JaniaJania takes on Keane

Took a while to get up the gumption to watch Keane. I knew enough about it to know it would be dark and harrowing and intense. One must block off some uninterrupted time and be in the right mindset to watch something like that.

I knew that Damian’s performance in Keane is what sold the Showtime brass on giving him the role of Nicholas Brody without an audition. The film is indeed intense watching. It’s a one man show really with the camera following Keane closely as he wanders the streets of New York, mostly silent and hopelessly disturbed. In Keane, Damian captures perfectly the confusion of mental illness, the murky stare of loss and despair and incapacity to communicate effectively. I found the film was more about the performances than it was about the writing. Amy Ryan as the harried single mother, and Abigail Breslin, in that child-wise-beyond-her-years way she has, were great too, both cast perfectly, in an ultimately heartbreaking and raw story.


I’d read that his role in Keane was one Damian was particularly proud of, but it wasn’t until I heard him say so myself, that I knew I owed it to the film to watch it.

At the New Yorker Festival interview, although we didn’t see any clips from Keane as we did for his other work, Damian himself brought up his work in the film.

First, Damian described “the conundrum” of acting as:

“…this mixture of rehearsal and research and coming prepared ready to deliver something combined with a total free spontaneity, something which is unintellectualized, something that is just felt and received, an animal response to whatever happens in the moment. An actor must be prepared to do that at any moment and be receptive and open to that.”

Lauren Collins then asked Damian whether he carries around a notebook or something collecting his observations about people, their little ticks and what not. And that started him telling us about some of his preparation for Keane. “It was a film about a man who’d lost his daughter and is in the middle of a break down. It was a comedy,” he deadpanned. He described sitting in welfare hotels with the writer of Keane, Lodge Kerrigan, as he rewrote scenes. Damian also spent time in the other principal setting for the film, Port Authority Bus Terminal, talking to the “homeless and not well”.

“I think I feel responsibility very keenly, whether you’re playing a soldier in WWII and that veteran is still alive, that the story is represented well and truthfully, whether you’re playing someone with mental illness, you present it truthfully and honestly, it’s essential, otherwise it’s all just a big lie, and what’s the point.”

Undoubtedly, it is Damian’s capacity to “feel and receive an animal response”, that allows him to convey such truth in a character like Keane. If he had overthought it, he could possibly have resorted to any of the cliche stereotypical conventions of showing someone with mental illness. I believe he even toned down what I imagine he observed among the unwell people roaming Port Authority. You see the mentally ill often talking incessantly and animatedly to themselves, to the very real voices they hear in their heads. It’s like walking up to a person talking into a handsfree phone plugged into their ear. But these people, sadly, don’t have a phone in their ear; what they hear is, of course, inside their very brain. Damian did not show Keane chattering to himself, not in any exaggerated way. I mean, we all talk to ourselves, don’t we? I know I’m guilty of muttering my grocery list aloud as I walk around the grocery store. But the way you witness schizophrenics talk to themselves is quite different. Regardless, the fact that Keane was indeed hearing something we weren’t and responding silently to it was palpable.


It was almost as if Damian was portraying a schizophrenic person on their meds. Not to insert myself into this post more than necessary, but I feel compelled to disclose that someone very close to me suffers from schizophrenia…which may be partly the reason I hesitated so long to watch this film:  I didn’t want it to be a lie, making an offensive or aggrandized spectacle out of something my family has had to come to terms with in a very real and painful way.  Of course, in Damian’s capable hands, it was anything but a lie. Anyway, in my experiences observing my family member both on and off her meds, I’ve seen that schizophrenics never quite erase the voices even when they’re on their meds. But they do sort of correct themselves when they notice themselves going off center:  they forceably call themselves back to reality. That calling back is something they are dramatically incapable of doing when they are off meds. Indeed, we learn that Keane receives diability benefits and one of the criteria for getting those checks, I believe, it to stay on meds.

No, we don’t see Keane downing any pills so we don’t know explicitly whether he’s on his meds or not. In fact, we do see him engaging in all kinds of self-medicating illicit drug and sex behavior. On the other hand, we also see him expressing suggestions of hope with the single mom and her daughter. Some glimmer of peace in his ravaged mind as he briefly imagines a better life for himself. A glimmer possible only when an ill person is taking care of themselves properly.

My point is simply that Damian did not resort to convention. He researched this role, sure, but more importantly, he felt it deeply and thereby honored it. His performance wasn’t just vacant stares punctuated with blinks and random twitches the way any lesser actor would portray mental illness. Yes, Damian did have tears welling up, and grimaces of anguish, and at times he did have blankness, but mostly he portrayed a man walking around with a storm of chaos deep within him. We never know if Keane really had a daughter he lost or whether she’s a figment of his paranoia and delusion. (For what it’s worth, I lean towards the latter)

keaneanguish keanetears

Watching this film, in certain scenes, I was reminded quite acutely of Bradley Cooper. One could go so far to say that Damian Lewis in 2004 was where Bradley Cooper is today as far as having that ability to fill and empty his eyes like he’s flicking a switch on and off. They also share the ability to believably play the two seemingly incongruous personas of dufus goofball and demon-haunted loner.

