For a born and bred Brit, Damian Lewis has carved out a remarkably steady career playing dyed-in-the-wool Americans, memorably in Band of Brothers and on Life (he’s slated to play Union general James B. MacPherson in the upcoming Civil War mini-series To Appomattox, too). He’s added another super-convincing tortured good old boy to his résumé as Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody, the possibly turned, ever-mysterious ex-prisoner of war at the center of Showtime’s Homeland, which stars Claire Danes as the CIA agent who's onto/into him. On a hectic press day in Manhattan, Lewis spoke to Vulture about playing Brody, his rock-star fantasies, and filming disturbing sex scenes.
I understand you’ve had a crazy busy day?
I was just feeling a bit hung-over from last night and had to get a coffee. Weirdly we had our wrap party last night, before we wrapped the season. So yeah, I sang in a rock band last night. You’d have been very happy with it. It was pretty impromptu, we realized we had a bunch of musicians in the crew, got together for one rehearsal, and played the wrap party as our gig. I want to be a rock star so badly; it’s very intoxicating to be drunkenly singing at people like that.
I’m sorry to have missed that. So, last we saw you, Brody and Carrie [Claire Danes] just drove off into the sunset. There’s totally going to be a happy ending now, right?
Yeah, as you can tell from the style of the show, everything will be resolved now and it will turn into a romantic-comedy road trip. [Laughs.] You've seen their teenage moment in the back of the car …
That’s one way to put it.
Oh, now we’re just being coy with each other. [Laughs.] I think one spine of the show is clearly: Is Brody or is Brody not a terrorist. And if he is, will Carrie catch him in time or is she in fact a little crazy? But I also think a strong central spine is this Casablanca-like relationship these two have, not being able to be with or without one another.
The chemistry between Carrie and Brody used to seem palpable but vague. Now ... it’s not so vague anymore. Do you think there’s really a connection between them, or is each playing the other?
I think Carrie consciously places herself as a honeytrap and is surprised by her connection to the man she’s supposed to be surveilling. And it’s also in keeping with her slightly reckless nature, that she maybe has problems with boundaries. In Brody, he is excited and woken up by this connection he has with a woman, that he’s struggling to regain with his wife. They’re two broken-winged birds who recognize the damage in each other. Brody knows Carrie is intuiting something about him that no one else is, and she is crossing all sorts of professional lines by becoming emotionally engaged with a guy who’s a possible breach to homeland security. It’s wrong on so many levels, but it’s deliciously right as well!
One of the big reasons your role is so effective is how you’re able to keep your face so masklike. Is that hard? Are you usually a very emotive guy?
I think I’m a much more animated person than he is, but oddly I don’t find it difficult to be still, or, if you like, to seem inscrutable onscreen. Probably a long, long time ago when I was starting out, someone probably said to me, “Just be still on camera.” Don’t move around too much — that’s about as scientific as my approach is. I am pretty wedded to the idea that the camera can capture thought. If you’re clear and absolutely quicksilver in your thinking, then the camera will pick it up.
The sex scenes between Brody and his wife are incredibly important to the story, and extremely uncomfortable to watch. Are they as uncomfortable to put together?
Neither of those scenes was meant to be titillating; they’re depressing and degrading and upsetting. But funnily enough, you find yourself in these endless conversations about the minutiae of the scene, quite bluntly, “So, how are you going to take your penis out?” You know? You’re grown-ups, adults, sitting around talking about story points involving Brody’s penis. It’s ridiculous, but everyone’s trying to be sensitive to the fact that it helps tell the story. If a sex scene is just there to titillate, in my view there’s no point in having it. There are much more interesting ways of titillating an audience through the power of suggestion. But I’m glad you agree these two scenes are pretty psychologically revealing. The first is a borderline rape; he loses control of himself and is unable to really be intimate with his wife, and that’s a sad truth for a lot of these guys who come back, it’s not easy to reconnect with the people they love. People like Brody have been brutalized in a way that stands in the way of physical intimacy.
Much has been made of your flawless American accent over the years. Where does it come from?
You know, it’s a mystery to me: Why did the tall, pale, redheaded English bloke get asked to play all these American dudes? And I don’t really know, except to say that it’s obviously to do with Band of Brothers, because that’s the first time I played an American, and it was an American hero that I think people felt great ownership of. I felt an overwhelming responsibility to get that right. I was so focused on it, you know, “Failure is not an option!” There’s definitely been a shift, because during Band of Brothers I was consciously keeping my American accent, I was mindful of it as I was playing the role. And now I find that I have created an American persona for myself — I’m exaggerating a little for effect, possibly [laughs] — but I feel I can be an American for a weekend. This sounds absurdly pretentious, but the American Damian, I’m sort of oddly comfortable with him. When I was living in L.A. for two years, and because in L.A. no one’s heard of a British accent — although God knows why, there are Brits all over the place there — I just got tired of repeating everything in an English accent when I went into a store. So I would wake up sometimes and just be an American with my American accent, and it felt like the most natural thing.
I gather you’re quite beloved by the ladies in England. I asked a British friend of mine about you, and she placed you as slightly less worshipped than Hugh Laurie, but at the level of James McAvoy and Dominic Cooper. Not too shabby.
Well, that’s fantastic. I’ll take any of that. You know, you grow up as a redhead in England, if you get any of that kind of recognition it’s a bonus.