Wyatt Earp 🙂 And he adds the city guilds have backed the Remain vote.
Now that we have Brexit covered, Buckley says, we are moving to more important things like… Damian’s career: “Back to me. Thought it would never happen.”
“I think, first and foremost, as an actor, what you chase is stories.”
So what is it about Billions that convinced Damian to come back to America for another cable show?
Damian argues the most enticing stories are the ones, as much as they are fiction, that derive from real news and draw parallels between real stories and the characters one gets to play: Like Homeland and Billions. He talks about how TV “has upped its game in a dramatic fashion” over the last 15 years: Networks now have greater ambition. Filmmakers want to work in TV to make “novelized drama” that is addictive and binge-worthy. But TV still comes with its risks, he says, because you don’t know, even when you are someone fastidious, trying to understand the story lines and the ambition of the project before you take a role, you still don’t know what will happen with it. He says Homeland became HOMELAND and Billions became BILLIONS because people liked them and he feels very lucky. Well, in my personal opinion, it is not about luck, Damian. It is about the way you bring Brody and Bobby to life… THAT IS what makes people love Homeland and Billions.
He goes on to compare and contrast the two characters: Brody is a “tumbleweed blown across this bleak landscape of his life from the moment he decides to sign up” where as Bobby is “blowing the tumbleweed… kicking it about in a certain fashion.” He expands on Billions:
“I hope Billions continues to maintain a cogent argument between regulation and the public sector, the good that it does, but also it’s not without its vanity, not without its ambition, as embodied in Paul’s character; and the libertarianism of the private sector, where, you know, the true definition of libertarianism is that every man should be able to do as he wishes as long as he does not harm his fellow men… Bobby gets the first half of that right and he is less good with the second half.”
“They play their cards quite close to their chest generally.”
Buckley now wants to hear about the meetings Damian had with hedge-fund managers while he prepared for his part.
Damian says hedge fund guys consider themselves risk averse. They do the research and bet only when they are confident about it. The bet is often shorting a company exactly like Jim Chanos has short Tesla and Solar City because he thinks they are overvalued and underperforming companies. The outcome is a “gladiatorial dynamic between the main characters” where Billions also sets itself. Damian thinks the fight between Axe and Chuck is not very different from Chanos and Elon Musk going at each other.
He explains activism: Hedge-fund managers see themselves as market regulators. They find overvalued, underperforming companies with lazy boards receiving big bonuses and not really working for the shareholders. While the board is telling the shareholders 3.5% return is great, the hedge-fund guy does the analysis and notices the company can do 5-6% which means it is badly run. This is what Bobby Axelrod exactly does in Season 1 Episode 3 Yum Time.
But does Damian believe in activism? Well, yes, in certain circumstances 😀 Damian argues, as soon as the activists make what they have done public, a well-respected billionaire with enormous power may decide to short the company making shareholders sell their shares in panic and let the stock fall. That is what Chuck Sr exactly does in Season 1 Episode 4 Short Squeeze. It is a scary position to be in regardless how rich you are… which brings Damian to build his case for the hedge-fund guys:
“…there is a little part of me that responds to the stubborn little kid, that is the hedge fund guy, and he is the little kid, you know, who had his lunch box stolen by the cool kids, who is in the corner of the playground just going ‘but I’m right I’m right I’m right… and I’m going to see this through and screw all the rest of you.’ Because they do swim against the tide to make that bet. And I quite like that.”
“So, a pair of jeans, and sneakers and, as you mentioned a nice bit of knitwear was the way he’d like to be.”
How does Bobby’s costume inform the character? Damian highlights the fact that hedge-funds are separate from Wall Street and Billions uses costume to show they are a different breed. They borrow a little from the West Coast dot-commers:
“Dressed down, a bit more hip, fashionable, and casual.”
Bobby does not need a Tom Ford suit to show off. He has an $83 million dollar Hamptons mansion for that!
“It’s a genetic fluke.”
How come is Damian, a guy that went to Eton, so good at playing blue collar American men?
Before being a privately educated Brit, Damian points out, he is first and foremost an actor. His face appears American and his red hair speaks to the Irish American blue collar tradition. He thinks he also got lucky with his first American role, Dick Winters: He 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.” He played a lot of Americans but never a wasp-y American that would be more suited to his background. It turns out David Nevins, the President of Showtime, has said “Damian Lewis, for whatever reason, in spite of his Tory background, has a blue collar quality, almost sinister.”
“Frontier spirit is still much more alive here.”
How does he see American masculinity different from British masculinity?
