Damian Lewis: An actor at the top of his game

Damian Lewis's new film focuses on football. He talks to Kaleem Aftab about sport, politics and the problems of acting with Keira Knightley
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The Independent Culture

Football is a funny game with a strange habit of dividing families and testing loyalties. In any other circumstance, Damian Lewis would never dream of highlighting any differences he and his wife, the actress Helen McCrory, have over bringing up their children; indeed they always show the upmost discretion in interviews, but the beautiful game brings out a rarely seen masculine tribal instinct in Lewis.

"Well we live in north London and our local team is Arsenal," says the father of two. "And my wife, when I was filming in America – and I take great pleasure in making this public – went to the Emirates and bought my son an Arsenal strip. She doesn't even support Arsenal. I said, 'What are you playing at? You've crossed a line – a boy and father's rite of passage, going on their first trip together."

The actor is a die-hard Liverpool fan. In his latest film, Will, he gets to play a character who loves the Merseyside club as much as he does. He plays Gareth, an absent father who promises his son, Will, that should Liverpool reach the 2005 European Cup Final in Istanbul he will take him to the match. Given his own personal allegiance he clearly has not been coping well with the thought of his son Gulliver in an Arsenal shirt. Can Lewis bear to let his son support the local team? "You know what, I'm in two minds about that," the 40-year-old admits. "I did say, 'he's got a birthday coming up, so I'm going to buy him a Liverpool strip as well, so he's got both,' and she said, 'oh well, that's just confusing. You're going to play guilt-trips on your son; he's going to want to wear one to please one parent and the other one to please the other parent'."

Directed by American Ellen Perry, who Lewis describes as "dynamic and persuasive", Will is a sweet coming-of-age children's tale that features cameos from Liverpool legends Kenny Dalglish, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. It's no wonder that Lewis would jump at the opportunity to appear in what is a significant but far from leading role. He tries to claim that he's not involved with the film because it's about Liverpool, before waxing lyrical about how his side, along with Manchester United, have the "greatest romance and tradition attached to any team."

It's hard to dispute that the 2005 European Cup Final, in which Liverpool came back from three goals down, was one of the great finals in the history of football. So downbeat was Lewis at half-time that he admits that he almost missed the unlikely comeback.

"I was watching the game in a pub in Soho and I left at half-time, just going 'Oh bloody hell, this is a disaster'. I had a drink with a friend in a pub around the corner, and my friend said to me, 'Are you daft? Get back into the pub and watch the second half.' So ten minutes into the second half I returned in time to watch them stick three goals in in 15 minutes."

Lewis is in London on a three-day break from filming Homeland, a new series for Showtime based on the Israeli series Prisoners of War, which had its US debut earlier this month. The reviews for the first show have been stonking. "The reaction has been incredible," gushes Lewis. "It's been universally raved about so far."

"I'm playing a US Marine who's found in an Al-Qaeda cell after eight years and he's brought home a hero. Everyone thinks he's a hero apart from this one CIA officer, played by Claire Danes, who thinks he's been turned and is a terrorist threat. So, that's the set up, and then it's really going to sort of unwind from there, as to whether he is or isn't; and if he is, how are they going to stop him? It's a fun premise."

The series plays on the fears and uncertainties that have taken hold of America since 9/11. Lewis himself says of the subsequent War on Terror: "I think we attacked the wrong people. I think Afghanistan initially and then Iraq. In Afghanistan the great game continues and it's a 150-year-old problem. Unless there can be greater certainty that Pakistan are actually going to be our allies, entirely, then it's difficult to see how that region can ever be stabilised. So my outlook on it is fairly bleak I'm afraid."

He doesn't feel that there is much good that will come from the forces being in Afghanistan either: "You know, this idea of going around the world imposing democracy by growing a middle-class, a trading merchant class that is independent of your faith, is a good notion, but we're all partially different – it's no good imposing systems on people that it doesn't suit. No Western government has ever played the long-term in terms of foreign policy"

Lewis's views on politics are just as strong as those he holds on football, and the ties between politicians and corporate interests as well as the need to pander to the electorate are all questioned. Yet the actor is also happy that he can sit back and state that, as an artist, it's his job to ask questions rather than provide answers.

Born in London, and educated at Eton, Lewis has had a career in which his work on US TV has been more celebrated than his British roles. "I made Band of Brothers and it just gave me a career in America. It became this cultural phenomenon and even though it was ten years ago, it seems extremely present because people are still getting the box sets, watching it for the 79th time. I get fan mail from the boys in Afghanistan asking me to sign box sets; they all sit out there watching it. I was filming in Greece and the US Navy came into land and they all mobbed me and said they'd watched it. Their commander had been showing it to them for inspirational exercise reasons. Young cadets at West Point were being shown this manoeuvre that Major Winters, the man I portrayed, executed the day after they landed in Normandy. And I keep reminding people, I didn't win the war, you know?"

Having appeared in several landmark TV shows, Lewis is being touted to appear in a forthcoming US drama on the Civil War, To Appomatax, although he says that is some way off and might not happen. The actor is also looking to work on more UK productions. He admits, though, that having tried to produce and star in the 2007 movie The Baker, directed by his brother Gareth, that, "Temperamentally I'm not a natural producer, because I don't have the patience." Although his company, Picture Farm, still exists – they also produced Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Rupert Wyatt's The Escapist in 2008 – Lewis insists that he'll stick to acting. "Producing is a world of compromise and actors are utterly spoiled all the time," he says. "When they come on board, it tends to be the least compromising time of the whole project."

With his children growing up, Lewis and McCrory needed to make a decision on where they wanted to live. "We've chosen London. Helen, you know, is a very successful actress in her own right and she has a European sensibility and she prefers it here; she does a lot of work here."

Lewis says that it's likely that his next role will be on the London stage, although since he is still in talks he can't reveal what it will be. The last time he trod the boards was in 2009 for the West End debut of Keira Knightley in The Misanthrope.

"There was a lot of interest in Keira being on stage, and you had to sort of get that out of the way," he explains. "Some nights you could just tell – and this is not at all judgmental to Keira, because she just wished for the whole thing to go away so she could just get on with the acting – some nights you could just tell that they weren't interested in Keira. And it was great; they'd come to see the play, and they'd come to see a Molière play; they'd come to see Martin Crimp's writing and they'd come to see me on set. Then, other nights, it was like all 800 people had never been to the theatre before; they'd come up to town especially to see Keira, and that's quite disconcerting when you're on stage and thinking, 'I'm not sure if they're listening, they're all just staring at Keira, who's standing by the window'."

The experience hasn't put him off working on the stage with another famous actress. "I consider it a bonus: I think the theatre is at its best when there's a sense of occasion, when there's a buzz of live theatre."

'Will' is released on Friday. 'Homeland' is out in 2012

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