Damien Lewis: Agent Orange

Blighty's favourite ginge talks about headlining America's best new drama, Homeland.



What attracted you to the role in Homeland?

Damian Lewis

After my experience on Life, which I loved, but it was at quite a lot of personal cost, from a family point of view - that sounds a bit melodramatic, we're all still together! - but it was long hours working with Helen sitting in the house with the kids. I wasn't prepared for quite the workshop hours you work on some American TV shows. So I said to my agent, "Only if it's extraordinary, and if it's on Cable TV, so it's a five-month commitment rather than a ten-month commitment."

Unbelievably fortunately, this thing came my way, and I very nearly said no to it, for all the reasons I've just explained. But it was really compellingly written. The pilot - which was all I read - had political ambition, it was psychologically detailed and specific, dark in places, and so ambitious. It was tapping into conditions that interest me - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and men returning from war, and bipolar disorder in Claire's character. While tackling these rather serious issues, it also managed to be a page-turner. And it also managed to be a political show at the same time, posing the question 'In our pursuit of terrorists, have we gone about it in the right way?'

It just seemed brilliantly representative of a slightly uncertain, paranoid world we live in now. It's a bold claim for one hour of TV, but I spoke to them, and they convinced me that these were all themes that they wanted to pursue. And they sustain it. They're brilliant, and I'm unbelievably lucky to be working with them. Thank God I said yes to it.


Is it quite attractive playing a character who's so ambiguous, who might be good, or might be very, very bad?

Yeah, ambiguity is a complex thing to play. It can leave you being a little unspecific, if you're not careful - if you're consciously vague, and you then allow the audience to project onto you. But if you're doing it well, the reverse is true - you commit yourself to decisions totally, and it's just about how adroit you are with your changes, that is in the end what creates the ambiguity. You have to be lightning quick and nimble, there's a mental and imaginative agility in the performance which is really fun. It's a challenge - there are so many things to play, and if you try and play everything at once, then it's a bit of a pudding, so you have to make specific choices and then just change on a sixpence.

Another thing that really appealed to me is it's very subversive. It's very controversial to have a US Marine, who is as great a symbol as anyone or anything you can think of that upholds our Western freedoms and our beliefs, and goes and fights on our behalf all over the world. To have one of those people 'changed' is very controversial.


How was it working with Claire Danes?

Lovely. She's whip-smart, and extremely committed and focused. Quite disconcertingly, sometimes. She can be in this extraordinary scene, and the director says cut, and before you've turned around, she's walking back to her chair and just out of character. She plays 'Words with Friends' endlessly, which is that interactive Scrabble game. She's always got about five or six games going on with different people around the world. It's her way of relaxing. She's got half the crew doing it with her as well. She's just lovely. I love being in scenes with her, it's thrilling.


The drama touches on PTSD, terrorism, death, torture and mental illness. It's not a knockabout comedy. Does that affect your mood during filming? Do you take any of that home with you?

No, I don't take work home. Stay an American all day long, that's one thing I do do. It's too confusing to switch in and out of accents. So I go to work as an American, and until my make-up's taken off at the end of the day, I remain that way. And then I actually switch off from work alarmingly quickly. I have to rev myself up quite a lot to go back into work, because I'm quite good at down time.


Homeland has been described as 24 for grown-ups. What do you make of that?

The Homeland Three

I think the parallel with 24 is inevitable, because Howard [Gordon] is a co-creator on this, and had run 24 for the last four or five seasons - he took over from Joel Surnow. It's not really 24. It's far more of a psychological, political drama - I think the paranoia plays much more strongly. Just the style in which it's filmed is very different. It takes its time, it allows it to breathe, whereas 24 was a high-octane, crack-like experience. It made me just feel extraordinarily uneasy, watching 24, it was a very uncomfortable feeling. I think Homeland is too, because of the subject matter, but there's an enjoyment in just being able to sit in things a bit more. I think this allows you to do that.


Is it true you used to practice being interviewed by Wogan in front of the mirror at the age of ten?

I did. And now I've been on Wogan. Finally! I did his radio show.


The ten-year-old you craved that fame and adulation. Now you have it, how does it feel?

It sounds awful, doesn't it? I'm not very good at just sitting and considering. I'm always on the charge a little bit. But sitting and reflecting now, I suppose it's quite romantic, when you put it like that. Yeah, I did used to do that as a ten-year-old. When I couldn't sleep, I would get out of bed in my pyjamas and turn on the light in the bathroom upstairs and just talk in different accents and pull faces in the mirror, pretending I was being interviewed by Wogan. He's part of our cultural history. He's commentated on something I've done before - a celebrity golf thing or a celebrity football thing I did.


Where does Band of Brothers sit in terms of work that you're proud of, and what else is up there?

It sits right up there; it's certainly the thing that I think I've done that's had the biggest profile. One of the things that's had the smallest profile is arguably what I'm most proud of, which is a small independent film called Keane, which I made about four years ago. I'm very proud of The Forsyte Saga - I enjoyed that enormously. And an Ibsen I did at The National Theatre. Much Ado About Nothing for the BBC, I loved doing that. And I'm extremely proud of Homeland.



Damien Lewis: Agent Orange
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