Damian thinks masculinity has more to do with geography as well as the circumstances one is born into. He personally identifies with the audience here in the room: “metropolitan, sophisticated, metrosexual.” What he has found in America in the last 15 years though is a particular kind of American masculinity: it is a “can do, black and white, direct, blue collar” masculinity where men drive pick up trucks and build houses. Complete with an uncomplaining commitment to work. And THAT GUY is whom he tries to identify with in Nicholas Brody, Dick Winters, Charlie Crews and Bobby Axelrod. Even though Bobby is operating in a whole different world and has probably not built anything in his life, Damian finds that “can do, direct” attitude in him:
“He’s the gambler. He’s that street kid who just goes and rips off other street kids because he understood the cards better than everybody else.”
“I didn’t know people could get that famous.”
Does he miss Brody?
Damian loved playing Brody. He misses the fantastic work he did with Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin, Rupert Friend and others. He says, as they were filming Season 1, they knew they were making something good, but they did not know Homeland would be HOMELAND. It just felt good to play in something that did not have a dragon in it! And he revises right away: “I will revise that. There are pretty good movies with a dragon in it.” 😀 But then Homeland became HOMELAND and Damian did not know people could get that famous. He felt like Justin Bieber for a second 🙂
But he thinks Brody needed to go. He was told early on he would be a two-season character but because the Carrie-Brody chemistry did wonders (it is all you to blame, Damian!) the writers were somewhat pressured to keep him around for another season.
Damian talking about fans watching Homeland for different reasons is beyond hilarious. Some genuinely watched it as a relationship drama:
“They’re gonna get together… They’re gonna have ginger babies…”
And my favorite bit:
“And liberals were just saying… This is so interesting… What is a terrorist act?” 😀
“Playing a spy is quite fun.”
The conversation turns to Damian’s new movie Our Kind of Traitor in which he plays an MI6 agent Hector Meredith. The movie, adapted from a John le Carre book, derives its story from the real world: A load of dirty Russian money is used to set up a new Russian bank in London. Damian argues this is a tale of London, but also of Manhattan, where multinational money is “stripping out the soul and heart of big cities.” He is intrigued by Hector: yet another ambiguous individual stuck between his self-interest and his getting caught up in the emotion of the story.
Buckley asks about Hector’s accent. She finds it “very tipped.” It turns out Damian had lunch with two spies at a Special Forces Club in London as part of his prep for the role: a public school product and a private school product. Interestingly, they both sound POSH. It seems, he says, there is an institutional accent. And when asked if he borrows from his family or the school he went to in terms of the accent, he says his cohort came out of Eton at a time where Thatcher and Reagan were promoting working man conservatism and that made his generation not want to sound posh at all. They played down their accent: They were the “Mockneys.”
“We can’t just have middle class art.”
What does he think about actors from posh schools dominating the acting scene?
Damian gives a forceful answer:
“Let’s just get rid of that myth for starters.”
He says there is only a small percentage of them that are doing really well. He cites Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne from Eton and Benedict Cumberbatch from Harrow. These schools whose students generally choose either government or army or law as their profession have now branched out to arts but it’s still a tiny minority going into acting: Having a good education, he says, does not necessarily bring you success in acting:
“There is every reason for you to fail. Mostly because of typecasting which I’ve fought hard against… Which is what you have been kind to mention.. which is why I enjoy so much coming here and playing blue collar Americans… ’cause it is a world away from my own background.”
Then he makes a wonderful point: Damian’s parents were supportive of him when he chose to go to drama school and they were able to afford it. Damian says everyone must be represented when it comes to training in the arts and this can be met by government subsidies but when you have austerity, it is always the arts that get the first cuts. He appreciates the great tradition in the US where wealthy people contribute to the arts but still believes in some sort of government subsidy to keep the independence of the arts:
“We can’t just have middle class art.”
Time for Q&A: Buckley has questions she collected earlier from fans on Twitter — including two from my brilliant partners!
Damian is TORN! He was brought up by a Welsh father and has proudly supported Wales in rugby. And, he says, even though there has been no Wales to support in any major championship for years, he is supporting them equally:
“I feel that I am a Briton. I feel partly Celt. I feel partly Anglo-Saxon. And I am going into politics. I have perfected the art of not answering the question.” 😀
Well, the Welsh half tweeted THE answer – sort of – later on Twitter.
Well, you know we have been rooting for Damian Lewis to play Steve McQueen in an upcoming biopic, don’t you? “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.”
Update 06/20/2018: Well, well, well… SOME DREAMS COME TRUE! Damian Lewis will play Steve McQueen in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood!
Update 06/ 20/2019: You can find our first look at the movie here and watch this space for more!
As the wonderful talk comes to an end, I am a bit sad they did not take audience questions because I had mine ready days before the event! But, in a few minutes, I am over the moon because Damian lets me do a little interview with him! And I cannot believe five years have passed since that magical evening…