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‘An actor is always reinventing himself through his characters’ - An Interview with Damian Lewis

23 April 2017 | London Calling

Having ventured from the hallowed halls of England’s most historic school to the very top of transatlantic television, Damian Lewis is returning to the city – and the stage – of his youth with a starring role in Ian Rickson’s revival of the Edward Albee-penned The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

As much as some people may find it a step too far to have a ginger James Bond, Damian Lewis has seen his name thrown into that ring many times. But while with his Old Etonian credentials it may seem like a natural fit, for the past few years the flame-haired thespian has owed his career to starring roles on the other side of the pond.
 
Having been plucked from relative obscurity by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks for the WW2 mini-series Band of Brothers back in 2001, Lewis has found more success on the small screen than its silver sister. Front-and-centre parts in intelligence agency drama Homeland and Wall Street story Billions have made the St John’s Wood-born star a household name in the US, while a regal role as Henry VIII in BBC period drama Wolf Hall kept his reputation in fine fettle at home as well.
 
“What’s interesting about this new world of novelistic TV dramas is that we’re seeing stories told where the characters are layered with many more contradictions and ambiguities,” the 46-year-old says of finding his calling on the box. “Everyone is essentially an anti-hero. I’m very fortunate to play characters who are despicable in some ways but also people who do marvellous and incredible things too.”
 
Lewis’ penchant for paradox may come in handy if he ever does follow Daniel Craig into the murkier waters of the modern Bond franchise, but it’s also a skill that he’ll rely on for his newest West End part. In The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? – the latest in a series of Edward Albee revivals after the playwright’s death aged 88 last year – Lewis plays a man who has to explain to his wife and son that he has been unfaithful… with a goat.
 
Having been described by Lewis as “mind-bending, heart-breaking and laceratingly funny”, The Goat will see the star return to the West End after 2015’s American Buffalo at the Wyndham’s Theatre opposite Hollywood heavyweight John Goodman. The transition from the drama of Billions and Homeland to the boards of British theatre, however, is a welcome one for Lewis, who explains that his acting heroes “are all in theatre: Garrick, Macready and Kean – these were the people I idolised when I was dreaming of a career in the arts”.
 
But with commitments on either side of the Atlantic, his young family and wife Helen McCrory’s own career as a star of Peaky Blinders and beyond to consider, Lewis is finding that international fame does have another side to it.
 
“I’ve been getting many more offers because of it, so that’s been very positive,” he explains. “And I’m able to speak to the children more as adults now on some issues, so if there are projects which come along where I have to be away for any length of time I will only accept it if I am truly convinced. And my wife is the same way when she chooses her projects.
 
“But it’s also made it more difficult to walk down the street without getting stopped all the time. I’m not always comfortable having to deal with that attention, especially when people follow you.”
 
It appears Lewis is the product of his time. Few stars who have honed their craft on television without truly hitting the heights of big-budget cinema can attest to the spotlight he commands, and Lewis is proud to be at the forefront of a recent change in the profession that has seen the rise of on-demand TV, binge-watching and shows like Billions competing with and even beating Tinseltown-backed productions.
 
“The landscape has definitely changed in that regard,” he agrees. “Now that it’s much more difficult to finance mid-level movies, television is taking on much greater importance. We’re seeing so much more good work and great stories being told in this format.”
 
And what of that mooted move to one of the world’s most successful spy franchises? Like fellow Londoners Idris Elba and Tom Hardy before him, Lewis remains frustratingly coy when pressed on the subject.
 
“These kinds of roles are a great compliment because spies are like actors,” he smiles. “An actor is always reinventing himself through his characters and pretending to be someone else, which is often something that spies do as well.”
 
Damian Lewis is currently appearing in Ian Rickson’s revival of the Edward Albee-penned The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
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