Interview: Damian Lewis, actor

Damian Lewis, pictured with Helen McCrory at the Laurence Olivier Awards. Picture: Getty
Damian Lewis, pictured with Helen McCrory at the Laurence Olivier Awards. Picture: Getty
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DAMIAN Lewis has come under attack on the home front after going AWOL to star in the latest US hit thriller Homeland, he tells Craig McLean

ON AND off screen, Damian Lewis has been in the wars. At home in north London, five-year-old Gulliver is in the middle of a testosterone spike. Little sister Manon, four, is all sweetness and light, but his son is a running, punching, kicking, Power Rangers-mad ball of aggro energy.

“You’re having a perfectly normal conversation,” recounts the actor, “then suddenly he goes hiya – a punch straight in the balls! Just out of nowhere!” The 41-year-old shakes his head and grins. “You’re lying there crumpled on the floor. Unprovoked!”

Maybe little Gully is getting his own back on dad. Or maybe (whisper it), mum – actress Helen McCrory – is transferring some of her home-alone fatigue to their son. After all Lewis has been working away from home rather a lot in the past year. The London-born star of Band Of Brothers is – a decade after that Second World War HBO series made his name – a star in America, and has been putting in the filming hours to warrant it.

Lewis is the lead in Homeland, a new drama series made by US channel Showtime. He plays Sergeant Nick Brodie, an American Marine presumed dead in Iraq. But eight years after being declared missing in action, a Special Forces operation in effect trips over Brodie. The soldier emerges, battered, bearded and tortured, from an insurgents’ hole, and is promptly returned back to the States to a heroes’ welcome.

But is that all there is to it? A rogue CIA agent, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) has received a tip-off that an American serviceman has been converted by an al-Qaeda-associated group. Is this Brodie? Has he deliberately been freed so he can return to American soil as, in effect, a walking timebomb? Has patriot turned jihadist?

“Ten years on from 9/11, even though the power of al-Qaeda has been diminished, all these rogue factional elements have sprung up,” says Lewis. “So there are now terrorist networks operating in all these different countries with their own independent cells. And we’re just as likely to receive a terrorist attack from one of them as we are directly from al-Qaeda.”

“And I thought it was fascinating that there are high profile cases of British and American soldiers who have converted to Islam. John Lindh was famously known as the ‘American Taleban’, and is in fact still in prison in the United States. It’s absurd he’s still in custody.”

All these ideas, he says, are posited in Homeland, which, in the jittery, paranoid atmosphere of election-year America’s “homeland insecurity”, has gained added renown as a result of President Barack Obama declaring it one of his favourite shows.

“The longer the war in Afghanistan has drifted on, in some ways the more remote it feels,” says the Eton and Guildhall School of Music and Drama-educated actor. “And 9/11 now seems like a long time ago, and we seem to have got our intelligence in order. So I think there was that sense that maybe the anxiety which paranoid, psychological thrillers like this feed off, maybe that had diminished.”

But the critical hosannas, ratings and the awards – at last month’s Golden Globes Homeland won Best Drama Series, and Danes took home Best Actress in a TV Drama – suggest that America thought differently.

“In some ways, actually getting Osama bin Laden last year – quite contrary to the idea that actually that means the threat is now gone, actually I think it just reawakened everyone’s interest in it and sense of alertness.”

Shooting in North Carolina, has allowed Lewis to see Homeland’s impact in America though the prism of geography.

“It’s been fascinating filming it in the South because I am surrounded by military families. Two or three hours from the location are some of the biggest marine training camps and army bases. Camp Toccoa, where a lot of Band Of Brothers took place and is still an operational army base, is only three or four hours south of us in Georgia.” The War on Terror, he notes, “is really alive and present for families there. Their boys and sons and daughters and dads are all out there still.

“It’s what Michelle Obama said repeatedly – it’s not only the men that fight these wars. And that’s what this series addresses so brilliantly – how it’s affected Brodie’s family when he returns. His wife has taken up a lover who’s become a surrogate father. That’s not sensationalist; that’s very real. And the inability for army couples to come back together and function well again is prevalent.”

The other pungently personal theme that contributes to Homeland’s gripping narrative is Danes’ character. She is a “rogue” CIA operative insofar as she secretly suffers from a bipolar disorder. Her condition means she struggles to manage her behaviour in front of her superiors. It also means that her suspicions about Brodie could simply be manifestations of her psychological mania. Homeland teasingly asks: who, exactly, is the damaged one, soldier or spook?

Which is another reason Lewis took the job. This, after all, is an actor who, having played a soldier in both Band Of Brothers and Peter Kosminsky’s 1999 Bosnian conflict drama Warriors, declined an offer of a part in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down because he was fed up of military roles.

“Homeland just seemed hugely ambitious and I liked it for that. It was prepared to have a look at these real life, present situations that families are experiencing now, while also just wanting to be entertainment. It’s sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat stuff. What’s gonna happen next week?”

The sacrifice of being away from his young family for much of last spring and summer, he affirms, was worth it. He knew from filming two seasons of the US cop drama Life (2007-09) how gruelling US network drama could be. “I was routinely working 70, 75-hour weeks, and that is crushing. It took me by surprise,” he ruefully admits.

But with Showtime, a cable channel, that means a shorter run of episodes, and a more humane filming schedule of “normal” hours, over five months. And when he returns to North Carolina in May to film season two, he knows his children can join him in the summer holidays.

Will Homeland, like Hugh Laurie’s House (now finally reaching the end of its eight-season life), run and run? Lewis shrugs. He feels it will have a natural shelf-life – it might be four years. His character, he says with a sanguine smile, could be killed off in season two. The show could then “rebirth” by finding a new threat.

“Because the anchor of the show is in the CIA. That’s the root of it. And what they manage to create around the idea of Brodie being the initial threat is this amazing, Casablanca-esque, co-dependant relationship between the woman who is America’s best chance of preventing a terrorist attack and the man who might be the clear and present danger. The drama,” its leading man says with a fan’s relish, “comes from the way in which those two are drawn together like moths to a flame…” «

• Homeland begins tonight, 9.30pm, on Channel 4.