Without giving anything away, if the entire performance doesn’t move you, the last few minutes are utterly flooring. In a moment of lucidity, Keane looks at the girl played by Abigail Breslin, and he smiles, his first smile really in the entire film. He’s come to an impasse, a realization of sorts, and it actually brings him a brief flicker of happiness and relief. So we get the smile, but then he looks away from the girl and his eyes go immediately empty again. Like all of Damian’s abilities as an actor, that flick of the switch is so subtle that it’s nearly invisible. But, again, (I know I keep saying this!), you will FEEL it. And, again, it’s awe-inspiring.


With Keane, we see Damian’s indeniable ability to achieve a sort of balance between preparation and spontaneity that transforms his practice of the craft of acting into an art form.

9 thoughts on “JaniaJania takes on Keane”

  1. You describe so well the character of keane and interpreting Damian !!
    I wish I could express myself in English as well, sometimes it’s hard to say what I think, because my English is not very good !!
    But, I loved Keane, I loved Damian and I understand very well that the producers of Homeland, after having seen keane, Damian hired without a audition!
    What luck he have made this film, like what, a talented actor, always happens, one day or another, shine out
    ! You have given me the urge to look Keane, for the tenth time, and I’m still having tears as always

    1. Thanks much for reading and for your kind comment! 🙂 Keane truly is a tough film to watch, but a stunningly memorable performance, that deserves to be seen.

    2. Thank you, Monique, and I think Keane’s worth watching even for the 11th time! 😀 My husband wants to watch it for a long time, I watched it multiple times alone earlier, but now that my husband also heard Damian talk about the film at New Yorker Festival, and read JaniaJania’s piece, he REALLY wants to watch it. It’s a hard watch, a very depressing movie with such a heartbreaking performance, and it seems we will be seeing Keane in the near future at our house!

      1. Why would an actor whose oeuvre includes Dick Winters, Soames, Keane, Brody and others wish to play James Bond? Just because he could be the greatest Bond ever?

        I pray that he resist that temptation and continue to bring to theatrical life the men who oscillate with ease from deep dark psychological depth to bright, attractive and fascinating men.
        My life has been enriched by meeting the characters that he brought to life from the words of the scripts.

        James Bond only entertains for a couple of hours.

        1. Couldn’t have said it better myself. “Psychologically dark and deep men oscillating to bright, attractive, and fascinating men” are absolutely Damian’s speciality, and I wish nothing more than for him to continue looking for those roles and taking them to the heights he is uniquely qualified to take them. That said, Bond is a franchise, and as such, it can afford a certain financial stability which can leave all the more space for Damian to create more of the types of characters for which we love and remember him the best. And, as I said on Twitter, and Damianista quoted in her post: if anyone can bring a fresh emotional accessability and depth to an otherwise flat superhero, it’s Damian Lewis. Maybe his Bond, should he take the role, will be a completely new and much improved Bond? We know he can do action and charm and quirky humor. Maybe he’ll camp it up totally and make it into a comedy? Let’s just leave it this: I’m not ruling out ANY possibility.:)

        2. First things first: Agnes, thanks for visiting and reading and for your feedback! Damian has never really said he WANTED to be James Bond, but I don’t think one, as an actor, can really say, “Oh I don’t want that to happen to me!” either. It’s such a huge cultural heritage and such a high profile role that can also be a bridge to other high profile roles later, etc. I don’t know if you have seen it, but I just wrote on this topic, but maybe you read and reacted to that article? Anyhow, here it is: https://www.fanfunwithdamianlewis.com/?p=6122

          And I am completely with you. Damian could be the greatest Bond ever, I have no doubt about it, he could bring such depth to the character, but I am not sure if it’s worth it. The fundamentally flawed characters that he brought to life on screen or on stage are all fascinating and I just want to dream about other roles that can come his way and get excited! You are RIGHT, we just don’t need Bond! By the way, he also openly said he didn’t get any calls at New Yorker Festival, but of course he would probably not tell us if he got a call, either! 🙂

  2. While I have had this dvd for awhile I have been procrastinating watching it . His description during this interview we attended inNYC really intrigued me and made me admire him all the more for the extent of study that goes into each and every character he becomes!! A truly WONDERFUL actor. Planning to watch this week!

    1. Lucky you have the DVD! There are apparently two complete versions of the film, the widely released version by Lodge Kerrigan and an alternate version directed by Steven Soderbergh that’s only available as special DVD feature.
      Hope you enjoy watching!

    2. Carol, you will LOVE it! It’s a hard watch but it’s totally worth it – come on, who am I telling this to? 🙂 Looking forward to your comments about the movie! And so happy we shared the New Yorker festival experience together! Much love <3

Join the conversation!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.